No Need To Swear: Packaging Is Getting Much Less Aggravating

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Dec. 26 2012 5:21 PM

A Christmas Miracle: Packaging Is Less Infuriating

Did you swear as much at clamshells and twist ties this year?

Clamshell Packaging
Traditional clamshell packaging is cheap, deters theft, and it shows off a product on a crowded shelf

Photo by Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images.

Every day delivery men show up at my door bearing loads of new things. Some of it is stuff I’ve purchased online, but most of the boxes contain tech products that companies have sent me to review. Because I send all this stuff back when I’m done assessing it—and because I like to have the option to return stuff I’ve purchased—I open all my boxes in a very persnickety way. I crack into consumer packaging like a surgeon handling a body on the table. I never, ever want to rip or cut open a package in a way that leaves it impossible to put back together again. Instead I try to make as few cuts as possible, always following the package’s subtle cues to find a way to gently coax the contents out of the box. When I stop to think about it, the amount of care and energy I expend on opening consumer merchandise is probably some kind of sad commentary on our society. Luckily, with all these boxes to open, I don’t have much time to stop to think about it.

I’m telling you all this as a way of bolstering my credentials to make a claim you’ll likely find hard to swallow. Considering how many packages I open, I’ve become a kind of expert on how consumer goods are wrapped. And over the past year, I’ve noticed something amazing: Packaging is getting better. More and more of our products are packed in containers that are well-designed; environmentally friendly; and, best of all, don’t require a rage-inducing, teeth-grinding Herculean struggle to open. (See this Larry David video for an example.) A few years ago, you’d spend many long, frustrating minutes on Christmas morning trying to get stuff out of boxes. This year I bet you spent less time puzzling over packages. I also bet you hardly noticed that many of your packaging woes had been solved—if you became red-faced, it was from trying to crack into the one or two remaining impenetrable plastic clamshells under your tree. 

That’s the package designer’s lament: The only time most of us notice packaging is when it’s terrible. When you find something difficult to open—especially something urgent, like your kid’s toy—it’s hard not to feel like the world is against you. Then you go to Twitter and write something like: “Designers of kid's toy packaging are literally the worst people in our society. How can we fix this? Ideas? Send them back to Nazi Germany?” Or: “Seriously, there should be a special place in hell for the person who designed toy packaging.” Or: “This is a great gift. I wish I could get it open somehow!”

But bad packaging is now becoming the exception rather than the norm. Since 2008, some of the world’s largest retailers and consumer-product companies have launched initiatives to improve how their goods are boxed. Amazon.com’s program, called “frustration-free packaging,” now counts more than 70,000 products that ship in recyclable boxes “without excess packaging materials such as hard plastic clamshell casings, plastic bindings, and wire ties.” Wal-Mart has pledged to reduce packaging by 5 percent between 2008 and 2013. It’s well on the way to that goal; among other things, the company worked with manufacturers to eliminate a billion feet of wire twist ties from its toys in 2011. If you’ve every tried to open these wire ties—which aren’t recyclable—you understand what a terrible pain they are. Instead, I’ve noticed more and more toys that are secured with easy-to-snip “paper string,” or even easier recyclable plastic locks, which ask you to simply turn a little key 90 degrees to release the toy from its box—no scissors required. (See page 17 in this technical document for a picture.)

As far as I can tell, these initiatives are working. Yes, my assessment is woefully unscientific—Jack Shafer is sure to smite me for relying on the old “numbers are hard to come by” journalistic hedge. There’s no agency that tracks how consumer goods are packaged. Some packaging industry analysts suggest that the use of “high-visibility packaging” (including clamshells) is on the rise, but there’s no way to know how many of these are new, easy-to-open clamshells and how many are the classic, finger-slicing variety.

Yes, a few impossible, scissor-resisting packages entered my home this year. Among these was a Logitech mouse, a BodyMedia fitness tracker, an automotive fluid-transfer pump, and Apple’s new Earpod headphones. (You’ll need a hammer to crack open the hard plastic box.) Nine out of 10 products I encountered, though, were a snap to open.

This is surprising. The traditional, impossible clamshell has a lot going for it. It’s cheap, it deters theft (you can’t slip open the package and pocket something), and it shows off a product on a crowded shelf. The clamshell’s disadvantages, meanwhile, are all borne by consumers and the environment—and only after people have purchased the products—so companies have little direct incentive to improve things.

And yet they’re doing just that: The clamshell is rare, and soon it will be dead. Joy to the world!

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