Online vs. Offline Packaging Research

How To Determine Which One You Need: A Best Practices Guide


As the ability to conduct online research continues to improve, our clients often ask us how they should determine if packaging research should be done online or in-person. Their questions often take the form of:

“Do I lose in quality by going online?”

“Do I always need to run an in-person study for my million/billion dollar brand?”

“Can I mix methodologies for a multi-country project?”

“Is it possible to capture the real behavior at shelf with an online study?”

For decades, PRS IN VIVO has readily been recognized as the global gold standard for packaging research; hence we feel qualified to answer this question. While we certainly have our own expert opinions, we decided to conduct parallel studies1 - between online and in-person methodologies in various markets – to challenge our hypotheses.

The aim of this article is to highlight our key findings and share best practices when deciding whether to conduct research online(2) or in-person.

Key Findings:

  1. While results align 80% of the time, there are critical differences between online vs offline that brands need to be highly aware of.
  2. When results fail to align (20% of the time), there is typically a structural, sensory or material-based reason that simply cannot be duplicated online.

Let’s breakdown these findings.


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When results align (80% of cases)

First, the good news. We find that in 80% of our studies, main conclusions (and recommendations) align. That said, we have identified some significant differences:

  • Scores in the absolute differ - so you need different (and specific) norms for online vs offline); and
  • When the direction is similar, the percentage of the evolution (between control and test cells) can also differ.

Scores in the absolute differ

  • Online scores are higher when it comes to shopping (index 150) and equity (index 115)
  • Online scores are lower when it comes to visibility (index 78) and findability (index 80)

There are 3 key principles which can explain these differences in absolute numbers:

  1. In-person studies allow for the use of all senses, such as smell, taste, touch and sight of an actual package (and, using our Retail Labs™, in a real retail environment): Critically, in-person studies allow respondents to fully capture all graphics details (i.e. embossment, reflection, etc.), while online primarily relies on visual sense with all other senses stymied.
  2. In-person allows use of peripheral vision and learned behavioral short-cuts that are more readily available in this context.
  3. Habits that are different in online context vs. offline context, due to an Omni-Channel reality of the world.

plant-based-campaign-email-heroLower scores online for visibility and findability:

  • The online environment is more functional and constricted, as the shelves are usually smaller on screen (and can vary based on screen size) and require respondents to artificially ‘zoom in’ on a small section of the shelf to view the details.
  • Whereas the in-person environment allows shoppers to view the full shelf from multiple angles / distances, quickly scanning the shelf in all directions and makes it easier to use their typical navigational category cues (i.e. colors, structures, etc.)

online-offline-2Higher score online for shopping:

  • In person allows more senses to be active, which more easily trigger learned behaviors / habits.
  • The average number of purchase basket offline is ~1.7 products (close to retail sales data) compared to ~2.7 products online.
    • The higher purchase rate in an online context can also be linked to shoppers subconsciously adopting a behavior that’s more suited to online shopping (even if the environment for an online shelf test is slightly different). Shoppers who shop online are more prone to purchasing in bulk (bigger basket online on average).

When results don’t align (20% of cases)

Conclusions/ key learnings don’t always align when:

  • There is a significant structural pack change (i.e. compaction, from hexagon to square)
  • The package/products provide a unique sensory experience (i.e. texture, smell, weight, etc)
  • There is reflective material involved (i.e. foil, metallic silver/ gold)
  • The images used for online tests magnify the pack (transparency, embossing, etc.)

Overall, for initiatives, such as a significant structure/format change, formula change (i.e. different scent) and pack material changes (i.e. embossment, reflection, texture, etc.) - the senses of touch, scent, view and ergonomics become even more important and an online methodology cannot do it and can be misleading in terms of next steps.


The following table outlines the quantitative screening and evaluation methodologies when it comes to packaging changes (NOTE: so this does not take into account PRS IN VIVO early stage services such as AI Screener, etc):


2D design change

significant structure/format change, formula change (i.e. different scent) and pack material changes/when there is a risk of mis-match between 2D magnified images and real 3D products.


Quantitative Screening


Quantitative Screening


Tier 1 Brands (strategy brands)


In-person Retail-LabTM can be recommended in the main market(s) if the % of evolution test/control is crucial (multi-billion brand, key brand in the portfolio).

Qual Screening in in-person Retail-LabTM

(Can be accompanied by Quant Online).

In-person Retail-LabTM

Tier 2 & 3 Brands



In-person Retail-LabTM  or Online + Qual Connection in in-person Retail-LabTM


In a context where almost all agencies go for online only, our in-depth analysis shows that not all pack changes should be run online. With this parallel-testing, we provide you with clear guidelines about when to go online vs in-person.

In situation where you can go online, we strongly recommend a methodology that has been parallel-tested with true in-store behaviour and replicates in-context purchase and system 1 decision making.



PRS IN VIVO, a leader in behavioral research and readily recognized as the world leader in package testing, runs market research in both online and in-person environments.

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1 *Based on 22 parallel tests (7600 respondents overall)
(2) NB. Our online research (PackCheck® methodology) replicates in-context shopping at shelf, system 1 metrics (eye-flow, flash exposure…) and system 2 review.



  • Olivier Bardin - Head of Switzerland, VP Client Development
  • Waleed Saleem - Director, Client Development Geneva Office


Olivier Bardin - Head of Switzerland, VP avatar

Olivier Bardin - Head of Switzerland, VP