High-end retailers and brand owners are elevating the in-store experience by integrating their packaging solutions and interiors.

From the unusual process of sewing customers’ shopping bags shut as they exit the store (as seen in the new Hamburg-based high-end food store Mutterland) to letting shoppers choose their own ornately decorated box and combination of macaroons at French patisserie Ladurée, a brand’s approach to packaging can make an indelible impression.

In recent years, the role of packaging has been elevated in the in-store experience as smart brands and retailers explore and harness the lucrative relationship between packaging and interior space. Well conceived, visually appealing packaging solutions can play a powerful role in influencing and even shaping the retail environment, creating an offer that is wholly appealing to discerning consumer audiences.

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has taken this approach with his recently launched chain of London-based high street food emporiums that aim to make cooking an easier, more sociable activity. His concept, called Recipease, has professionally trained chefs on hand to guide patrons through in-store cooking lessons.

The venue is merchandised to resemble a pantry cupboard, with kitchen utensils placed throughout the store to provide an ambience of creativity and production as customers prepare fresh meals on site. Patrons take their creations home in packaging that reflects the alchemy of the cooking process experienced inside the space. The graphic symbols on the takeaway boxes and bags-including food items and cooking utensils-are echoed in the retail space, window display and in-store signage and serve to encapsulate and extend the retail experience for consumers long after they leave the store.

The new Beyond Organic store in Hong Kong’s luxury IFC mall also cleverly links packaging to its merchandising environment-in this case, through the use of materials. The store’s façade and interior walls are constructed from sustainable cork to highlight the first beauty range to be retailed at the premises-a brand called Amala-which sports cork lids on many of its products. The German skincare brand is also predominantly merchandised in sets of two, denoting the Noah’s Ark theme of the store that’s also reinforced with pairs of cork animals placed strategically along the retail displays.

We’ve seen other brands take this idea a step further, elevating the role of packaging in-store to such an extent that it actually becomes the main attraction and determines the navigational experience for the shopper.

In Tokyo’s Harajuku shopping district, there’s the casual wear brand Uniqlo’s UT store, where the vision is that of a futuristic convenience store for t-shirts with packaging as the focal point. Each year, UT offers a limited-edition collection of 1,000+ t-shirt designs by renowned creative types, including the photographer Terry Richardson, graphic designer Peter Saville and fashion designer Gareth Pugh, as well as creatively-minded companies like Pantone.

The t-shirts are displayed across three floors of retail space, with a fourth floor hosting a gallery that celebrates the cultural status of this wardrobe staple with images of rising creative talents wearing their favorite Uniqlo designs.

A clothes rack positioned along the middle of each store aisle allows shoppers to browse the available designs before selecting a pre-packaged item from the surrounding stainless steel display cases. Each shirt is individually housed in a clear plastic canister that resembles a tennis ball can and features brightly colored labels with coordinating graphics, making the packaging itself a collectible item and encouraging repeat purchases. The compelling packaging and merchandising solution renders the space as virtually self-service and offers consumers a fun, empowering shopping experience.

In the beauty sector, Australian brand Aesop’s refined, pared-down approach to skincare is reflected in the prolific use of raw materials in many of its boutiques around the world.

Focusing on quality ingredients and sensory appeal, the brand’s Adelaide “bottle boutique” has been decorated with 7,560 recycled amber glass bottles, which are suspended from removable ceiling panels using threaded rods. The recycled bottles reference the ethical credentials of the brand and simultaneously provide the space with a sense of warmth and unity-creating an intimate, jewel-like setting in which to proudly exhibit the beauty products.

Aesop’s Melbourne store has been remodeled using 3,000 corrugated boxes as product shelving, countertops and walls, with products integrated into niches between the cartons. The linear aesthetic and repetition of product lines lend an art gallery feel to the space and place the emphasis firmly on the brand’s signature pharmaceutical-style bottles, which feature inspiring philosophical quotes on the labels.

Another noteworthy example of packaging-retail integration is a pop-up store launched in the Netherlands by drinks brand Bacardi and fashion brand 55DSL. The joint venture’s Home Improvement Store aimed to provide young adults with a one-stop shop for all their “home entertaining” needs, including ingredients and advice for the perfect do-it-yourself party. Bacardi drinks and 55DSL limited-edition party clothing were for sale, along with cocktail shakers, stirrers, straws, fresh fruit and ice cubes, party lights and music compilations by renowned DJs. Workshops were also offered on various elements of party planning such as cocktail making.

The space itself employed a unique design solution inspired by the block-building video game Tetris. The game’s concept was translated using stacks of branded paperboard boxes as building blocks for temporary displays and merchandising units. When consumers made purchases, the boxes were removed and used as the packaging-in effect, dismantling the retail space in an organic and entertaining manner.

Well-conceived packaging solutions can also be used to interact with the retail environment in educational, entertaining and functional ways. Going beyond graphic or structural treatments, the amount of information that can be conveyed through smart packaging can truly inspire and encourage the buying process.

Take men’s skincare brand LAB Series, which installed an interactive “tester bar” in UK retailer Selfridge’s London flagship store. The unmanned concession featured an RFID system that worked alongside four base plates displaying products by category: cleansing, shaving, treatment and hair/body. When a product was lifted from one of the plates, the RFID system triggered a promotional video to begin playing on a corresponding screen. The system also recorded shopper browsing patterns, which helped correlate shopping activity to actual sales.

Customer response to the system was extremely positive. The initiative was so successful that product sales increased by more than 400 percent. What’s more, the concept eliminated the need for sales staff and allowed the product to “speak” for itself.

The potential for these types of smart packaging solutions is significant-not only as tools to provide deeper information about a product or associated ranges but as a stepping stone to other tech applications (like Bluetooth-enabled content or QR codes that can be scanned by customers’ cell phones to link to microsites) that will enable packaging to effectively connect the physical and online retail experiences.

Another interactive concept, which relies on standalone packaging in the retail environment, is the new U*tique Shop, which has been installed in Fred Segal stores in Los Angeles. Bringing automated retail to the luxury sector, the U*tique vending machine offers a selection of 50 premium beauty and personal care products for shoppers. Customers select a product by touching its display window-which will glow a different color-and use the touchscreen interface to explore product descriptions, brand profiles and short promotional videos. Payments are made through a credit card reader, and an integrated robotic system places purchased items in the dispensing box.

U*tique plans to roll out the concept worldwide to high-end hotels and shopping malls, where the product selection can be tailored to the surroundings. By eliminating the salesperson, the importance of strong, stylish packaging for this retailing concept cannot be underestimated.

There is also scope to develop packaging into interactive brand experiences. For the launch of Harajuku Lovers-the new fragrance by pop star Gwen Stefani, aimed at the teen market-a branded karaoke booth toured 10 UK department stores as part of a Harajuku Lovers Roadshow.

The booth was installed alongside display units retailing the fragrance, which comes in five different bottles-each adorned with the animé-style cartoon character that is synonymous with the brand. The point-of-sale structure was adorned with graphics of the flacons and a giant anime-style character greeted visitors at the entrance. Inside the booth, visitors could record a video of themselves singing along to a Gwen Stefani track, which could be posted to a dedicated microsite, emailed to friends or downloaded to mobile phones.

The engaging point-of-sale experience brings the packaging to life, giving it personality and memorability in a cluttered marketplace. The initiative also fuses the physical store with popular social media-an important avenue to explore if a brand is to appeal to young consumer audiences.

Packaging can also provide an effective way of highlighting a brand’s eco-friendly credentials within a retail setting. This can be seen in the newly launched Green Depot flagship store in New York, which combines the hands-on service of a local hardware store with an educational component to inform and empower consumers to make smart choices when decorating or renovating their homes.

The store retails premium housewares and DIY products, and a D-Desk resource and design center offers advice on sustainable building materials. Customers can test light bulbs in the Light Booth, browse the Found section for the store’s most innovative new green products and a selection of vintage and salvaged items and refill bottles of Green Depot cleaning products using their own glass and plastic containers at a refill station. The impact of the refill initiative will be tracked to demonstrate how small choices in everyday life can add up to measurable results. In this way, the brand is using its treatment of packaging to not only provide an engaging activity in-store but also to spread a feel-good factor to its customers.

Taking sustainable credentials one step further, Unpackaged in London has become the city’s first permanent store to sell produce without any packaging. The organic grocery shop retails cereals, grains, vegetables and oils, and runs on a self-serve system-fill, weigh, pay and save-which is visually conveyed to customers via a four-stage instructional diagram at the store’s entrance. Customers who bring their own packaging receive a 50p (about 80 cents) discount on each purchase.

Jar-shaped cutouts from the lids of tubs used to house product are repurposed in signage around the store, reinforcing the brand’s eco-notion of reusability; used throughout the interior and for the identity, this logo emphasizes the company’s focus on raising awareness of packaging, rather than its lack of provision of it in the store.

It’s clear that, if harnessed effectively, the relationship between the retail environment and the medium of packaging is one that can greatly enhance the customer experience and increase commercial gain. Smart brands are now considering how the two elements can further connect to create a more enjoyable and functional shopping experience.

In the future, this relationship will likely be taken a step further as social media and e-tailing increasingly become part of the physical retail experience. And when it does, packaging will increasingly become the conduit that links offline to online retailing and will be positioned within engaging point-of-sale units that, when executed well, will strike an unforgettable chord with consumers.BP

Mandy Saven is editor of the Global Innovation Report published by GDR Creative Intelligence, a London-based trend analysis consultancy specializing in retail, leisure and hospitality design. Contact Mandy at mandy@gdruk.com.