Packaging Design in the Age of InstaCart

Author: Shoshana Burgett,

When designing packaging, you always need to remember the goal.  Packaging should 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 products 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 shopping.

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%.

Instacart App

“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.

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). It’s 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 in their packaging designs.

Products incorrectly delivered by InstaCart


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.


orange juice
Simply Orange Complete Product Family
  • ReaLemon 100% Lemon Juice — Received the white label Market Basket made from concentrate
  • When Pigs Fly Honey Wheat Soft Sourdough Bread — Received Low Carb bread
  • 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 elses 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.

Doritos Product Family uses the packaging color to differentiate the flavors

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 the 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 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.

Miss Vickies Product Packaging Samples

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 leverages a modern look and a new block bottom bag. Both luxury touches that a consumer would be drawn to. 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 packaging tends to be orange or yellow. The large font size  helps to identify the  various rice types making it easier for someone to differentiate the varieties.

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

One Degree Delivers Supply Chain Transparency with it's QR Code


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 your 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 designer’s goal is to make the product packaging easy to find, attractive and ready to be grabbed.

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.

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