The fascinating history of retail packaging

set of colourful retail packaging shopping bags

The fascinating history of retail packaging

Retail packaging has a rich and intriguing history that spans centuries, reflecting the evolution of commerce and consumer culture. From simple containers to elaborate designs, the development of retail packaging tells a compelling story of innovation, branding, and consumers’ ever-changing needs.

Early beginnings from barter and trade

The concept of packaging goods for sale dates back to ancient times when early civilisations engaged in barter and trade. Packaging served a practical purpose in these early days, primarily focusing on protecting goods during transport and storage. Materials such as leaves, animal skins, and clay pots were among the earliest forms of packaging used to contain and transport goods.

As time and technology progressed, other forms of packaging evolved. Pottery vases, wooden barrels and glass vessels are still used today despite first appearing in the Bronze Age.

The first usage of paper for packaging was sheets of treated mulberry bark used by the Chinese to wrap foods as early as the first or second century BC. Still, the earliest recorded use of actual paper for packaging dates back to 1035, when a Persian traveller visiting markets in Cairo noted that vegetables, spices and hardware were wrapped in paper for the customers after they were sold.

The birth of branding

As trade routes expanded and markets became more sophisticated, packaging began to play a dual role; not only did it protect goods, but it also served as a means of differentiation and branding.

In medieval Europe, merchants would use distinctive marks or symbols to identify their goods, laying the groundwork for developing logos and branding strategies.

Around this time, wooden barrels and boxes rose in popularity as storage and transportation devices. Barrels were typically used to travel across oceans to store items such as rum, dried food, and fresh water, often with the company brand on them.

large wooden barrels in wine cellar

Mass production and standardisation

The Industrial Revolution in the 1700s marked a significant turning point in the history of retail packaging. With the advent of mass production techniques, manufacturers could produce goods on a much larger scale, leading to increased demand for standardised packaging solutions. Cardboard boxes, paper bags and glass bottles became commonplace, revolutionising the way products were packaged and sold.

In 1795, Napoleon Bonaparte issued a challenge with a reward of 12,000 francs to spur advancements in food preservation techniques. With his army engaged in warfare, he urgently needed a solution to ensure a stable food supply for his troops.

Despite the enticing prize, it took a remarkable 15 years for someone to rise to the occasion. That someone was none other than Nicolas Appert, hailed as the canning pioneer. Appert devised a groundbreaking method for preserving food over extended periods by subjecting it to boiling and then sealing it in airtight glass containers. Little did he know that his innovation would pave the way for the modern-day practice of canning, which remains a cornerstone of food preservation to this day.

Packaging as a marketing tool

The 20th century witnessed the emergence of packaging as a powerful marketing tool. As consumer culture flourished and competition intensified, brands began investing heavily in packaging design and advertising to capture the attention of shoppers.

Iconic brands such as Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s became synonymous with their distinctive packaging, solidifying their place in popular culture and giving birth to retail advertising – one of the most important marketing components today.

Since then, packaging has evolved into a cornerstone of modern marketing strategies, transcending its traditional role of mere protection and containment. In a fiercely competitive marketplace, where consumers are bombarded with choices, packaging serves as a crucial tool for brands to differentiate themselves and connect with their target audience.

Brands now invest significant resources into packaging design, recognising it as an opportunity to communicate their values, personality and unique selling propositions. Packaging has become a canvas for storytelling and brand expression, from the sleek minimalism of Apple’s product boxes to the vibrant and playful designs of snack brands like Doritos.

Companies understand that packaging plays a pivotal role not only in attracting consumers on the shelf but also in influencing purchasing decisions and fostering brand loyalty. Today, the global packaging market size has a value of approximately $5.42 billion (USD) and is projected to reach around $8.72 billion by the end of the decade.

 Person in supermarket with variety of productsMeeting the challenges of the modern world

Unsurprisingly, the focus has shifted towards sustainability and innovation in retail packaging in recent decades. With growing awareness of environmental issues and concerns about waste, brands are increasingly adopting eco-friendly packaging solutions and exploring innovative materials and designs. From biodegradable materials to minimalist packaging designs, the emphasis is on reducing waste and minimising environmental impact.

Brands are striving to reduce their packaging’s environmental footprint and seeking innovative solutions to address logistical and supply chain challenges. Advancements in packaging technology have led to the development of smart packaging systems that can track products throughout the supply chain, enhance security, and provide valuable data insights.

A journey of innovation and adaptation

The history of retail packaging is a testament to human ingenuity and creativity. From humble beginnings to the present day, packaging has evolved alongside changes in technology, culture and consumer preferences.

The retail packaging industry has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years, driven by a growing emphasis on sustainability. What was once a simple means of protecting products has evolved into a multifaceted process that goes beyond aesthetics to encompass functionality, efficiency and environmental responsibility.

Consequently, top brands invest in crafting packaging that resonates with consumers and reinforces their brand identity at every touchpoint.

As we look to the future, the challenge lies in balancing the need for innovation with a commitment to sustainability, ensuring that retail packaging continues to serve its dual purpose of protecting goods and delighting consumers.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our series, where we’ll explore how we can help meet your retail packaging needs in the modern era.