Editor’s note: With the retirement of Mitch Mac Donald, “Outbound” will now be written by a rotating lineup of DCV editors. First up: Senior News Editor Ben Ames.
One of the many ways the pandemic has changed our lives is in the relationship between retail brands and loyal shoppers.
Before waves of infection forced most states to slap occupancy limits on shops and restaurants or even shutter them entirely, consumers thought nothing of rubbing elbows with fellow shoppers. We would cram into electronics stores to buy the latest smartphone model or cluster outside malls for Black Friday “doorbuster” sales.
We now know those events were the perfect petri dishes for any viruses or bacteria that happened to be hitching a ride on our bodies that day. And most of the time, that was a price we were glad to pay: suffering the occasional head cold or mild case of influenza in exchange for the chance to score a good deal or maybe even run into a friend.
Covid changed all that, of course; this disease is far more infectious and deadly than its pathogenic cousins. So even if one brave shopper is willing to mask up and run the personal risk of catching the bug, they face the larger moral conundrum of possibly passing it on to countless others, harming innocent bystanders.
But the common sight of empty stores has changed another dynamic as well—shops have lost a prime chance to connect with those hordes of eager consumers. In normal times, stores would employ “retail associates” to mingle with shoppers, reward them with discounts, steer them to additional purchases, or offer to ship merchandise to their home address if an item was out of stock.
However, a new trend has arisen in recent months as stores have searched for new ways to stay in touch with remote shoppers. Clever marketers have turned to a previously overlooked piece of the sales chain—the humble packaging that we all handle when we open the e-commerce orders that land on our doorsteps.
As with many retail trends, amazon.com was one of the first companies to enter the space, although the e-commerce giant came in for some ribbing when it suggested that homebound shoppers reuse its cardboard shipping cartons as toy cars or kids’ forts … obvious activities that crafty parents have been doing for decades to amuse their children.
Other stores soon followed, though. Florida-based online pet-food vendor Chewy now encourages its customers to upload photos of their pets sitting in Chewy-branded cardboard boxes to the company’s Facebook page, in exchange for a chance to win a prize. “You never know, the one that make us giggle or go ‘awwww’ might get a special treat,” the retailer says.
And the Australian online paper-goods retailer Who Gives a Crap has taken it a step further, encouraging customers to use lavish amounts of its products in support of its stated charitable mission: donating 50% of its profits to build toilets for those in need. “Throw stuff on the floor,” a recent box from the company reads. “Seriously, go crazy. The more paper towels you need, the more money we can donate to help build toilets.” The business also resorts to goofy humor to keep customers coming back. That same package listed a collection of ways to reuse the box: “Gerbil mansion. Mail box. Coin holder (that’s a lot of coins!). Uncomfortable chaise lounge. Pen holder (that’s a lot of pens!).” And it even gives a shoutout to the last-mile carrier, saying “Hey, delivery person! Thanks for lugging around 48 rolls of TP for us. You’re the best!”
A tough business climate calls for clever solutions, and some flexible enterprises are rising to the challenge.