WASHINGTON • Online retailers are giving the humble cardboard box an extreme makeover, transforming a four-sided receptacle for delivering goods into the new shopping bag.
Out: brown, plain, boring.
In: neon colours, ornate lettering, glossy surfaces and geometric stenciling that looks like modern art.
By trying to replicate the delight and status jolt of in-person shopping - walking around New York with a Bloomingdale's bag once signalled affluence - online retailers trying to break through the Amazon juggernaut are turning front doorsteps into new branding canvases.
As one box veteran puts it: "Every box tells a story."
Typing "#boxreview" or "#unboxing" into Instagram reveals a strange incongruity of the digital age - boxes are Internet icons. People take selfies with boxes and post videos of themselves opening their boxes.
And the story often does not end with box-cutters.
Recipients post photos, videos and reviews online of the coolest boxes. Some repurpose their boxes to store make-up, watches or even fishing lures. Others hang boxes on their walls, with dioramas inside.
"You all are going to be horrified," one commenter wrote in an online discussion on a site that reviews boxes (such a thing really does exist), "but I just recycle them."
This is the best of times for boxes.
For decades, a stagnating economy and shift away from manufacturing flattened sales of corrugated and paperboard boxes.
But in 2013, sales rebounded and have kept climbing, thanks to an improving economy and, analysts say, a fundamental shift in shopping habits.
Box sales are growing about 3 per cent a year and will rise to nearly US$40 billion (S$53.7 billion) in 2018, according to Ms Katie Wieser, an analyst with the Freedonia Group, a market research firm.
But boxes for e-commerce are growing even faster, at 4 per cent.
Amazon is thought to be the biggest customer, shipping nearly five billion packages a year.
Amazon, in keeping its shipping process lean and cheap, is mostly utilitarian in box design - brown, with the company logo - though it did produce yellow boxes with smiling Minions to promote the movie about the little yellow helpers.
The real action in box innovation is taking place among online retailers who specialise in monthly subscription services selling, among other things, make-up, jewellery, underwear, dresses, gluten-free snacks, Paleo diet snacks, snacks from Japan, sex toys, stationery and topsoil.
Birchbox, which offers make-up and men's grooming supplies, ships boxes decorated with flowers, bright neons and abstract designs.
Graze, a healthy snack service, uses the underside of the lid for paintings of scrumptious fruits.
Loot Crate, which ships a monthly assortment of gaming and pop- culture gizmos, has included scannable codes that play video clips on smartphones.
Box advocates are proud of what is happening in the industry.
Mr Jalem Getz, founder of Wantable, which sends a monthly package of women's designer clothing hand-selected by personal stylists, said of the dual role of his company's starkly white and smooth boxes, with a solid W on the lid. "The box," he said, "is an ad unit that travels to the customer."
Neighbours see it on doorsteps or in recycle bins. Co-workers spot the boxes in the office, shipped to employees ignoring the no-personal- packages edict from human resources. That is one part.
This is the other, he said. "The box is a reminder of why she shopped with us and it's an exciting moment to open the box."
Companies such as Loot Crate, Wantable and Graze represent two worlds colliding - tech and manufacturing. Most subscription-box companies are founded by technology entrepreneurs seeking a slice of the US$1-trillion market in e-commerce.
And while most of these entrepreneurs pride themselves on thinking outside the box, what is needed for the box itself is a mystery.
That is where another group of box entrepreneurs come in - the box outsourcers.
Started by box-industry veterans or former Web coders who become self-taught box gurus, these third- party companies are a one-stop shop for design and manufacturing.
Mr Dennis Salazar, a long-time executive in the box industry, started Salazar Packaging in the Chicago area about 10 years ago, hoping to help companies build their brands with environmentally conscious packaging.
When the e-retailing took off, he sensed an incredible opportunity.
"They are trying to create the shopping experience at home, but that's difficult to do," he said. "We were in a great position to help them understand boxes."
He provides, as his company's tagline puts it, "packaging that communicates" - design expertise, material selection and production: everything. His clients include Harry's, one of the largest online sellers of shaving products for men. And his sales have grown more than 20 per cent for four years.
Ms Miriam Brafman comes at the business from the other direction.
A former engineer and Web designer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, she had a fascination with product packaging.
A couple of years ago, she wanted to design a box with her own graphic design, but when she looked into custom box companies, she found many still stuck in the offline era.
Ms Brafman, now 25, created Packlane, a Silicon Valley online point-and-click service for designing and ordering boxes. Her customers have included Baltimore in a Box, which ships food from Charm City, and Bullymake, a subscription service for dog chew toys.
"Boxes are really fascinating business," she said. "It's one of those industries that people think is really boring, but that's because they don't know anything about it. The more you learn about it, the more interesting it is."
For instance, typing "#box review" or "#unboxing" into Instagram reveals a strange incongruity of the digital age - boxes are Internet icons.
People take selfies with boxes. They post videos of themselves opening their boxes. They post things like: "My @lookfantastic box has arrived!! This month is all about BEST OF BRITISH. Can't wait to open this gorgeous box xx."
There are even box review websites.
A reviewer at Cratejoy.com offered this observation about a Birchbox delivery: "It's also bright, beautiful and downright pretty. This month's box had very such bright colours and a fun geometric design."
He could not wait for the next shipment. "I know that I will love everything in that box," the review said, "down to the creative box design."