Packaging is one of those things that most of us probably don't think about a lot. That set of plastic, glass, paper, Styrofoam, cardboard, and poly-whatever that contains and protects things we buy. I think of packaging in two categories -- that which something is stored in and that which something is shipped in. I am sure that packaging experts have a much more sophisticated way of describing it but that is my simple way of categorizing it. 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 some years ago. Strictly in the "something is contained in it" category. What initially got my attention was a cereal box that 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. One 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 top about 75% odds 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 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 a 50-50 chance at best of having an open cereal box that pours the contents smoothly and can be closed to protect freshness. Some packaging!
I could go on about jars that require a hammer to open, pill bottles that can only be opened by children, fresh fruit containers that have to be squeezed until they break to open, etc. etc. etc. I suspect those who suffer from arthritis of the fingers could make my examples seem trivial.
I received an Open It for Christmas last year tat is used to open things that come packaged in blisters, clamshells, boxes, DVD cases, and numerous other things that 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. (You can click here to get a complete product data sheet). If you have ever suffered "wrap rage", suffer no more. It really works. The only catch is that the Open It comes in one of those packages that you need an Open It to open it!
But there is a much bigger packaging issue becoming part of our lives. The issue initially struck me when I had received my very first order from net.grocer. 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. The amazing part to me was not that the potato chips arrived unbroken but rather the packaging. I feel like I want to signal the future importance of "packaging" in the way the gentleman in "The Graduate" signaled the importance of "plastics" to Dustin Hoffman.
I opened the two large cardboard boxes and unpacked all the items. Everything 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 Net. 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 call them "peanuts"; I call them "worms") that were all over the place. Some stuck to my hands, arms, and clothing. What was I to do? 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 about the mess 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 in our recycling center. Shouldn't take me more than a half hour. Let's see -- how much time did I save with my Net Grocer 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?And then there are the "worms".
So, what is the answer to all this? First of all, shopping on the Net is here to stay and should be. Retail online now exceeds $100 billion. It is more than great -- in spite of the packaging. You can shop when you want. Selection is wide and deep and shipping is generally good (especially with Amazon). At some point web sites will 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 envision receiving an email at some point from a web merchant saying "Mr. Patrick, we have been shipping you two bags of potato chips per week for quite some time. We have calculated that you could save considerably on your shipping cost if you were to up that to 12 bags per month instead. Click here if you would like us to modify your fulfillment model as suggested." But then still, there are the "worms".
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 that was delivered. There have been many new business models on the Net 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. We also need some breakthroughs in the packaging area. As more and more arrive at the door via package delivery companies, what will we do with all the "worms"? As people buy more and more on the Net will they 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 be so 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 -- the screw cap 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.
Note: This story was originally written as a Reflection on July 31, 1999 and then edited on May 28, 2008