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2021 packaging industry trends: GWP experts’ predictions analysed

Matt Dobson: Last Updated 17th February 2022
Posted In: Design & Innovation | Guides and Advice xx 31179

How well did our experts’ 2021 predictions fare?

A look on back the predictions made at the start of the year…

It is incredible how quickly 12 months pass. And whilst many are looking forward to the Christmas break, for businesses and individuals alike it is a good time to take stock of what has happened in the preceding year, and learn from the experiences moving forward.

As such, we thought it would be a good time (and potentially amusing) to look back on the predictions made by GWP’s packaging experts at the start of the year (you can see the original article detailing their 2021 packaging predictions here).

So without further ado, lets’ see whose crystal ball was on point, and if anyone made any predictions which have proven to be fanciful (or just outright wrong).

Please continue reading below, or use the table of contents to jump straight to your area of interest.

Quick Reference / Contents

01: David Mason

Sales Director | GWP Packaging

David Mason 2021 packaging predictions

David, GWP Packaging’s Sales Director, focused particularly on material shortages, price increases, and the knock-on effects these would have.

At the time of the original predictions, these issues were really starting to become prominent – both within and outside the packaging industry (including coverage on the BBC). Lets take a look at the specifics of what he predicted for 2021.

What David said on material shortages:

What this [increased demand caused by COVID-19] did however, when combined with supply problems brought about by national and regional lockdowns, was to lead to material shortages. Whilst the hope is that the picture will improve, this is not looking likely before the middle of 2021 at the earliest.

It turns out that David was right to focus on material shortages, with this being a key theme throughout the year.

Arguably the only point that was slightly off – and there is no fault in being optimistic – is that the issues would begin to stabilise and improve by the second half of the year.

packaging material shortages
Material shortages and price increases - particularly on corrugated cardboard - has been an ongoing theme throughout 2021

In fact, material shortages, whilst improving, are still ongoing. Lead times for certain grades (and other materials such as Correx®) can still be as long as 8 to 10 weeks.

Fortunately GWP has been able to mitigate the worst of these shortages, thanks to clever stock management systems, JIT supply for customers, and a strong focus on planning. But the situation shows little signs of improving just yet.

What David said on price increases

The rules of supply and demand of course mean that with less material available and demand increasing, costs will also go up. As such, paper mills across Europe and the UK announced they would be increasing prices at the end of 2020 – with these changes coming into effect from the beginning of 2021.

Very sound predictions again, although what nobody could have predicted was the scale and ongoing nature of the price increases being seen on paper and corrugated material.

Partly fuelled by the factors set out in the original article – of supply not keeping up with increased demand – a number of other considerations have come into play.

Labour shortages and wage increases, transport difficulties, pressure on supply chains, and the soaring cost of energy, are all inflationary factors contributing to the ongoing price increases being seen on material (and by extension, corrugated packaging manufactured from them).

material price rises
Price rises and inflationary pressures have caused headaches for virtually all businesses

02: Jay Daggar

Sales Manager | GWP Packaging

Jay Daggar 2021 packaging predictions

Jay, Sales Manager at GWP Packaging, used his intimate knowledge of the packaging industry – as well as his day-to-day interactions with customers – to forecast an ongoing shift to online sales (and the impact this would have on packaging use).

Besides this, he also spoke at length about the potential challenges that would likely be seen in fulfilment centres. Here are Jay’s predictions…

What Jay said on the shift to online sales

Although it was happening anyway, the shift to ecommerce for the vast majority of businesses was accelerated considerably by the Coronavirus pandemic (even those with traditional shopping habits). It has ultimately meant higher demand for corrugated packaging that only looks like it will continue to grow throughout 2021 and beyond.

Coming off the back of a Christmas where ecommerce sales in the UK had risen by 56% compared with the preceding year, it could be argued that highlighting an ongoing shift to ecommerce was a fairly safe prediction.

online shopping predictions
The growth in consumers shopping online has shown no signs of slowing in 2021

However, it should be remembered that many were expecting a bounce back in bricks and mortar sales activity once lockdowns and other restrictions ended.

Whilst this has happened to a degree, the gains made by online retailers show no sign of abating. Coupled with many large high street retailers still struggling (or closing completely – such as Debenhams) it has, as also predicted, led to increased demand for corrugated ecommerce packaging.

What Jay said on print / presentation

With the decline of the high street and physical retail, an organisations’ ecommerce packaging is in many cases the first physical interaction that consumers will have a business or brand. As such, the next 12 months is likely to see an increasing focus on print quality and graphic design

An excellent prediction this, although it manifested itself in slightly unexpected way.

The move to online sales and ecommerce packaging did indeed see businesses focus on the packs used for delivering items to customers, and in particular the printing applied to these.

However, a key focus has been having both inside and outside print on ecommerce boxes. This is often a fairly simple and function one colour print on the outside of the box, but with a bright, detailed, and aesthetically striking design on the inside.

This focus on the “unboxing“ experience has led to many companies reviewing their packaging artwork, and investing significantly in improved print and design.

ecommerce printing
Trends in ecommerce packaging have seen an increase in the popularity of "inside" print

What Jay said on fulfilment

With consumers placing higher volumes of orders – and expecting next or even same day delivery in many cases – the strain experienced in fulfilment centres is likely to increase as well. This includes the need for well-equipped warehouses – utilising picking bins and pick face walls – as well as easy assembly packs.

Whilst there has been perhaps less focus on improving efficiency through easy assemble packaging (with customer experience seemingly trumping this), an area that has seen growth and investment is that of warehouse organisation and picking locations.

A huge number of businesses have re-evaluated their fulfilment operations, with products such as Correx® picking bins, pick face walls and stacking bins all (significantly) increasing in popularity.

03 Ruth Cook

Managing Director | GWP Group

Ruth Cook 2021 packaging predictions

As Managing Director of GWP Group, Ruth was (and is) perfectly placed to make predictions regarding the “bigger picture” factors that would potentially affect businesses.

This saw her focus on Coronavirus restrictions, as well as mental health of staff. Let’s take a look at Ruth’s comments from 12 months ago to see how accurate these predictions were.

What Ruth said on Coronavirus

Although there is light at the end of the tunnel, the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, and the government restrictions to control it, are likely to pose businesses serious questions until at least the middle of the year – and possibly beyond. Whilst the packaging industry is seeing very strong demand at present, this has the potential to drop off if more and more businesses begin struggling due the economic situation.

The first part of Ruth’s prediction is incredibly accurate – in that even as we approach the end of 2021 there are still restrictions regarding testing, isolating and other safety measures that are still in place.

Whilst – thankfully – vaccines have made the severity of illness much less, having staff members isolating for prolonged periods has (and continues) to cause disruption to huge numbers of businesses.

coronavirus predictions
Coronavirus restrictions continue to cause difficulties for businesses as we head into 2022

And whilst the second part is also fairly accurate – in that many businesses (in particular high street retailers) have struggled and even ceased trading – the pent-up consumer demand and savings accrued during lockdowns has meant that demand for consumer goods has remained stronger than most would have expected.

Arguably, the issues now are rising inflation, a mismatch between supply and demand (i.e. shortages of certain goods), and a labour / skills shortfall in key areas.

04: Ian Cook

Managing Director | GWP Correx®

Ian Cook 2021 packaging predictions

Ian, Managing Director of the GWP Correx® and Conductive divisions, provided his thoughts on how plastic packaging and, in particular returnable packaging (as well as Correx material usage) would be reappraised during 2021.

Let’s see how well his predictions have stood up to scrutiny – 12 months on – below.

What Ian said regarding sustainability

2021 has the potential to see more businesses switching to returnable totes (such as those manufactured from Correx®). Whilst this may partly be driven by shortages of cardboard material, it is equally likely to be because businesses reassess the economic and environmental benefits of doing so.

On the surface, this looks like one of the few predictions that haven’t come to fruition. Certainly if you only read the mainstream media.

However, sales of returnable packaging at GWP have increased significantly. Whilst this is partly due to many businesses being forced to find efficiencies due to ongoing supply chain difficulties (as well as corrugated cardboard shortages), many companies are waking up to the fact that returnable packaging can have a lesser environmental impact that single trip equivalents.

And yet, whilst there is – rightly – an ongoing focus on sustainability, returnable packaging does still look like an under exploited opportunity.

returnable packaging trends
The use of returnable packaging solutions has seen an uptick across the past 12 months

What Ian said regarding the use of Correx® material

Correx® (corrugated plastic) use has been growing steadily over the past few years – and 2021 is likely to see this trend continue.

The versatility of the material also means it is increasingly being used in other applications [besides returnable containers], such as retail packaging and even POS displays – something I believe we will see more of in 2021.

Whilst the effects of COVID 19 restrictions have, to a degree, inhibited the requirements for POS as suggested, the use of Correx® material has certainly increased over the past year (to such a degree that lead-times are now as much as 3 months on some material grades / colours).

A big part of this is the increase in the use of Correx® picking bins for use in warehousing and fulfilment centres, with the size flexibility allowing for custom solutions that can be tailored to individual business’ requirements.

05: Richard Coombes

General Manager | GWP Protective

Richard Coombes 2021 packaging predictions

As General Manager of GWP’s foam conversion division, GWP Protective, Richard is perfectly placed to make predictions regarding the use of foam (so that is what he did).

Besides this, his expertise and breadth of knowledge regarding the protective case market made from some interesting predictions regarding their use in 2021.

What Richard said regarding the use of foam

One of the key uses for bespoke foam inserts is for product presentation. This can either be as part of retail packaging and gift boxes for end users, or for use in sample cases for sales pitches / presentations. With the move to online shopping potentially reducing the requirements for luxury retail packs – and coronavirus restrictions virtually halting face to face sales meetings – the demand for this type of foam is likely to be considerably lower until the middle part of the year at the earliest.

The restrictions regarding Coronavirus – and a shift to remote working – have made sales meeting less frequent than previously, just as predicted. And with the lingering threat of COVID-19, it can be argued that business practices are still not back to the “normal” as we used to know it.

So, with more and more sales meetings being conducted remotely, some areas have seen a decline in the requirements for foam inserts.

Other areas have defied this trend, however. Samples (and by extension the cases and foam to house them) for home improvements (think tiles, blinds, worktops etc.) for salespeople visiting customers have increased, as one example.

sales meetings
With many sales meetings now being held remotely, there has been a decline in the requirement for physical sample cases in some industries

Another area of growth has been for protective cases used by service engineers. Efficiency when on site (to limit exposure to Coronavirus) has been a key focus, and meant that well equipped and designed cases with foam inserts have been in demand.

And finally, with retailers hoping that shoppers will return to bricks and mortar stores this year, the requirements for added value packaging that includes foam has also increased. Not to mention foam end caps and similar transit packaging used in ecommerce applications too…

What Richard said regarding material shortages

Although the ways in which foam may be used have the potential for change, another prediction is looking likelier by the day – that 2021 will see shortages (and therefore price pressures) on foam materials.

Although thankfully the worst of the material shortages affecting foam seem to be over (for the time being at least), the prediction of price pressures remains valid even now.

However, rather than significantly increased demand (as with corrugated), the supply of raw materials, supply chain issues, and general inflationary pressures, have seen price hikes across a wide range of both high and low density foams in 2021.

06: Ian Heskins

Business Development Director | GWP Group

Ian Heskins 2021 packaging predictions

As business development director at GWP, Ian took a holistic view of the challenges he believed would face the packaging industry (and wider economy) in 2021.

His broad knowledge allowed him to make a number of predictions on how he believed businesses would fair against the uncertain economic backdrop, as well as the ongoing focus on sustainability.

What Ian said on the economy

It is typical for the sales and revenue performance of packaging companies to be a bellwether for the UK economy. However, despite COVID-19 creating the biggest drop-in economic activity in the UK for hundreds of years, the packaging market has remained buoyant. My prediction? Cautious optimism that the UK economy – and manufacturing in particular – will emerge stronger towards the end of 2021.

Ian was certainly right to be optimistic, with pent up consumer demand and a shift from travel and service-based spending to home improvements and hobbies, meaning that UK manufacturers – including GWP – have (generally) had a strong 2021.

manufacturing economic predictions
Although having seen a strong 12 months, manufacturing businesses face gathering headwinds entering 2022

Saying that, there are storm clouds on the horizon that could make the final part of the prediction – that manufacturing will be stronger at the end of 2021 – somewhat shakier.

Shortages of parts, materials, and labour (all of which have contributed to increased costs), as well as the supply chain crisis and other inflationary pressures (energy / fuel prices being the big one) are all growing in significance. This means that there remains a degree of uncertainty over how the UK economy and manufacturing businesses will perform as we move into 2022.

What Ian said on sustainability

Even with the pandemic, Brexit, and everything else that has happened over the preceding 12 months, environmental concerns remain much more of a focus across our customer base and the industry in general. Ultimately, it seems as though the majority of businesses – and consumers – are starting to make genuine efforts to be more sustainable over the longer term. This is something I predict will be seen more and more over the coming twelve months.

Another prescient comment from Ian here, with huge numbers of businesses – from large multinationals to small start-ups (and everything in between) – doubling down on becoming more sustainable and eco-friendly.

Obviously, packaging can have a significant impact on a business’s environmental impact, so this has seen more and more companies assessing how they pack and ship products, exploring alternative solutions (including reusable / returnable containers), and also looking to schemes such as FSC certified packaging too.

Sustainable packaging predictions
Sustainable packaging has - rightly - been a key focus for both businesses and consumers in 2021

07: In Summary

2021 Packaging Industry Trends

All things considered, the predictions made by the team at GWP proved to be incredibly accurate.

This is all the more remarkable when you consider how turbulent the preceding 12 months have been – everything including restrictive lock downs, withdrawal from the EU, the supply chain crisis, energy prices, material shortages, changing consumer habits, and much more besides.

GWP have also taken great pride in being able to maintain the highest levels of quality, availability, and service even against this uncertain backdrop, and will be delighted to continue assisting businesses of all sizes as we move into 2022.

And don’t forget to keep an eye out for GWP’s predictions for the next 12 months, which will be published shortly!

Further Reading...

About the Author

Matt Dobson

Marketing Manager | GWP Group

Matt has worked in the packaging industry for approximately 9 years, having joined GWP Group as Marketing Executive in 2012. [Read full bio…]

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