The Future of Retail Packaging Looks Like Value

An Interview with Tessa Stuart, shopper stalker, author and market research expert

Tessa Stuart has carved her own path when it comes to understanding the importance of packaging’s role in shopper purchasing behaviour. Shifting her focus to shopper market research conducted at the point of purchase rather than collecting data from “our better selves that are often projected in focus groups”, Tessa believes her method provides invaluable real-life consumer opinions. With a background of working with brands like Innocent Drinks, Unilever, Kellogg’s, Oatly, Rude Health, and Nestle, to name but a few, London Packaging Week was delighted to have the chance to talk to Tessa and learn from her valuable insights into consumer behaviour and the impact of packaging on purchasing decisions. In this interview, we delve into Tessa’s experiences and explore the trends she observes for the future of retail packaging.

Explaining that her journey into shopper market research was motivated by a desire for more flexibility and relevance, she said: “At the time, Innocent Drinks was bursting onto the scene, and I was determined to work with them. I stalked them for two years until I got my first brief. I tried a new approach: shopper market research, interviewing in-store at the point of purchase as people buy the product.

“They (Innocent Drinks) used this approach to test a new concept.” The brief involved testing new packaging concepts directly in-store, focusing on consumer reactions and preferences. One experiment involved placing packaging mock-ups alongside an existing Innocent product, with and without a window.

She added: “We found that shoppers were more interested in gravitating towards the pack where they could see through a vertical window; they could see the different layers of the product. But we were also looking to see if they noticed various crucial instructions which would give away the nature of the products.

“We found that they missed a lot of the cooking cues, which was why they picked it up and shook it.

“I did 40 shopper intercepts at the point where the shopper had touched the product independently; I wasn’t intervening in the process. I waited until the packaging had done its job and brought them to the shelf then, I intercepted them.”

Over time, Tessa’s work has expanded to include packaging design, particularly in the context of environmentally responsible alternatives.

“A lot of what I do is the external packaging design,” explained Stuart. “But increasingly, I’m called upon when companies are looking to switch to a more sustainable packaging format, and so I look at that with consumers.”

“Over the last three years, I would say companies are increasingly focused on environmental concerns, recycling issues, and more companies are wanting to become B Corp.

“One of the quick ways brands and manufacturers can improve sustainability is to come out of plastic and go into glass. There are also many considerations for companies wanting to cut packaging costs. They may look at taking out inner packaging and researching how consumers might react to that in the context of a premium product where you might expect a degree of unboxing.”

The discussion then turned to the role of packaging in the current economic landscape, characterised by rising inflation and the cost of living. Tessa emphasised the importance of price per unit measurement, with consumers closely scrutinising the value proposition of products.

“Shoppers are increasingly looking at price per volume of the products they’re getting,” she added. “In many categories, especially where shoppers are trying to balance their budget, they will look at multi-buys and determine from the information if the multi-buy is better value than buying a larger pack size.” Further demonstrating the vital role packaging plays in communicating value and volume.

When asked whether shoppers’ interest in packaging has increased to an all-time high, given the many factors they now must consider when reaching for products on the shelf, Tessa said: “People are incredibly aware of shrinkflation, number one—and number two, the fact that food and drink prices seem to keep on rising. People look at products like butter and say, ‘I can’t believe butter is this price!’.

“I’ve worked in categories recently where the two main leaders have increased their prices, and the category growth has stalled because shoppers will not pay the full price. They might pay a promotional price. So, then they are driven to look at the promotions in the category and will now consider a wider range of brands to get the money off.

“Tesco Club Card has also been very influential. While Aldi and Lidl are increasingly growing in market share, consumers often return to the big four for things like toiletries and beauty. Tesco Club Card prices are a leading price mechanism, causing other retailers to pull up their price mechanisms, like Sainsbury’s Nectar Prices.

“Because you have this price message being reinforced by all the retailers at all times, consumers are conditioned to look at volume for the price. Packaging can help accentuate that value message or detract from it in terms of what you’re getting.”

Further, on sustainability, Tessa expressed her opinion that there appears to be a disconnect between consumers’ professed willingness to pay more for sustainable packaging and their actions in the shopping aisle.

“When asked, ‘Would you pay more for sustainable packaging?’ Some people said that they would,” she explained. “But you know, I doubt it. I think people expect companies to do it, but they don’t want to pay for it.

“However, I did some work with Little Dish as they were transitioning from expensive bespoke moulded plastic pots into recycled plastic trays, which they felt was better.

“With recycled plastic comes a huge variability in colour. It can be brown, grey, or a khaki colour. So, for a brand where the colour of the tray is not consistent, it was a valid question to ask, ‘Would consumers mind that?’

“I tested this with consumers and showed them different shades and how it looks. The mums who buy Little Dish for their kids were relieved to be able to buy something that didn’t further contribute to more plastic waste. When I returned, my client was slightly surprised when I said they’re 100% for it!”

Tessa concluded, “It isn’t only that people want it to be sustainable, though. When I’ve worked in sectors such as craft chocolate, consumers also want the packaging to look good, especially for gifting. We are still attracted by gold foil and craft cardboard and paper- those materials where you can feel the difference and the quality. I think that has remained consistent the whole time I’ve worked in food branding.”

In the ever-evolving world of retail supermarket packaging, Tessa’s insights shed light on the importance of clear messaging, value perception, and environmental considerations. As brands seek to adapt and meet consumer demands, Tessa’s expertise and research continue to contribute to the future of packaging design in retail.

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