Packaging Design in the Age of InstaCart

7 min readJan 6, 2021

When designing packaging, you always need to remember the goal. Packaging should always speak to the brand, what the product is, contain nutritional or product details, and answer consumer questions. It also needs to make a product stand out and be recognizable on the shelf. Many consumers take a ‘grab and go’ approach when shopping for food or health/beauty product and brand packaging needs to stand out.

For consumer product goods (CPG), the physical product, it’s appearance, packaging, display, etc., are all elements critical to the final moment of truth (when consumers pick up a product). Ten years ago, consumers spent less than 6-seconds at the shelf looking for a product. Today, I would hypothesize that it is about 3 seconds. While the time consumers spend at the shelf was already in decline, COVID has accelerated it. And for some consumers, they are no longer even at the physical shelf.

First, consumers were already shifting to online shopping for many CPG products. Sites like Amazon, PeaPod, Target, Chewy helped pave the way and made it easy for people to order CPG products like grocery staples, beauty products or pet foods online. But COVID turned online shopping from a convenience to a necessity. For example, online grocery sales have been slowly growing, hitting a new record of 22% year over year growth in 2019. But COVID has driven that number past 40%.

“The coronavirus outbreak has prompted shoppers to buy food and essentials online in greater numbers and more frequently. By the time of our survey in mid-March, the outbreak had already encouraged just under half of online grocery shoppers to buy more groceries online or driven them to start buying online.” Deborah Weinswig, CEO of New York-based Coresight, who ran the study.

As consumers move to online grocery shopping, they are no longer the brand ambassadors in the stores. Companies like InstaCart and others mean employ gig workers, who dash around the store or warehouse picking the items (selected from the app). Its these workers that are now making product decisions at the shelf.

To further complicate things, these individuals are measured on speed and how quickly they can fulfill and deliver orders. Six seconds is a lot when you are comfortable looking for your brand, but six seconds for these workers is too long. The consumer placing the order will be lucky if the person fulfilling it is familiar with the brand they selected. More importantly, does the person know what the label looks like? If they are not familiar with the brand, do they know the brand color, logo, shape, size, or any of the eight key brand elements.

As consumer shopping habits shift to online grocery shopping, designers and brands need to consider this into their packaging designs.

Personal Experience with InstaCart and Packaging Failures…

I was one of those early adopters of InstaCart. I wanted to love my experience but I gave up after a couple of orders. I ordered my items and selected alternatives if my first choices were not available. I monitored my app, amazed at how I could witness the person on the other end, checking off each product as they selected it from the store shelf. But what I received wasn’t always what I selected or even reasonable alternatives. I quickly became very disappointed and frustrated. When I went back to the store, I realized that the difficulty wasn’t just with InstaCart. Product packaging and branding plays a role in the success of online shopping and delivering a positive customer experience. It’s something that both online grocery delivery services and CPG brands should care about.

Here is what happened with InstaCart…Instead of getting the product I requested I received products I did not order and were not communicated to me.

  • ReaLemon 100% Lemon Juice — Received the white label Market Basket made from concentrate
  • When Pigs Fly Honey Wheat Soft Sourdough Bread — Received Low Carb
  • Simply Orange Pulp Free — Received Simply orange with mango

In some cases, the products I received look like what I ordered. It is common for competitive products to mimic the colors and layout of top tier brands. The idea is to trick the consumer to grab the wrong item. It is deceptive and it works, especially when the person at the shelf is fulfilling someone else order and has a ticking clock ticking in the background holding their pay ransom.

In the case of the orange juice, the correct brand was chosen, but the wrong product. The same occurred for the replacement brand. It was the correct replacement but the faulty product. This appears to be a frequent challenge for InstaCart and demonstrates that split-second decisions its employees are making. It also speaks to the importance of packaging, branding and easily differentiating product SKUs on the shelf.

Simply Orange Labels can be confusing for someone not familiar with the brand

Simply Orange owns thirty-four products across eleven categories! The Simply Orange line has seven products including High Pulp, Pulp Free, Low Acid, Calcium & Vitamin D, Medium Pulp with Calcium & Vitamin D, and orange juice with Mango or Pineapple. I received Simply Orange with Mango. At first glance the packaging looks similar to what I requested. The product color is the same and labels are similar. Neither Pineapple and Mango flavors alter the color of the product. It’s easy to see how the InstaCart employee picked Mango. When you have a millisecond to select products, the Mango branding gets lost with the orange. And the result is an incorrect item in the home delivery and an email with complaints. When a wrong item is delivered, the consumer is forced to make a decision — waste food and toss it, donate it, or try it.

For branding and designers, it is a fine line between sticking to the brand and having enough differentiation across the product family. Branding and product logos are very important in packaging design, but if you offer multiple product SKUs packaging needs to differentiate too.

One CPG brand that does this well is Doritos. The bag color is the key differentiator between the product options — purple for sweet chili, and smokey red for spicy. For the grab and go world, the full color of the product helps act as a key differentiator within the brand. The only challenge with the Doritos bags is the images are similar across more than one.

Dainty went through some rebranding in 2017, winning Best in Show at the 2019 PAC awards. The packaging leveraged a modern look and a new block bottom bag, both luxury touches that a consumer would be drawn too. However, the elegant patterns on the packaging may not provide enough differentiation to the gig worker. The Dainty packaging stands out because of the color, black, when most rice tend to be orange or yellow packaging. The large font size helps to identify the various rice types making it easier for someone to differentiate the different varieties.

Miss Vickie’s uses the hi-resolution photos to communicate the ingredients

Miss Vickies packaging also went for the modern dark luxury look. Unlike Doritios, or Dainty, Miss Vickies used a small amount of color and high-quality photos of the ingredients to separate the product family. For the quick grab and go person, imagery helps. However, I would have liked to see a larger font, or icon,

Designing for the ‘Grab and Go’ consumer and gig worker

Designers and brands must remember that what worked in packaging 10 years ago may not work today. And what works today may change tomorrow. Just as in life, it’s a balancing act and there is no one packaging solution to fit every product or brand. As a packaging designer, you must be on our toes, always looking to get in-front of the consumer — no matter where they are or how they are shopping. As shopping habits shift and evolve, so does the consumer experience. A designers goal it to make the product packaging Easy to find, attractive and ready to be grabbed.

OneDegree uses QR codes to create consumer transparency of the supply chain

With that in mind, here are a few things every packaging designer should consider when thinking about the new ‘grab and go’ shopper.

  • Color — Color is so key — it is a critical element to quickly decern different products. When designing your colors pallet, validate that there are enough variations in the color. Don’t go from a light green to a dark green, go from green to gold, or yellow.
  • Font — Accessibility is becoming more and more important. Font choice, font size should be easy to read at a 5mph power walk without stopping.
  • Imagery — This can be icons, graphics, or photos. Images should represent the key ingredients, region, anything that separates the product family.
  • Shape and Material — the shape of your packaging and material used can also help make a product stand out on the shelf. Orange juice and dairy products often use shape to make a product stand out.

Grab and Go means new types of product and market testing. The product must be attractive and emit the responses brands look for and test, but now they should add the online shopping experience as well. Can consumers identify the product on their small mobile phone, and can an online grocery delivery employee quickly find and grab the item off the shelf .

Shoshana Burgett / About Author

Originally published at on January 6, 2021.




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