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I Hate This #&@$ Package!!

December 23, 2010

With the holiday season upon us, we’re all busy buying gifts and wrapping them up for Christmas.

If you’re like me, you probably prefer wrapping gifts that come in nice, rigid shapes packages because they’re easier to wrap neatly.

However, once the presents are unwrapped, the next thing to do is open the packages to get the goodies out.  That’s when we hear the most complaints about packaging.  Hard to open.  Too much packaging. Waste. Not recyclable.

Off all package types, the clamshell has the worst reputation.

  1. They’re hard to open. Scissors or a knife, usually. And even then, it takes some effort to cut through the seams enough to be able to extract the goodies inside.
  2. They can be dangerous, too. Cuts from trying to cut the package open are usually the number one injury.
  3. Many people view this as a form of excessive packagingbecause, often, there is more packaging than the amount of product it encloses.

Consumer Reports has what it calls “The Oyster Awards” for packages that are especially difficult to open. Using one of their typical consumer panels, they regularly see packages that take 6 to 10 minutes to open – usually with the assistance of tools. Sony showed a 4-minute video at its National Sales Meeting, showing one consumer using a hacksaw to try to open a Sony product.

The Consumer Products Safety Council in the US reported that approximately 6,500 Americans made emergency room visits for injuries sustained while trying to open clamshell packages. Often, these result from using box cutters or knives, but also include cuts from sharp edges or points of the plastic clamshell where it has been cut.

Okay, let’s look at how this type of package evolved.

There are three main reasons why consumer goods manufacturers use clamshell packs:

  • Merchandising
  • Security
  • Product Protection


In the old days, there were well-trained sales people who worked in department or specialty stores who thoroughly knew the products they sold. Shoppers could expect helpful advice from these sales people.

However, pressure to keep prices in check in a competitive market forced retailers to migrate from a personal service to self-service model. The numbers of sales people working in a department were significantly reduced and those who remained were usually overwhelmed by the breadth of products. They did not receive the type of training sales people used to receive, so their product knowledge became limited.

Self Service meant that consumers had to make their own choices based on what they saw in the store (or read in ads). This elevated the role of packaging in carrying information that would persuade the consumer to purchase.

Packaging had to be intrusive – attract the eye of the consumer and present the product in an inviting manner.

Packaging had to carry more messages. It had to declare or define the features and benefits of the product so the consumer could compare with other brands.

Instead of merchandising samples in a showroom and delivering a product packaged in simple protective corrugated packaging, the product inventory was put on display for the consumer to pick up, evaluate and purchase.

For the retailer, the clamshell is easy to work with. Usually, such packs are merchandised on pegboard displays and the clamshells have pre-punched holes for mounting on the pegs. Because the clamshell provides excellent protection of the product, there are fewer losses caused by dropping and damaging products when merchandising. The pegboard displays can also make it easier to check stock than if the products were merchandised on a shelf.


With merchandise inventory put on open display and with fewer sales people to monitor shoppers, the opportunities for theft via shoplifting increased – especially on products small enough to easily fit in a pocket.

Independent retail studies have estimated that shoplifting from retail stores cost the American public an average of $33.21 billion per year. Depending on the type of retail store, retail inventory loss ranges from .7%-2.2% of gross sales with the average falling around 1.70%.

Worse, the theft problem is not limited to shoppers or professional thieves. The FBI reports that employee theft is the fastest growing crime in the U.S. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports that $50 billion dollars are lost annually due to employee theft and fraud. The Wall Street Journal reported that up to 75% of all employees steal at least once, half of these, at lease twice. In employee surveys conducted by academics and other specialists, as many as 43% of workers interviewed admitted stealing from their employers. With many retailers operating on margins of 1 to 3%, the magnitude of such losses means they have to increase their prices and margins to cover them or risk going out of business.

I know some people will try to trivialize the magnitude of this by calculating that the cost of retail shrinkage is less than $1 per day per person. However, that is still $1 per day we could be using for other purposes, all to cover other people’s thievery.

Think about something like a USB memory stick or an SD memory card.  These are very small items with a significant price. When they first hit the market, these could sell for over $100, yet fit into someone’s pocket very easily. Clamshells make it much harder to pocket such products, which we hope will discourage theft.

Product Protection

Hermetically sealed clamshells are very effective in ensuring that products with multiple parts or components arrive in the consumer’s hands as a complete set. The risk of a package accidentally opening and allowing the contents to escape is reduced to virtually zero.

The clamshell also suspends the product away from the edges of the package (most likely the shipping carton) so the risk of damage from impact or dropping again is significantly reduced.

There is no question it is more effective than a paperboard or corrugated insert in a carton. Vibration and impact can weaken paperboard inserts, and they are not resistant to crushing.

The clamshell is also water tight and, let’s face it, most of our consumer durables are imported from the Far East and are shipped by ocean freight.

The clamshell is big business for packaging manufacturers. According to the Cleveland-based Freedonia Group, a market research firm, the expansion of big-box stores that lack display cases, will drive demand for clamshells by 5.3% per year to $2.7 billion in sales by 2010. At that pace, more than 8 billion oyster packs will be produced by 2015.


I couldn’t find any reliable sources to identify how long clamshell packaging has been around or the product that was packaged in the first clamshell, but estimates put it at between 10 and 20 years.

Originally, they were made from PVC (polyvinyl chloride), a polymer that is easy to form and seal because of its melting point and provided clarity for showing product contents.

However, PVC is banned in some countries because it is not recyclable and vinyl chloride monomer, one of the raw materials for making the polymer, has been shown to cause cancer. Manufacture of PVC also produces dioxins, another toxic chemical.

Now, clamshells can be made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate). This polymer is highly recyclable, so could be made from recycled Coke and Pepsi bottles. It is far less toxic than PVC. Like PVC, PET is crystal clear, but more difficult to bond than PVC because it has a higher melting point.

Using PET is just one way clamshell packaging can be improved to make it fit contemporary values of sustainability.

I heard Microsoft have been using clamshells with zipper closures for packaging accessories such as mice. The zipper functions much like those on stand-up pouches.

Another possible approach to making clamshells more user-friendly might be to use laser scoring to make it easier for consumers to crack open a clamshell pack. The cost to add such a feature is nominal, but most likely would have a huge positive impact on consumer brand perceptions.

If you have other ideas or suggestions, please feel free to leave comments to continue and add to this discussion.

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