The Checkout

Problem Packaging Part Two

I have received so many e-mails about the problem packaging item I wrote last week that I clearly struck a nerve (only figuratively, I hope). I want to share many of these comments, so I will post them below.

But first, I also want to thank the reader who thoughtfully posted a news story about Netflix to my entry last Friday about electronic e-mails. The news story points out Netflix's definition of a good customer isn't necessarily a consumer's definition. In other words, the more DVDs you rent from Netflix a month, the lower you go on the company's priority list--there's a slower turnaround time for new DVDs to be sent to you and you may also be at the bottom of the list for some of the most popular movies. This is a practice Netflix recently acknowledged as a result of a class-action lawsuit. (Faithful readers may recall that I've written about that the proposed settlement in that lawsuit as it was challenged by the Federal Trade Commission and other consumer advocates bringing little to Netflix customers but lots of $$$ to the attorneys).

I intend to keep you informed on future developments in the case--but meanwhile, thanks for posting the item and please add any more on that or other issues that you as consumers should know about. That's what I want this blog to be: an electronic bulletin-board for consumer news and tips.

Back to packaging; here are some reader thoughts--some with helpful tips on how to cope with those impossible to open, often downright dangerous containers:

* "I have cut myself fairly badly a couple of times trying to open plastic packages with a pocketknife. Another time, I cut a $29.00 cable that never could be used. My current tactic is to ask at the checkout stand that they open the package for me. I have never been refused. They are not going to say no to an imminent purchase, and it forces the retailer to deal with their choice in packaging that provides no benefit to the customer. A bonus is that I don't have to transport and dispose of the considerable waste, either. It's a perfectly reasonable request for something that requires tools to open, but that might be wanted for immediate use."

* "Every time I open a package of saltine crackers I wonder why in the world the design hasn't been improved after all these years. The sleeve never opens as it should, down the middle of the sealed seam, but to one side of it and then veers off in crazy directions. Then the crackers go stale because you can't easily close the sleeve with a clip. It's maddening!"

* "Why do they package a cell phone in hard plastic and rivets and turn around and place light bulbs in open ended flimsy cardboard boxes?"

* "How is it that no one has yet sustained serious injury and sued the company for damages due to its packaging?"

* "It's pathetic how grateful and happy I am to have found, for $3 at checkout at Borders, the EZ CD shrink wrap opener. It's design fits right across the edge of those durn jewel-boxes."

* "I have a simple solution: Don't buy these items that take a knife or some other kitchen item to open. I don't anymore, and seeing I have at least another 15 years to live, the companies will finally get the message."

* "My unfavorite packages are crackers and cookies that are in plastic tubes and are nearly impossible to pull open. You have to cut with scissor or knife. I just tried to open a package of Girl Scout thin mint cookies, and it took a knife. This is really aggravating, because all too often one ends up smashing one or more of the crackers or cookie - and this would not be necessary. Ease up a little, Cookie Bakers. Please."

* "Try opening the new Progresso soup in the microwavable bowl. The blue lid is nearly impossible to get off..."

* "Why do I so often find that boxes are much bigger than needed for the contents? We don't always have time to check on the number (or amount) of the contents, so it's discouraging to find when we get home that we're not getting as much as the boxes imply. I realize that cereals settle, but when the boxes contain, for example, a collection of individual frozen items, what's the excuse? Do the product suppliers buy only two sizes of box?"

* "For many of its products that hang on hooks on the walls, Radio Shack uses packaging that looks at first
like that hard-plastic clamshell we all hate so much. However, in reality, it's a soft, two-sided unit,
hinged at the bottom, with small plastic flaps on one side of the "shell" that fold over the other side,
making opening the package a simple matter of pulling lightly on the flaps and pulling the two sides open at
the hinge. Not only is this easier for consumers, but it also enables Radio Shack to replace returned items
into stock without having to send them off somewhere to be repackaged. I haven't seen anyone else using
this very logical and user-friendly packaging."

* "I ordered a clock on-line. When it was delivered it came in a big box with bubble wrap (it is a wall clock). Then, the clock had that hard plastic. Underneath the hard plastic was heavy cardboard. The clock was BOLTED to the cardboard and I couldn't get the bolts off. I had to cut the heavy cardboard (not an easy chore) around the bolts and hang it with bolts in place."

* I'm almost sure you know this, but what the heck--I'm 66 years old and I just, last year, found out how to open potato chip bags. My 12 year old grandson thought it was funny, as he already knew how to do it. Grab the bag with your index finger and thumb on each side of the top/middle part of the bag and pull apart. The top of the bag separates easily without tearing. I was amazed at how easily this works and I discovered it myself through "trial and error". Everyone I tell always says, 'You didn't know that?' No, I did not!"

* "Don't be so quick to say that the peel back foil lid on a coffee can is an improvement. The edge of the foil can cut your finger although not as deeply as the old zipper band on the can. Also, if the pull tab breaks, which has happen to me several times, you will need a can opener to get in to the can."

By  |  February 13, 2006; 10:00 AM ET Consumer News
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Comments

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Back in the late 80's or early 90's, Germany passed a law regarding "unnecessary packaging". I think it was a green/environmentalist effort, but it's direct beneficiary is anyone frustrated by ridiculously overpackaged products.

I guess a free-market approach, where companies that frustrate their customers would fail and those that cater to their customers succeed is futile. It's usually the products you have little choice over that have the worst packaging. In other words, if it's a big enough corporation, or if there's few alternatives for consumers, they'll do whatever they want, whatever benefits them most, regardless of the impact it has on consumers.

I think in Germany, if a consumer complains about a product's packaging, some government agency will actually investigate and impose sanctions if the packaging does fall under some criteria of "excessive" or "unnecessary".

Posted by: Bob | February 13, 2006 11:59 AM

I'm just curious as to the methods the 66-year old previously used to open those potato chip bags before his 'aha' moment. :)

Posted by: Will | February 13, 2006 1:34 PM

I'm surprised at people's inability to open items without injury. Sure, some things are hard to open. When it looks like I'm going to have trouble, I **SLOW DOWN** and take my time. Haven't been injured once. When you rush and force things is when you get injured.

Posted by: Rob | February 13, 2006 3:30 PM

I think the 66-year old was using his teeth or something.

Because common sense isn't very common.

Posted by: Joseph | February 13, 2006 4:14 PM

Injuries aside, does a 3 foot video cable need to come in a package that uses more material than was used to create the cable itself? And should it take the sharpest razor blade to pierce this protective bubble?

My all time favorite was a piece of software I bought about 5 years ago. It came in a nice big box about the size of a cereal box, had shrink wrapping, and hologram security stickers all over it, and when I opened it, there was an index card that listed the URL to download the software, and a code to prove I paid for it. Maybe there's a bunch of racoons running around buying anything shiny and fancy, but I would have been just as happy getting just the index card in a small envelope or something.

I understand that fancy packaging increases sales -- so display a fancy package, and then have the items for sale in practical packaging behind the display. It might even save some money, help reduce the price of the item (nah, help increase profits for the company is more likely).


Posted by: Steve | February 13, 2006 4:22 PM

For whoever needs to buy something to open a cd, you can just take a knife (or fingernail as I use) and go down the crack/space between the front and the tray to cut through the plastic. And then to get the sticker off, unhinge the front from the bottom and lift up, keeping the sticker flat and making it easier to remove.

Posted by: Sachyn | February 13, 2006 4:55 PM

Posted by: James | February 13, 2006 5:35 PM

I think I can eat a whole crab or lobster in the time it takes to open some of the hard plastic containers encasing electronics. In the past 4 years I have broken two pairs of poultry shears opening electronics. The packages are stronger than the bolts that hold the shears together. Maybe packaging designers could take a lession from mother nature and design a package like a loboster. You can open one up and eat with out any utensils just a few quick snaps in the right places.

Posted by: Alan | February 13, 2006 5:49 PM

The deadline for signing up for the free month of Netflix entitled to class members is Feb. 17. It's not much, but it's something.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 13, 2006 6:12 PM

I have galloping arthritis and find it very difficult, at best to open packing of foodstuffs, or ANY stuff, especially CD's. In my case, using a knife is a dangerous thing. I did notice a blog about an EZ CD opener at Borders, and the next time I go, I'll see if they have one. I certainly hope so! ...and finally, I have a place to say how I feel about problem packaging! I realize this will have absolutely no effect on how manufacturers package their products, but it makes me feel better.

Posted by: Anna Marie Cox | February 13, 2006 8:56 PM

the way to get that sticker off the top of a CD case is as follows:

1. pull apart the hinge of the case at the bottom edge.
2. peel front panel off of sticker.
3. peel sticker off of back panel.
4. reassemble the jewel case.

ta-da!

Posted by: ben | February 15, 2006 9:31 AM

I've worked in the packaging industry before. The reason why packages are hard to open is to deter theft. The reason why they are so big is to crowd out other competitiors in terms of shelf space. Online merchants also have little incentive to eliminate uncessary packaging because they can just pass the shipping costs (a major profit center for them) onto consumers anyway.

Posted by: Jacknut | February 22, 2006 4:27 PM

I just bought for $10 the PYRANNA. Its great and opens all the plastic packages. Very simple to use. I bought it from the website www.pyranna.com. Slides right down the edge and cuts it right off. I now use it to open my potato chip bag as well. No more spillage.

Posted by: Rick | February 28, 2006 5:59 PM

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