Wrap Rage: can gadget makers finally get it right on clamshell packaging?

November 17, 2008

When companies can’t (or won’t) figure out how to improve the user experience customers will always find workarounds.  So it’s been with the deservedly maligned “clamshell” packaging.  Anyone that has purchased electronics on a hang tag knows how difficult (and dangerous) it is to open this type of clear hard plastic packaging.  But is selling power tools to open them really the best solution?

Try Openin!
Is this really the best way to enhance the user experience?

I can’t help but recall an old Saturday Night Live “advertisement” for a drug called “Try Openin” in which cast members try desparately to open a bottle of pills. This was a bit of satire that allowed us to laugh at the still fresh-in-our-minds poison Tylenol scare  that led to tamper-free packaging of all pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter medicines.  Back then manufacturers had a strong motivation to make their products tamper-resistent.  But, did this set a dangerous precedent?

Despite sending thousands of people to the emergecy room each year due to incidents related to opening plastic packaging, it’s easy to make fun of the issue.  Consumer Reports even has an award, the Oyster, for packaging that takes the most time and effort to open.  It’s understandable that companies have to balance the needs of retailers and the marketplace’s desire to see the actual product but are they paying enough attention to the user experience?  Apparently not.  In this same article from CR, I came across this quote from a professor of Packaging Science (no kidding) at Clemson University …

“In the end packaging is perceived by industry as a necessary evil, and manufacturers don’t want to spend more on it than they have to, even if it means compromising usability.”

It’s truly mind boggling that manufacturers and marketers find this to be an acceptable compromise for the purchasers of the products they work so hard to design and market.  This is not rocket science guys and btw, why is it taking you so long?

There is hope
It seems that Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, got the message after spending hours trying to open presents for his kids at Christmas.  According to a recent Amazon press release …

SEATTLE–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Nov. 3, 2008–Amazon.com has launched “Frustration-Free Packaging,” a new initiative designed to make it easier for customers to liberate products from their packages. Amazon is focusing first on two kinds of items: those enclosed in hard plastic cases known as “clamshells” and those secured with plastic-coated wire ties, commonly used in toy packaging.

Amazon is working with Mattel and other companies to get them to ship products to them in cardboard boxes.  This seems like a no-brainer since, unlike other retailers, Amazon doesn’t have to display their products nor worry about theft due to easy-to-open packages.  According to a recent New York Times article some of the other players besides Amazon that are trying to make some changes include:

Microsoft – will feature computer mouse packaging in Best Buy stores that has an easy open plastic zipper similar to that used in freezer bags
Sony – is trying out an easy open adhesive that makes a loud velcro-like noise to deter thieves

Hats off to these guys but where are the other leaders on this important consumer issue?  Just think of the power that companies like Walmart and Apple have to change the dynamic (Apple has already proven with the iPod that it can make packaging more a work of art than a “necessary evil” yet the company continues to feature tons of third party products in traditional clamshell packaging in its retail stores). 

And what about the PR benefits of so called “green packaging?”  Packaging innovation has the potential to be the new reason to buy, especially in tough economic times.  According to a 2004 article from ergoweb, making packaging more user friendly is not just a consumer safety issue — it could be a real competitive advantage to companies willing to provide innovative solutions:

… when paint manufacturer Sherwin-Williams introduced a plastic paint container with a twist-top cap, making it far simpler for the customer to open, hold, pour and carry than traditional metal paint cans which have to be pried open, the can became a quick hit with buyers and left other paint manufacturers scrambling to copy the paint container’s ergonomic design.

Alas, even in this economic downturn it is unlikely that consumers will purposely stay away from products because of poor package design — but they may be attracted more to those building a better mousetrap to hold their electronic goodies.  It’s really up to corporate leaders like Bezos to recognize the importance of creating better user experiences.  And, if the carrot approach doesn’t work, maybe this suggestion from a blogger in Pensacola Beach, Florida will do the trick …

We think the simplest, most effective way of ridding the planet of hard-to-open packages would be for one of the TV networks to launch a new reality show — one where the CEOs of consumer products companies are put on a desert island and, to earn the right of return, they have to open their own products on camera, using only their bare hands, toes, and teeth.”

Hey, why not make it a Christmas special?  The ratings would be through the roof!

 


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