Product and Packaging Design for Internet-First Retail


Richard Village is Strategy Director of creative agency Smith &+ Village, which recently won a Design Effectiveness Award for its work on Harvey Nichols’ own brand food range. He shares his thoughts on how the look and feel of product ranges and packaging need to change in order to thrive as shoppers seek more enjoyable experiences online.

How has the COVID-19 crisis made the online retail experience more important? 

I think when shops reopened everyone thought we’re going to go back to normal, but we’re really haven’t, by any stretch of the imagination. Shopping as a leisure activity and browsing have been curtailed by fact we stand away from each other and can’t really touch things. People have less to get excited about shopping in store and have an appetite for more exciting online shopping. This is a real opportunity for online retail to become more experiential and less transactional, delivering enjoyable experiences that are about leisure as well as just buying things.

How can retailers find the right balance in developing product ranges with physical retail and online experience in mind?

Retailers need to balance time spent on their physical experience with thinking about digital experience – communicating with their tribe through social and refining their website experience. The main thing is that retailers have to think very hard about how to achieve the fine balance between transactional and experiential encounters with their customers. People can buy things in lots and lots of different places, so you’ve got to give them something extra to make them buy it from you, rather than someone else. And you may have to deliver that online. 

Harvey Nichols’ food and wine retail manager noted that the range Smith &+ Village designed “works like a fashion collection” and  “it’s much easier for customers to differentiate products”. Can you tell us more about how design can help differentiate products online and in store?

It’s all about helping people navigate. In store you have helpful staff that can have conversations with and guide you through product ranges when the packaging is very similar. But when you go online, the products may all look identical. If you have a monolithic brand look, how do you get people to engage with individual products? If you’ve got 1400 SKUs that all look fairly similar, how can people differentiate between them online? If they can’t do that, you may as well not have that many SKUs. 

With the Harvey Nichols range, the use of colour and materials and language were all quite in your face, to channel the attitude of the brand. This worked well when it came to selling on Ocado. If you’re browsing ginger biscuits and one is in mirrored gold packaging and named ‘GINGER SPICE’, it helps it stand out to shoppers looking for a point of difference.

Does packaging design need to be more striking for online retail?

Yes, absolutely. In store, you have a close physical relationship with the product and all those cues that you get through colour and type and design are much more immediate. Online, you need to make a first impression with a tiny cutout picture of however many pixels. Also, you may not have control over the way things are ordered – products may not sit together and you don’t know how it’s going to appear on the interface you have. All this means products have to really stand out and be tempting, in order to lure people to click through and explore. You need to get that initial reaction and grab people’s attention.

You’ve talked before about creating a ‘thrilling and coherent brand universe’ – how should retailers go about this? 

We all have shops that we love, and we just need to analyse what it is that makes us love them. Is it the service, is it product mix, is it way they make customers feel through their communications and loyalty programmes? It’s about having a very clear reason for being a retailer and understanding why you’re doing it. A lot of people are there just to sell things, but it can’t just be about selling things, it’s about: ‘why do people buy things from us?’ In order to do that, you have to make your customers feel good about shopping with you. You have to have a really compelling narrative and each individual product needs to have its own reason to exist within the wider narrative. 

Is there a common mistake retailers make when developing and designing product ranges?

I think there can be an assumption that people understand what you as a retailer are trying to do and often people don’t understand it. They don’t get the point of difference and don’t get why they need to come to you rather than everyone else. ‘Getting out of your head’ is very important – its not about you, its about your customers. You have to be clear about your purpose in order to convince everyone else.