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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.


Making Some Noise About Compostable Packaging

November 1, 2010

Just last week, Frito-Lay Canada announced it was retaining the compostable PLA bag for its SUN CHIPS brand, unlike its parent company, who decided to withdraw the controversial pack.

In fact, they are vigorously promoting the pack with a new advertising campaign.

Frito Lay Canada is running full page ads in major newspapers across Canada in the form of an open letter informing Canadian of the decision to stick with the PLA bag.

From what I saw on SUN CHIPS’ Facebook page, some Canadian consumers are complaining about the noisy packaging material, just as their cousins in the USA are.  However, the Canadian management team for Frito Lay is standing by its sustainability principles, and maybe there’s a lesson to be learned.

I was always under the impression that a package that crackled or crunched when handled reinforced, in the consumer’s mind, how crispy and crunchy the product is.  Therefore, a package that is even noisier, should be even more effective at this.

To me, it begs the question, are corporations putting their money where their mouths are on environmentally responsible packaging? So, here is my first attempt at a poll. Let me know who you think is leading the way in putting environmentally responsible packaging on retail shelves.

We don’t want Green???

October 6, 2010

In my February 7 post,  “Compostable Packaging Finally Here“, I wrote about the introduction of a compostable bag for Frito Lay’s SUN CHIPS snack brand. Great News!!

However, I saw a notice yesterday that Frito Lay was withdrawing its compostable bag for SUN CHIPS.


SUN CHIPS Compostable Bag


According to the announcement, there were two main reasons for doing so:

  1. consumers complained the bag was too “noisy”
  2. sales dropped 11% versus last year.

The material from which the bag is (was?) made, PLA, simply makes more sound than polypropylene, which most salty snack manufacturers use. But is this really sufficient cause for consumers to reject the product?

Frito Lay even tried printing a message on the bag that said, “This bag is louder because it is compostable”, but I guess that wasn’t enough to retain users.

I understand the business reasons for making the change – i.e., to reverse a sales decline. It probably will save Frito Lay some money, because PLA is more expensive than Polypropylene.

Here’s a link to the story as reported in Packaging Digest magazine:

As a marketer, I have to applaud Frito Lay for investing in an emerging technology to make fully compostable packaging. I don’t think the consumer outcry about the “noisiness” and their rejection of the SUN CHIPS package says much about our society.

We say we want “Green”, but we don’t want to put our money where our mouths are.

The Package IS the Product

September 21, 2010

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s BLINK. I know, it’s been around a while, but I took it with me on vacation and read it in a day.

In Chapter 5, Gladwell describes the work of Louis Cheskin, who postulated that most people don’t make a distinction between the product and the package.

It brought to mind Marshall McLuhan‘s expression, “The medium is the message” which became the mantra of the advertising and media worlds. So this seemed to me to be an appropriate way to title this post.

BLINK describes some experiments Cheskin conducted to help a client understand why their brandy was losing market share despite comparable pricing and comparable advertising spending. In this case, the products were Christian Brothers Brandy and E&J Gallo Brandy.

In blind taste tests, consumers couldn’t differentiate between the two products.

When the samples were identified, Christian Brothers scored better than Gallo. Cheskin postulated this was because the brand name had more positive connotations and, perhaps, the brand image was stronger than Gallo’s.

Cheskin’s team then tried another approach. They put Gallo brandy in a Christian Brothers bottle and Christian Brothers brandy in a Gallo bottle. This time, the product in the Gallo bottle won hands down.

What came out of Cheskin’s research on this project was that Gallo had packaged their brandy in a way that was consistent with European practice. The bottle was ornate and shaped like a decanter. The glass was smoked, not just clear flint glass. There was foil wrapping around the opening, and a rich looking embossed label.

The Christian Brothers bottle was slender, like a wine bottle, and had a simple off-white label.

[I’d love to be able to show you photos of the two packages to illustrate the differences between them, but couldn’t find photo’s of the bottles from the period of the research. If anyone can help, I’ll gladly add them to the post.]

This study suggests packaging has a powerful influence on perceptions of the product – not just visual but also flavor, and likely other sensory dimensions.

For image products in particular – cigarettes, beverage alcohol, fragrances and cosmetics – there is more investment in the packaging than in the product itself.

I think more people smoke MARLBORO for the rugged, masculine image than they do for the taste. Would CHANEL No. 5 smell as sweet if it were packaged in an OLD SPICE bottle? The whole ABSOLUT vodka advertising campaign is based on the shape of the bottle, not the flavor of the vodka.

When I spent a year working as a packaging manager in a fragrance company, we had a perfume called Geoffrey Beene RED, that sold for about $400/ounce.

RED came in a crystal decanter with a cut crystal stopper. My recollection was that there was a tag and a cord that carried the branding on the primary package. The display package was a lacquered wooden box, hand-made made in Italy, that cost about $50. The perfume itself cost perhaps a dollar for an ounce.

RED traded on the image of the Geoffrey Beene designer name and image. That’s what consumers bought into. The fragrance itself was not to my liking, and it was hard to imagine anyone liking it. Yet it sold.

The power of packaging.

And, on the Seventh Day…. my bag decomposed

August 24, 2010

Normally, in this blog, I want to write about the great things that packaging does for brands. In most cases this is true.

However, I want to write about a product that IS a package, and, while conceptually it is great, the execution sends out the wrong message.

GLAD is, to most people in Canada, the number 1 name in garbage bags. To consumers, GLAD means strong, durable, tough, flexible and easy to close. It’s probably because GLAD delivers on all these promises that it’s the best selling brand. Just to help us remember all this, here’s a clip of a typical GLAD commercial:

Here in Canada, recycling is fairly well established in urban communities. We separate our recyclable papers, plastics, glass and metals and put them out in blue boxes for collection. When the blue box was first introduced, it started a big downward trend in waste going into landfills. The next phase was to separate out organic waste from garbage, and divert this to composting facilities. For this, we have green bins that we set out each week. Into these green bins go vegetable peelings, meat scraps, bones, pet waste etc. Because all these materials decompose, they create a strong smell of decay, which is why green bins are collected weekly.

We put our green bin waste into a bin in our kitchen and use a plastic bag as the liner and a means of carrying the waste out to the green bin. Because polyethylene bags do not decompose, the compostable waste system still allows a small amount of such non-compostable material to get through.

So, when I saw GLAD had introduced a green bin liner made from compostable plastic I thought, “Hallelujah! What a great idea.” I’m not sure how widely available this is, but GLAD compostable bags are definitely for sale in Canada. I didn’t see these on the website for the US market. Here’s what they look like.


GLAD Compostable Bags


The product even won awards from Canadian Living/Coup de Pouce magazines as the “Best New Product”.

So much for the concept. A great idea. Green. Presumably sustainable.

Now for the execution.

I bought a box of 100 small compostable bags about a month ago. So far, not one has made it to our green bin outside without leaking or falling apart, which suggested to me it is not an isolated quality problem. As far as I could tell, the bag itself was disintegrating and the only way to get the waste to the green bin was to drop it in another bag.

Here is a photo taken in our kitchen to show what we were seeing each week:


The Decomposed Bag


What’s ironic is that this looks like the “other brand” bag from a GLAD commercial. Before purchasing the GLAD product, we had tried using No Name compostable garbage bags, which worked very well. When I bought the GLAD version, I was expecting a superior product. Who would have thought the No Name brand would be the better product?

One would think the bag should be able to last long enough to make it from the consumer’s kitchen to the municipal composting site intact. In our household, we put our green bin waste every week because it is picked up on a weekly basis.

What I find disturbing is not that the bag decomposed. That is a desirable property. It’s more that my experience casts doubt on whether the product was tested to ensure it met normal handling conditions.

I complained to Clorox, the manufacturers of GLAD products, through the brand’s website. The next day, I received a very nice email apologizing for the inconvenience and offering to send me a coupon for GLAD products.

From a customer service perspective, the Clorox staff were polite and prompt; however, I was left with the feeling that no one actually cared that the product couldn’t make it from the kitchen to the curb without falling apart.

The email I received also told me the product was only designed to last 2-4 days in the house, but nowhere on the package does it say anything to this effect. All the package copy says is, “GLAD 100% compostable bags are made … so they disintegrate at compost facilities.” It also claims, “GLAD 100% Compostable bags provide quality and strength you can depend on.”

It is Packaging 101 that the package must enable the user to transport goods intact from point of origin to the destination. To deliver goods intact, the package must be capable of withstanding normal handling conditions. This does not seem to be the case with this product.

To me, it’s sad that Clorox seems to have missed an opportunity to offer a product with a unique and sustainable benefit under the trusted GLAD name. The question it leaves me with is whether anyone from the company tried using the product in their own home while the product was being developed.

Provenance of the Package

June 28, 2010

We accept that packages communicate certain attributes about a product – flavour, color, image, uses and so on.  The product will generally declare who manufactured it and where they are located – whether it is a domestic or an imported product.

However, there may other aspects of a product’s provenance that we might deem important in making a purchase decision.  One such example is how the product has been handled and/or stored from the time it left the manufacturer’s plant to the time it arrives on the supermarket shelf.

Certain types of products – usually foods or pharmaceuticals – need to be transported under temperature-controlled conditions to ensure they arrive in the consumer’s hands in good condition.  Meats, dairy products and frozen foods are typical everyday examples.

Here’s an example of why knowing how a product has been kept might be important. Chocolate melts at about body temperature.  Chocolate products can normally be merchandised on shelf at ambient temperatures without any problems.  However, exposure to summertime temperatures will cause the chocolate to melt.  If the chocolate has been produced in a climate-controlled plant and is shipped in a similarly climate-controlled or refrigerated truck, it should make its way to the consumer without problems. If, on the other hand, the refrigeration system on the truck failed during a summertime shipment, it’s possible the product could melt before it arrives at its destination.  Because the packaging is usually opaque, no one will know it has melted until a consumer opens the package.

A chocolate bar that has melted and re-hardened will most likely still be edible and deliver the desired flavour.  However, for meat products or frozen foods, thawing while in transit could present an opportunity for bacteria or mould to grow, which could render the products either unsafe to eat or, at the very least, unsalable because they no longer look appealing/appetizing.  In the case of a pharmaceutical product, such as a vaccine, not maintaining proper storage conditions could render the product completely ineffective.

In today’s posting, I’m going to discuss two technologies that can provide evidence that products may have been exposed to storage conditions that are outside the recommended range.

The first of these is a technology known as thermochromic inks.  These are inks that are formulated to change color at preselected temperatures.  On the COORS LIGHT cans, there are inks used in printing the mountains that turn blue when the product is chilled to proper drinking temperature. This is one application for thermochromics.

COORS Light Cold-Certified Packaging

COORS Light Cold-Certified Packaging

On the COORS LIGHT cans, the thermochromic inks are reversible, meaning they will turn blue when cold, but revert to a colorless state when the product warms up beyond the set temperature.

There is another type of thermochromic ink that only changes color once, and does NOT revert back to its original state.

In use, these inks are used to print a message that is invisible as long as the product is kept below the selected temperature – e.g., the freezing point.  Once the product temperature crosses this threshold, the message becomes visible and permanent.  The message could read, for example, “Consume Immediately” or “Potentially Unsafe” to alert consumers the product has been stored under inappropriate conditions.

Here is an example of a label using thermochromic technology. When the product has been exposed to conditions outside its normal handling temperatures, the word “Safe” becomes “UNsafe” and bars appear in the UPC code to flag this at checkout.

Food Safety Label printed with Irreversible Thermochromic ink technology

Are there other technologies that could be used?

One possible technology is to combine thermocouples with RFID tags so they can be used to monitor temperatures and identify out-of-range storage events and record these with time/date stamps that can be read as the product moves through the supply chain.

This might work for industrial or commercial use, where RFID reading technology is available, but I have concerns about when the average consumer will have access to such technology. So the thermochromic technology provides something to fill that gap with an indelible, human-readable code.

Do YOU have any ideas about this?  If so, I’d like to hear from you.

The Last Three Feet

March 25, 2010

Read an article by Marina Strauss of The Globe and Mail about a concept called “The Last Three Feet”.

It’s the space between the shelf and the customer who’s making a purchasing decision, and this will be the new battleground for influencing consumer purchasing.

To me, packaging has to be one of the key weapons in this battle.

Here’s a link to the complete article.