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Unboxing Desire: The Psychology Behind Packaging

Oct 20, 2011

by Chappell Ellison

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

This might sound crazy — in fact, I know it will. But do yourself a favor, park your tuchus in any section of a retail store, and watch how people shop. “But Chappell,” you say, “I don’t want to be a creepy stalker like you.” Don’t worry, just be as discreet as possible — trench coats: optional — and watch how shoppers pick up products, testing their weight while carefully reading item descriptions. There is infinite entertainment in watching how shoppers determine what to buy — one person might buy a toaster simply because it comes with a red paint finish, and another chooses towels through a vigorous terrycloth-to-cheek methodology. While there are many factors that influence our purchasing decisions, there’s no doubt that the way a product is packaged plays a huge role.

Countless studies have concluded the same thing: the better an object looks on the shelf, the more likely we are to take it home. Just consider a store display of iPods — rows of impeccably molded plastic cases, almost just as desirable as the product inside. Yet knowing all of this did not prepare me for running across the unboxing trend — short, first-person videos of buyers unpacking recently purchased items. While most of the videos tend to focus on electronics, they run the gamut from packaged foods to feminine hygiene products. So what is it about packaging that compels us to fetishize it just as much as the product housed within?

There is, in fact, a deep-rooted history behind the psychology of packaging. When Henry P. Crowell packaged what would later become Quaker Oats, he marketed them as “pure” by comparison with oats sold out of barrels in late 19th century general stores. By the 1950s, purity became a symbol of civilized supermarkets, where bruised fruit and dented cans were quickly removed. “In the First World,” writes Susan Willis in a study on commodity packaging, “the package is a fetishized sign of the desire for purity, which, in the fullest sense, is also a desire for security.”

The desire to rip open the packaging and pull out the object in proud wonderment is engrained in buyers from an early age. It is an act that, when considering product packaging, you might equate with gift wrapping. However, as Willis reminds us, the two are radically different: “The anticipation we associate with the gift-wrapped present is for the unknown object. In anticipating a plastic-wrapped commodity, we imagine the experience of its use since its identity is already revealed.” When it comes to the imagination, we simply can’t help it — when we see a shiny, packaged product on the shelf, we envision putting it to use and how it would potentially improve everyday life.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HubZInAs0-A

We’ve all had our run-ins with effective packaging design. You might have oohed and aahed over the unboxing of a new iPod, opening its packaging as if it were a jewel case. Or you are all too familiar with the maddening frenzy that results from a seemingly impenetrable, heat-sealed plastic shell. Like a primate struggling with cracking a coconut, we resort to sharp objects — scissors, car keys — to free our purchase from its PVC prison. Perhaps nowhere is this hysteria so well documented as it is in a scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which Larry David sinks into pure desperation as he struggles to release a new GPS system from its packaging (see above).

More than just an over-the-top, humorous observation about life, Larry’s depravity reveals just how packaging dangerously stokes our desire for the product within, reverting our civil manners to their caveman-like roots. This violent reaction to seeing and ultimately realeasing a desired object from its packaging is exactly what keeps companies designing newer, shiner boxes for their products. But over the coming years, alternative packaging solutions will certainly be a big topic as we try to get on better terms with Mother Nature. For now, we’ll have to weather the storm, recognizing when it’s the product we want, or the shiny case it comes in.

2 Featured Comments

  • KathyTobacco

    KathyTobacco said 5 years ago Featured

    I think about this all the time. Presentation is so important to me. I think it is interesting how makeup is sold now versus 20 years ago. Back then all the displays were beautiful but the packaging that was discretely bagged behind the counter wasn't much to look at once you got home. Opening the stuff at home was alway anti-climatic. It always felt like a bait and switch to me. Now the packaging is prettier than the displays. Plastic containers are taking a back seat to gorgeous paper and cardboard packaging that has the appeal of being newly and unwrapped every time you use it.

  • lavenderkittykat

    lavenderkittykat said 5 years ago Featured

    I graduated from FIT in with a packaging design degree in 2001 and the industry has changed enormously in 10 years... there is still a ways to go but I think we as consumers have demanded that "less is more" while us designers have embraced the challenges of new materials and simplicity. I still find the psychology super fascinating and am always in love with anything that's beautifully wrapped. I think that taking the time to present something well (especially a handmade item) honors the creative process, artist and customer.

84 comments

  • RossLab

    RossLab said 5 years ago

    This is so true! Packaging does make a huge difference and sometimes it becomes the main reason for a purchase... give me a polka dot cute box with a shiny red ribbon and I won't resist!

  • Iammie

    Iammie said 5 years ago

    Interesting.

  • vintagejane

    vintagejane said 5 years ago

    Yes...so true....makes you aware how you present your shop and your "goods."

  • binkaminka

    binkaminka said 5 years ago

    So true. Deep psychology here

  • TheHickoryTree

    TheHickoryTree said 5 years ago

    This article reminds me of this kid's song we use to play called "Package Man" by Bill Shontz about the excesses of packaging. Never under estimate the "Power of Packaging"

  • cozycomfycouch

    cozycomfycouch said 5 years ago

    omg the video made me laugh so much. lol Great article and so true! :)

  • lostaloha

    lostaloha said 5 years ago

    Sometimes, opening the package is even better than the item itself.. Or is that just me? haha

  • missbmckay

    missbmckay said 5 years ago

    Ha, Ha! I never thought about it, but yes, it is true. I am drawn to the pretty packaging. I know I've chosen pretty over practical so many times. I must say, having little girls, breaking toys free of their packaging has led to some pretty interesting ways to use common household objects. I'm so guilty.

  • JennasRedRhino

    JennasRedRhino said 5 years ago

    Just like a kitteh, the hoomans rilly likes a gud box!

  • thehappycouple

    thehappycouple said 5 years ago

    Ha ha ha. This is great writing, I so relate, "Or you are all too familiar with the maddening frenzy that results from a seemingly impenetrable, heat-sealed plastic shell. Like a primate struggling with cracking a coconut, we resort to sharp objects — scissors, car keys — to free our purchase from its PVC prison." I think this has been especially relevant for my shop. I've noticed that packaging not only makes you want to take it home, but you're willing to pay a higher price for it. I'm willing to roll with that, but I haven't decided on my packaging just yet.

  • iroirocrafts

    iroirocrafts said 5 years ago

    This is so true, you do judge a book by its cover and a product by its packaging. I can remember several times recently that I paid a bit more for an item purely because it was better packaged than an alternative..

  • McSheoininCarpentry

    McSheoininCarpentry said 5 years ago

    I agree completely!

  • adoreneko

    adoreneko said 5 years ago

    Heat sealed hard plastic packaging is so frustrating to open! I am guilty of judging an item by it's packaging for certain items. For example, I would choose soap in a pretty package over a plain package - if both of them had similar properties.

  • LittleGreenRoom

    LittleGreenRoom said 5 years ago

    So true! Great article :)

  • outofline

    outofline said 5 years ago

    This is great, just this morning I googled "how to live without plastic". There's lots of information out there. I'm so tired of all the ugly plastic toxic packaging! I'm all for pretty, fun to open, and earth friendly!

  • ACupOfSparkle

    ACupOfSparkle said 5 years ago

    Packaging is really so important and really makes so much difference... I do handmade bags for my shop and I love the whole handmade experience. I always have so much positive feedback from customers and that keeps me happy and keep me spending extra time to make a difference.

  • MootiDesigns

    MootiDesigns said 5 years ago

    This is so true, I agree. Great post!

  • daileedose

    daileedose said 5 years ago

    Such a great point! I too am drawn to pretty packaging. I like to make sure that my designs are packaged nicely for my customers, while staying Eco-friendly. I only use natural kraft boxes, paper and packing materials made from recycled content, and I will reuse mailers whenever possible. :)

  • amberike

    amberike said 5 years ago

    Hate hate hate having to open packages for my Kids at Christmas. The packaging genius, altho it make look nice, is on my poop list!

  • jibbyandjuna

    jibbyandjuna said 5 years ago

    My ten year old asked why its harder to open most toy packaging than it is to open a "child safe" cap on medicine. I didn't have an answer for him.

  • HibouCards

    HibouCards said 5 years ago

    Packaging is very important to me and I'm always very mindful on how I wrap and present my creations. Packaging is also important for me as a buyer.... it definitely makes the difference, it gives you the "whole package" :)

  • AdornmentsNYC

    AdornmentsNYC said 5 years ago

    great post - thanks!

  • Rosepixie

    Rosepixie said 5 years ago

    I'm not sure that the heat-sealed packaging making it harder to get to the product is a good thing. I specifically don't buy things packaged like that anymore because I've gotten too many bloody gashes trying to get products out of those stupid plastic prisons. They're designed to make the product look pretty on the shelf, but if the packaging increases the chances that the product will get broken or I will get hurt trying to get it out, then I fail to see why it's a good idea. If the product breaks as I'm taking it out of the bubble, why would I want it or anything else from that company/store?

  • UniqueNecks

    UniqueNecks said 5 years ago

    Love this article, nicely done! One should feel a sense of duty to be responsible in terms of packaging.

  • VintageChinchilla

    VintageChinchilla said 5 years ago

    Ooooh when I buy myself something fancy (like expensive makeup.. ok ok, inexpensive makeup too!!) I put off opening it for as long as I can stand it!! I'll set the packaging up on the vanity & just admire for a couple days. Nuts. I know.

  • mightymadgescloset

    mightymadgescloset said 5 years ago

    I love this article, so very true, although I never really thought about it.

  • bootmeister

    bootmeister said 5 years ago

    I'm the oppposite, I hate plastic packaging and will choose only the one that can be recycled, I feel so guilty about throwning things like that away and think about how long that could be in a landfill for....

  • AlphaSoupPhotography

    AlphaSoupPhotography said 5 years ago

    I hate packaging too - although I do understand the psychology of how it makes people buy.

  • KathyTobacco

    KathyTobacco said 5 years ago Featured

    I think about this all the time. Presentation is so important to me. I think it is interesting how makeup is sold now versus 20 years ago. Back then all the displays were beautiful but the packaging that was discretely bagged behind the counter wasn't much to look at once you got home. Opening the stuff at home was alway anti-climatic. It always felt like a bait and switch to me. Now the packaging is prettier than the displays. Plastic containers are taking a back seat to gorgeous paper and cardboard packaging that has the appeal of being newly and unwrapped every time you use it.

  • TheThingsIamMadeof

    TheThingsIamMadeof said 5 years ago

    Amazon has a program where many of the items, toys especially sold through the website come in less plastic packaging. There is a video that shows side by side a parent opening and assembling a toy from each type of packaging. I suppose this is an easier undertaking on-line where you can see the pretty picture and then the packaging is less meaningful verses a store front where its a one shot deal.

  • lavenderkittykat

    lavenderkittykat said 5 years ago Featured

    I graduated from FIT in with a packaging design degree in 2001 and the industry has changed enormously in 10 years... there is still a ways to go but I think we as consumers have demanded that "less is more" while us designers have embraced the challenges of new materials and simplicity. I still find the psychology super fascinating and am always in love with anything that's beautifully wrapped. I think that taking the time to present something well (especially a handmade item) honors the creative process, artist and customer.

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage said 5 years ago

    Children's toys are the worst. You need a power saw to get them open. I actually look for minimal packaging, I don't want to have to use a machete to get it open. And, I recycle it whenever I can.

  • BlossomAndBlooms

    BlossomAndBlooms said 5 years ago

    Plastic shells always give me that "ooh shiny!" feeling. Once I get the thing home, though, a serious case of wrap rage always sets in. You know packaging needs a redesign when you can buy a special cutter to open it faster.

  • IlluminatedPerfume

    IlluminatedPerfume said 5 years ago

    How interesting! I just saw some really cool packaging at the market for Seventh Generation, the container looked like recyclable cardboard.

  • elleestpetite

    elleestpetite said 5 years ago

    How interesting, packaging is really important in purchasing/decision making.

  • sucree

    sucree said 5 years ago

    Great story and video!

  • dearshar

    dearshar said 5 years ago

    cruel but true! great point to think

  • Verdurebydesign

    Verdurebydesign said 5 years ago

    If all packaging was sent back to the manufactures, to pay for it's disposal, there would be a very fast rethink.

  • lorenabr

    lorenabr said 5 years ago

    Very true! Nice article!

  • FaithBeads

    FaithBeads said 5 years ago

    I have found that my positive feedback seems to come as much from my packaging as it does my products. To me, they are one and the same. I have had the same experience as an Etsy buyer. I return to the shops that delivered the best "whole package" experience. It may be handmade, but it should still look somewhat "professional."

  • wayfaringmagnolia

    wayfaringmagnolia said 5 years ago

    I'm going to have to send this to my boyfriend who happens to be a packaging engineer! Something I would have never given a second thought about until I met him but it does make a heck of a difference.

  • myvintagecrush

    myvintagecrush said 5 years ago

    Aaahahaha, Long Live Larry David! ..so many life lessons ;) And yes, packaging is paramount in branding!

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat said 5 years ago

    I've been trying for years to minimise the packaging on everything I buy. It's sad to think there are still so many people (especially Etsians who should be more environmentally aware) that are induced to buy a specific product simply because it's overpackaged in non-biodegradeable plastic.

  • JenniferKleinJewelry

    JenniferKleinJewelry said 5 years ago

    It really is true! When I'm traveling and have either forgotten or run out of my pretty organza pouches and a customer wants to buy jewelry I feel like I'm robbing the customer of their full experience. My mom had a frustrating experience with a Tylenol bottle trying to help me when I was younger and had a fever...turns out those child proof bottles don't just stop kids from opening them! ;)

  • Marumadrid

    Marumadrid said 5 years ago

    I knew about the "unpacking videos". My husband loves to watch people opening videogames or fancy toys on Youtube :P

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery said 5 years ago

    I hate that PVC packing stuff it's just bad all round, I've had boxes that I've cut myself on. Not a great way to start a products life off :(

  • MishaGirl

    MishaGirl said 5 years ago

    I'm a sucker for nice packaging...sometimes to the point where I'd rather keep the item in it's casing because it looks so pristine. As for the PVC packaging...well that just sucks to open.

  • mgp07

    mgp07 said 5 years ago

    thanks for the Larry clips!!! hysterical and so so true!

  • rilakuma

    rilakuma said 5 years ago

    that's true. I even kept all my gadgets box. cause I love them all.

  • AutumnLeavesJewelry

    AutumnLeavesJewelry said 5 years ago

    Super fun article to read ;) "Prettayy prettayy prettayyyy" (as Larry David cleverly coined) interesting subject.

  • ENAfinedesigns

    ENAfinedesigns said 5 years ago

    Packaging is important to me too, but I sell big items (furniture, wooden boxes , etc) that ship in cardboard boxes and packed for protection. Any suggestions on enhancing presentation?

  • earjeans

    earjeans said 5 years ago

    I agree, packaging is very important. This is a great read. now...I must search etsy for a trench coat....lol! jk

  • ShoeClipsOnly

    ShoeClipsOnly said 5 years ago

    Packaging is important, but it's whats inside that really counts! :)

  • BrightonCrock

    BrightonCrock said 5 years ago

    Packaging is everything. It shows how much thought has gone in to the item. I am actually addicted to the unboxing videos. Whenever I get a new phone I always watch it being opened online before it arrives!

  • lassandaliasdeana

    lassandaliasdeana said 5 years ago

    yes, i collect all kind of boxes!!! why? ji,ji ;)

  • BanglewoodSupplies

    BanglewoodSupplies said 5 years ago

    This article has just reminded me that I need to take better pictures.

  • Porcelainmoonfineart

    Porcelainmoonfineart said 5 years ago

    My wife fully admits she is a sucker for good packaging, especially if it has some catchy artwork the producer may have commissioned from an independent artist. Everything from beer bottle labels to cigar boxes and journal covers. I agree with Banglewood's post. Yeah.. i need to take better pictures as well :P

  • jtbmetaldesigns

    jtbmetaldesigns said 5 years ago

    LOL! How many times have I given myself bloody knuckels savagely attacking a packaging to get the contents. It gets even more fun when you have a Dremel and bench vise! ; D

  • artworksbycarol

    artworksbycarol said 5 years ago

    Do you think offering gift wrapping would help sales?

  • sweetnoir

    sweetnoir said 5 years ago

    Excellent post!! Packaging appropriately is key to the fueling the consumer experience. With handcrafted artsy items, it's a triple winner to create not only a great item and presentation, but then to wrap it up like a beautiful gift. Who doesn't like feeling like they've received a very special gift (even if they bought it for themselves)? It can be a sweet and potent selling point!

  • HouseOfMoss

    HouseOfMoss said 5 years ago

    I've been thinking about the concept of packaging a lot recently. While I know first-hand that shiny, sleek, oversized packaging is irresistable and actually seems to add value to a product, I can't bring myself to package my own items that way. To me, avoiding the unnecessary use of extra plastic outweighs the potential gains that might result from its use.

  • shizendesigns

    shizendesigns said 5 years ago

    The video is hilarious. I just went through a similar experience trying to open a package in which a headset for a MP3 player came in. 6 by 8 inch of nice thick plastic case for the tiny headset! I thought I was going to have a stroke for being so frustrated opening the plastic case!

  • designlab443

    designlab443 said 5 years ago

    So true about the "the desire for purity". No wants the product where the package has clearly been opened and taped back shut. But I do hope we can limit the amount of packaging, it's all such a waste! I try to do my part by packaging my prints with all upcycled materials. You can do so much with an empty cereal box.

  • verarodrigues

    verarodrigues said 5 years ago

    i agree...first impression is everything!

  • ArleenDesign

    ArleenDesign said 5 years ago

    I agree! First impression comes first.Lovely article!

  • Davs

    Davs said 5 years ago

    Interesting article. =)

  • OnlyOriginalsByAJ

    OnlyOriginalsByAJ said 5 years ago

    Great article! I'm a psychologist myself and I couldn't agree with you more!

  • VeronicaRStudio

    VeronicaRStudio said 5 years ago

    Packaging ia an interesting art... It definetly can make an object seem more desirable or cheapen it considerably. And I hatw those plastic shell packages!

  • karenwade

    karenwade said 5 years ago

    I agree, packaging has its very own appeal!

  • objecked Admin

    objecked said 5 years ago

    My dad has a word for that PVC packaging. He says it every time he has to open something encased in molded plastic. "DIABOLICAL!"

  • hlcarvings

    hlcarvings said 5 years ago

    Unless a gift from hubby i hate packaging. Over kill on indestructiable plastic. damn 5 pills in a 6" x6" fancy package. couldnt even open it.

  • hlcarvings

    hlcarvings said 5 years ago

    indestructible plastic over kill

  • tiemee

    tiemee said 5 years ago

    As for the packaging--my latest pair of headphones were opened like an inpatient and crazed toddler grabbing anything sharp in sight--the calm after the storm came when I realized that I had not pulled the wires out of earpiece in my great haste. My hair was definitely tossled after that one.

  • wmalexalvarez

    wmalexalvarez said 5 years ago

    Very True! I love me some bright colored and novel shaped packaging

  • sevenvsxiao

    sevenvsxiao said 5 years ago

    I like

  • Baffona

    Baffona said 5 years ago

    "We as consumers have demanded that 'less is more' while us designers " One thing that will make me stop reading almost any article is misuse of subject and object pronouns, especially from one who has obtained any kind of degree! It calls your expertise into question. Please consider that your use of language is the "packaging" for the expression of your ideas.

  • cheriehaney

    cheriehaney said 5 years ago

    I am afeard

  • cutelittlething

    cutelittlething said 5 years ago

    as someone who caters to other creatives I try and respect + honor their strong visual sense + aesthetic + give them something pretty to look at + be kind to the earth with my packaging as well as great tactile, quality materials inside...but i guess creative or not, everyone can appreciate good design even if it is not on a conscious level.

  • clovershop

    clovershop said 5 years ago

    really interesting article! i definitely agree that packaging can often make or break an object, especially when it's something to be bought off of a self. when i re-opened my shop i thought a lot about how i want to package my art prints. i often find with tightly closed envelopes, it's hard to get all the contents inside without damaging the goods or get frustrated with not getting that last bit at the corner. so i designed my receipt with a pull tab that comes up to the opening of the envelope, making it much easier to get all the contents with just one little pull. doing all this with just one a4 paper, im quite proud of it =D but i feel there is still more i can do to improve my packaging without using excessive materials but is still pretty and attractive at the same time!

  • KCWyoBling

    KCWyoBling said 5 years ago

    Wow this is so true!! Packaging really counts. Sometimes I think i choose products just because of the package it comes in..now that I think about I have kept some of the packaging (a small round leopard print box that I got with socks by Betsey Johnson!!)

  • SonicStyles

    SonicStyles said 5 years ago

    Awesome artical! I know I find myself buying something just so I can have the packaging to add to my craft supplies...

  • CTDesigns

    CTDesigns said 5 years ago

    We may buy the toy for the packaging for our child, but I always undo the twist ties, the cable ties, etc. so my child can pull the item from the package and play with the toy right away. There is nothing worse than a two year old crying for the doll and you have to chase down the scissors, screw driver or whatever to release the doll from her cardboard prison!!!

  • rubenbrito

    Ruben Alexander from RubenAlexander said 5 years ago

    This is a beautifully written article on a great topic.

  • steveberke

    Steve Berke said 1 year ago

    I totally agree, more often when a customer see that the packaging is damaged they will ask for another stock specially for toy products. I think this article could also complement this article :)

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