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Analysis: Custom eCommerce packaging vs stock boxes

Jay Daggar: Last Updated 16th February 2024
Posted In: Brand Positioning | Guides and Advice xx 31631

Selecting packaging for your online shop

What is the difference when considering stock vs custom packaging?

If your business is selling online, then one thing is certain – you are using packaging of some description.

However, many businesses fail to see the importance of eCommerce packaging and often use plain stock boxes with little thought. Doing so can allow the competition to gain a significant advantage.

The choice between stock vs custom eCommerce packaging can significantly impact the success of an online shop. Stock eCommerce packaging is typically cheaper (in the short term) and available on shorter lead times. Custom eCommerce packaging can be branded, custom-sized to minimise shipping costs and damage, and is more cost-effective in the longer term.

Saying that, custom eCommerce packaging is not always the best option for every business.

So how do you decide whether to invest in custom packaging for your online shop or use readily available boxes? This guide sets out the advantages and disadvantages of each approach.

Quick reference / contents

Differences between stock and custom

How to decide whether you should be using eCommerce boxes tailored to your business

Whether you are a start-up or an established online business, you likely have a wide range of options for investing any potentially available budget.

Funds could allow you to increase your advertising and marketing. You might be to broaden your product range. Improve order picking processes through the use of custom picking bins. It might even allow you to increase your staff levels.

One area that many businesses can overlook is moving from stock to bespoke corrugated packaging.

A person using a laptop on a bench used for packing eCommerce orders
Chosing between stock and bespoke eCommerce boxes is a significant decision for businesses of all sizes

What is the difference between stock and bespoke ecom boxes?

To the vast majority of eCommerce retailers, bespoke packaging simply means their existing boxes with some print and logos added. And whilst printing eCommerce packaging can have a significant positive impact, it shouldn’t be the only consideration.

In fact, the size and style of the boxes are also becoming equally important.

Many couriers have moved to what is known as volumetric or “dimensional weight” pricing because excessive packaging was limiting the number of packages that delivery firms could deliver safely and efficiently.

As a result, two main types of eCommerce packaging now exist.

Firstly there are what is known as stock, “off the shelf” boxes. These boxes are available in standard sizes and styles (and may not feature print).

A stack of cardboard eCommerce packaging
Stock eCommerce packaging is effectively pre-produced boxes, held in stock at a packaging merchant, available only in specific sizes.

Secondly, at the other end of the scale, there are cartons with intricate print, sized explicitly for certain products and that boast special features and finishes.

The rest of this guide summarises the pros and cons of each type, allowing you to decide on the best option for your business.

Custom eCommerce packs

Reasons to use bespoke eCommerce packaging

Although it would be possible to create an entire article specifically about bespoke eCommerce boxes and packaging, there are five main areas where they offer advantages over standard cartons.

These are:

  • Improved aesthetics and branding potential.
  • Lower cost of shipping.
  • Reduction in environmental impact.
  • Better protection for products during transit.
  • Quicker packing times and fulfilment efficiency.

So is custom eCommerce packaging right for my business?

Put simply, if you are focused on offering the best customer experience – no matter what – then custom packaging is the route for you to take.

Using bespoke eCommerce packaging allows you complete control over the appearance of the packaging and, in turn, the experience that your customers have when opening their delivery. In a world where unboxing videos get thousands of views on YouTube, this can be massively important to earning word-of-mouth recommendations and helping define your brand identity.

A brown eCommerce box with custom printed inside surfaces
Custom eCommerce packaging can be tailored to specific sizes and designs and also include a wide variety of print options.

There are numerous other more practical benefits too.

Firstly, if you use custom-sized boxes designed for specific products, then it also reduces your overall shipping costs. These savings are due to not paying (through dimensional weight) to ship empty space (or void fill) when sending an over-sized box.

This shipping efficiency also minimises your environmental impact, as custom-sized eCommerce packaging uses less material and minimises void fill (usually foam or pellets that are difficult to recycle).

Minimising void fill is an added benefit for the end user, who has to dispose of any excess packaging.

Bespoke sizes usually offer improved transit protection too. Eliminating movement within the pack makes items much less likely to become damaged. Fewer breakages reduce returns, improve your brand perception, and ultimately lead to improved customer loyalty and repeat sales.

A stack of eCommerce orders being handled by a courier
Custom-sized eCommerce boxes generally offer better protection for their contents in transit than stock boxes.

Finally, and if this is a particular issue for your specific fulfilment setup, custom packaging can help reduce your packing times. You can invest the resultant labour cost savings elsewhere in your business.

All of this can, when used strategically, make a significant difference to the success of your business.

Are there any downsides to custom packaging?

So if custom packaging offers all of these advantages, why isn’t everyone using it?

The usual answer is the cost.

Bespoke packaging typically costs more, initially through any design, tooling and setup charges, with printing also adding another process which increases prices.

These upfront costs mean that, depending on the value of the items you sell, your order frequencies, your competition and your position in the market, it may not be feasible to use bespoke packaging.

The counterpoint is the offset in costs through reduced shipping charges, eliminating (or at least reducing) secondary packaging such as void fill, and the potential benefit for repeat business.

Realistically, this is likely to be different for every business and requires careful analysis (a packaging audit may help in a situation like this).

An open eCommerce box diaplying bright green and white printing
Custom eCommerce packaging does cost more than if you were to use stock boxes - but the benefits easily outweigh the costs.

The other significant barrier to using bespoke packaging is that of flexibility.

Again, depending on the type and mix of products you sell, the packages you send may vary wildly in size. It may therefore be too difficult to define the specific dimensions you need, in which case you may find a range of standard-sized cartons suffice.

Finally, if you decide on custom packaging, there are scenarios where your packaging inventory can become large and unwieldy. This happens most commonly due to a large variation in the types of orders you are fulfiling. A bloated inventory can incur hidden costs as well.

You most likely require more storage space, have a more challenging time managing stock levels and replenishment, and miss out on economies of scale by ordering smaller volumes of a more extensive range of boxes.

Stock eCommerce boxes

Stock boxes, and their main advantages

So in what circumstance would your business be sensible to consider standard cartons and off-the-shelf boxes instead?

The reasons for using them are, in essence, the reasons why custom packaging would not be suitable, namely:

  • Lower upfront costs.
  • Can help to minimise the size of your packaging inventory.
  • Better availability and shorter lead times.
  • Flexibility.

How to see if stock eCommerce packaging is best for you

The main scenario of when it is best to use stock packaging is when funds are limited.

It may be because you have only just launched your business, have recently expanded your product range, or have hired more staff. It may be because of the value of the products you ship. It may be because that is what all of your competitors are doing (you should find this out by ordering from them!).

However, it is crucial for start-ups at this stage that your branding and company name becomes well known. So even if you just print your logo on the box, it can make a surprisingly big difference.

A cardboard box being taped by a packing operative
Stock boxes are a cost-effective option, which can be ideal if you have low order volumes or are a start-up.

As with everything, it is also wise to assess how much extra custom-sized packaging would cost vs how much you could save on shipping costs.

If you are using standard boxes or cartons, then the likelihood is that these are available on short lead times from your supplier (with no need for printing etc.). Short lead times allow you to keep less stock on site, allowing for more storage of products etc.

However, a “just in time” (JIT) delivery service – where your packaging supplier holds the stock for you – can provide similarly short lead times and stock availability (even when using custom packaging).

Finally, and perhaps crucially, stock boxes allow you the flexibility to fulfil similar-sized orders with the same box.

When stock eCommerce packaging may not be suitable

If you are selling items of reasonable to high value – or if it is something your customer is excited to receive – stock boxes can ruin the experience. This factor is true whether you are a start-up, established eCommerce business or a large multi-channel retailer,

A nicely printed, well-designed eCommerce box that arrives undamaged helps to foster brand loyalty and aid repeat business. First impressions really do count.

A stack of printed eCommerce boxes in a factory
Using bespoke eCommerce packaging always reflects better on your brand than plain, stock boxes.

Similarly, ensuring the items arrive undamaged is also critical, and reducing your spending by using standard cartons can often lead to higher costs through returns and replacements. It can be a false economy.

And going back to first impressions, what could be a worse first impression than your items arriving damaged? Studies have shown that consumers tell an average of 16 people about a bad experience – nearly twice the number they tell about a good one. Word of mouth can be critical.

Besides this, and as mentioned previously, using larger than required boxes can raise costs through increased shipping charges and the need for excessive void fill. Oversized packaging can also expose you to ridicule on social media (and national press if you’re unlucky!).

Finally, with consumers also becoming increasingly environmentally conscious, sending vast amounts of foam and polystyrene in a standard carton – that they then have to dispose of – is an easy way to upset and annoy.

In summary

So is custom eCommerce packaging right for your business?

The benefits of using custom packaging far outweigh the benefits of standard cartons and can even be cheaper (if taking a holistic view).

However, standard cartons always have a place depending on cash flows, market position and the age of your business.

However, it is always important to keep analysing your situation, customer expectations and brand potential. Custom eCommerce packaging can make a significant positive impact on your business success.

Further reading

About the Author

Jay Daggar, GWP Packaging Sales Manager

Jay Daggar

Sales Manager | GWP Packaging

Jay joined GWP Packaging in mid-2008 before becoming Sales Manager in 2011, meaning he has worked for GWP for over ten years. [Read full bio]

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