Can We Cope With Packaging?

I wrote this story originally as what I called a “Reflection” on July 31, 1999. Blogging was not yet ubiquitous. I edited the story on May 28, 2008 and on July 1, 2021.

Packaging is one of those things that most of us may not think about a lot. Packaging can be plastic, glass, paper, Styrofoam, cardboard, or poly-whatever and they contain and protect things we buy. I think of packaging in two categories, one which something is shipped in and the other which something is stored in. I am sure packaging experts have a much more sophisticated way of describing this. I suppose we mostly take packaging for granted but I am beginning to think it is actually a profound topic.

I began thinking about packaging as something discrete quite a few years ago. What initially got my attention was a cereal box I found great difficulty in opening without destroying it, and its subsequent ability to keep the cereal fresh. I have since taken it as a personal challenge to be able to open a cereal box with no resulting damage. This is a non-trivial challenge – maybe an art. If it is a science then I haven’t found the instructions anywhere.

The process starts by using a sharp knife with a long blade. You carefully slide the knife under the tab in the center of the top of the cereal box. Then you slice the material to one side while applying a slight upward pressure via the tab. Repeat for the other side. I give being able to do this without damaging the box about a 75% chance at best. You are now almost a third of the way through the task at hand. Now that you have freed up one of the flaps you have to free the other flap by tearing it from the side flaps. Completing this without damage is also about 75% odds if you are quite careful. You are now two thirds of the way to the cereal. Last comes opening the bag inside the box which actually contains the cereal. This is often the hardest part. If you grasp the two sides of the bag and pull very carefully, you have about a 50% chance of opening the bag without tearing it. After opening the main part of the bag, you need to open the corners of the bag so the cereal can flow smoothly into your cereal bowl. Putting the collective probabilities together gives you less than a 50-50 chance at best of having an open cereal box which pours the contents smoothly and can be closed to protect freshness. 

I could go on about jars that require a hammer to open, pill bottles which can only be opened by children, fresh fruit containers which have to be squeezed until they break. Then there are bottles which are hermetically sealed at the top. The list goes on. I suspect those who suffer from arthritis of the fingers would have many other examples.

Last Christmas, I received a special tool called an Open It, used to open things which come packaged in blisters, clamshells, boxes, DVD cases, and numerous other things which are un-openable — packaged with the vendor in mind — and with no thought about how the consumer might open the package without injuring oneself. The Open It is made from hardened and plated precision alloy steel, has honed, angled, and offset jaws, and an ergo-comfortable handle. It has a built-in retractable utility knife and an interchangeable Phillips & slotted screwdriver. It is quite an impressive tool. If you have ever suffered “wrap rage”, suffer no more. It really works. The only catch is the Open It comes in one of those packages that you need an Open It to open it!

There is an even bigger packaging issue becoming part of our lives. The issue initially struck me when I had received my very first order from NetGrocer (The early online grocer was started in the late 1990s and subsequently folded. NetGrocer and I were ahead of our time). I had ordered an assortment of salsa, condiments, and potato chips. An Australian newspaper wrote a front page story (business section) about how an Internet “visionary” had ordered potato chips on the Internet. Yes, it was me. The amazing part was not the potato chips arriving unbroken, but rather the packaging.

I felt like I wanted to signal the future importance of “packaging” in the way Walter Brooke, as Mr. McGuire, signaled the importance of “plastics” to Dustin Hoffman in his legendary role as Benjamin Braddock in the classic film The Graduate. I opened the two large cardboard boxes and unpacked all the items. Everything was exactly as ordered. I was quite pleased and proud of my e-commerce prowess (e-business hadn’t been invented yet) in walking the talk and acquiring all of my favorite goodies (especially potato chips) online.

I was reveling in my predictions about how everybody would buy everything on the Web. Then I got a lump in my stomach. I looked at these two large cardboard boxes on my kitchen floor and the piles of poly-whatever “worms” (many people called them “peanuts”) all over the place. Some stuck to my hands, arms, and clothing. My wife would be home soon and have a lot of questions about my plans to clean up the mess I had created in the kitchen. All the glory I felt about acquiring Tabasco and potato chips would be nothing compared to the wrath she would unleash if I didn’t get busy. No problem. I’ll just clean it up. All I have to do is separate all the various packaging materials into their respective categories, burst the cardboard boxes, put the “worms” into a bag so they don’t end up decorating our lawn, and then stow everything away ready for the recycling center. Shouldn’t take me more than a half hour. Let’s see — how much time did I save with my NetGrocer purchase anyway? Surely, I am still way ahead?

Then there is the purchase of something really simple — say a cell phone battery. What is the ratio, on a volume basis, of the packaging material to the battery? 2 to 1? 5 to 1? 10 to 1? 100 to 1? Then there are the “worms”. So, what is the answer to all this? First of all, shopping on the Web is here to stay and should be (this was a small minority point of view back then). Retail e-commerce for the first quarter of 2001 was $200 billion. In spite of the packaging, you can shop for virtually anything whenever you want and get quick delivery.

In 1999, I believed at some point web sites would enable us to establish fulfillment models where we can set up a schedule for things we just want to show up outside the garage door on a scheduled basis. Paper towels, a case of oil, printer paper, stockings, and of course potato chips. I envisioned receiving an email at some point from a web merchant saying “Mr. Patrick, we have been shipping you a bag of potato chips every other week for quite some time. We have calculated you could save considerably on your shipping cost if you were to up your order to 12 bags per month instead. Click here if you would like us to modify your fulfillment model as suggested. This has now become routine.

But then there are still the “worms” or poly-whatever. Hopefully marketing will come to the rescue. Good marketing involves paying attention to the “end to end process”, e.g., not just assuming that the job is getting the package to the customer but going the next step and helping the customer unwrap the package, get rid of the packaging material and start enjoying the merchandise which was delivered.

There have been many new business models on the Web and I am confident we will see successful marketers keep uncovering more and more ways of satisfying their customers, by looking at possible annoyances, and solving them. In June 2021, Amazon introduced a new form of shipping box. Good start. We need breakthroughs in the packaging area. As more and more arrive at the door via package delivery companies, what will we do with all the packaging?

In 1999, I wondered if people would buy more and more on the Web but get turned off by all the packaging materials they have to deal with. There is room for leadership here and breakthroughs are possible. I used to get frustrated with opening the half gallon orange juice cartons. Did I say opening? I meant mutilating. Then along came International Paper with a breakthrough idea, adding a screw cap right on the carton. Great! Now what we need is self destructing “worms” and instantly collapsible cardboard. National Starch & Chemical has a product called Eco-Foam which is a starch-based biodegradable packaging material. Metabolix uses microbial fermentation of sugars to create totally biodegradable alternatives to petroleum-based plastics. The ultimate will be “worms” that do not stick to your clothing and can be put down the drain without hurting the environment.