If I Could Open the Package, I'm Sure I'd Love Your Product

Boxes and Tins Have Evolved but Consumers Feel the Wrap Rage

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Wrap rage.

Yes, the packaging industry actually has a name for it: that head-throbbing, teeth-gnashing frustration you feel when you can't get the CD out of its plastic, or the toy out of its titanium-tough shell, or the screw top off the cooking oil -- which is why I was calling Wesson last week and ranting at the customer-service rep: "I cannot open my oil!"
A box of Twinings tea, minus the metaphorical teeth marks needed to get it open.
A box of Twinings tea, minus the metaphorical teeth marks needed to get it open.

The rep, who sounded like a guy who opens bottles with his teeth, made me feel like a worm on life support. "What do you mean you can't get it open?"

Hmm. What could I possibly mean? "I CAN'T GET IT OPEN!" At a dinner party later that same night, I made my guests try to open the bottle too. Two out of three of them failed.

So what gives? Why are companies selling products sealed tighter than the tomb of Hammurabi? (Or was it the Code of Hammurabi? Anyway, sealed very tight.)

Oh, there's a reason, of course. There are several reasons, and they all make sense -- but that doesn't mean the industry is off the hook.

"Packagers don't say, 'I'm putting this seal on because I want to make it hard for people to get into my product,'" said JoAnn Hines, aka "The Packaging Diva," a 30-year consultant to the field.

Packaging, however confounding, exists to keep whatever's inside safe, fresh, unspoiled, undamaged and unpilfered. Without effective packaging, Hines points out, products would actually cost more because there would be so much waste -- bruised berries, cracked crockery, leaky containers that leaked onto other containers until the whole shipment had to be tossed.

In fact, in countries where the packaging is still pretty crude (the Indian spices I buy usually come in stained cardboard boxes), the waste can be 50% vs. just 2% or 3% in industrialized countries. So our packaging is indubitably effective.

Packaging also has evolved along with our (perceived) need for convenience. Whereas long ago you'd go to the cracker barrel and get yourself a scoop of crackers -- which, I imagine, would all end up as crumbs -- now we have tiny little packs with three crackers and a chunk of cheese welded into a plastic mausoleum, the easier to tote to a picnic (a small one).

Packagers claim we want this convenience yet feel guilty about the waste it entails, so we end up blaming them. They're right. We do want conveniences (but not necessarily three-cracker packs), and we do feel guilty. But the reason we blame the packagers is because they should be giving us alternatives that are less wasteful and -- while we're at it -- a lot easier to open!

Plastic clamshells and cellophane wrapping should be the first to go.

"I purchased a stapler last week in a hard plastic casing which appeared to have a front and back panel," recalls Lori Quaranta, owner of Consetta Creative Publicity. "Wrong! I tried every flat utensil I could find to pry it apart before resorting to cutting the package open with scissors and cutting my finger on the edge of the hard plastic. Did I really need a stapler that bad?"

No. She needed an aspirin.

Speaking of which, says John Lister, chairman of the package-design firm Lister Butler, "I think it was Kissinger who found a bottle of Excedrin which had Richard Nixon's teeth marks on it."

Lister's own (metaphorical) teeth marks can be found on the box of Twinings Tea he recently tackled. The teabag, he notes, "was in a sealed metallic pouch, which was in turn inside a cardboard box, which was in turn inside this infernal plastic wrap." Three layers protecting one lousy tea bag? That's just nuts!

When companies finally come up with packaging that wastes less, opens easier and doesn't seem utterly anal compulsive, they will find an audience that is wrapped.

Er ... rapt.
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