Today's packages can be murder to open
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Michelle Dreyfuss is normally a sweet-natured person, but recently she found herself longing for some box cutters, razor blades or an ice pick -- anything to get Cinderella's Castle out of its plastic box before her little girl Camille dissolved in a puddle of tears.
"There were all these little people that came with it, and each one of them was individually wrapped, and the whole castle was attached to about five or six or 10 of those wire things," recalled Ms. Dreyfuss, of Mt. Lebanon. "I was ready to go crazy, and I just hated the fact that my daughter was standing there so frustrated and panicked."
Ms. Dreyfuss isn't the only consumer who fights violent impulses when confronted with today's hard-to-open packaging. Whether it's Barbie dolls, cell phones or cereal, manufacturers and retailers seem to be singing the same song: buy our products, please, but don't assume that you'll actually ever be able to get your hands on them.
Consumer Reports, in fact, announced its first-ever Oyster Awards in this month's issue, with first prize going to the hard-plastic clamshell packaging for the Uniden Digital Cordless Phone set, which took nine minutes and 22 seconds to open -- not the longest, but by far the most dangerous, requiring box cutters and a razor blade. Second prize went to "American Idol" Barbie and her packaging, which didn't require the same kinds of lethal weapons but took 15 minutes and 10 seconds to untie all the wires, rip the stitches from her hair and slice the thick plastic manacles off her arms and torso.
"Today's packages force consumers to fight tooth and nail to get at what's inside," said Todd Marks, a senior editor at Consumer Reports, who conducted the tests and also singled out video games, pills in blister packs and cereal packaging as high up on the frustration meter.
Even more telling, he added, was the response -- or lack of it -- he received from the companies responsible for such impervious packaging.
"When I asked Kellogg's to explain why their cereal bags are so hard to open, at first they seemed responsive, and sent an e-mail saying they'd assigned someone to help me," said Mr. Marks. "But the next thing I knew they told me they just didn't have the manpower to address it and were going to take a pass."
Similarly, a Kellogg's spokeswoman said a "team" was working on this reporters' request for comment -- but no response ever materialized.
Concerns about hard-to-open packaging may not be just about consumer inconvenience. According to 2001 Census Bureau data, people suffered more than twice as many injuries related to household packaging and containers than from skateboards or swimming pools (although those numbers include injuries that involve dropping a package on a foot).
And British researchers blame "Wrap Rage" for more than 60,000 injuries in that country. In 2004, a writer for The Times of London described the CD as "the crucible of wrap rage," whose old cardboard box was replaced by a "zip strip. The answer to our unwrapping prayers! Yet 12 years later, a pull-tab torn off in hand, we are still chewing through plastic like wild dogs."
All of this comes as a big surprise to Jim Sinegal, CEO of Costco Wholesale, which sells video games cellophane-wrapped in "jewel cases" with security stickers and enclosed in thick plastic yokes that Consumer Reports testers could only cut with wire snips.
"This is the first I've heard of people actually getting injured," he said. "I've heard complaints about how tough it is to get into the package, and we're not insensitive to stuff like that."
Mr. Sinegal said he would look into the issue, but added that theft of certain video games is so rampant even with the bulky extra packaging that Costco had to discontinue some of their top sellers.
Indeed, security, above all else, is behind all that bullet-proof plastic packaging.
"Organized retail theft is a huge, multi-billion dollar problem, and unless someone can invent a pilfer-proof package, manufacturers are not going to change," said Mary Ann Falkman, editor-in-chief of Packaging Digest, an industry magazine. "These products are very high-theft items, and larger retailers like Wal-Mart and Toys 'R Us cannot afford the amount of theft that occurs in their stores otherwise."
Ken Sullivan, director of marketing for SCA Consumer Packaging, the nation's largest manufacturer of clear molded plastic "blister" or "clamshell" packaging, says his company has regularly proposed easier opening technology to manufacturers. An electronic article surveillance tag could be embedded in the product that can be de-activated at the cash register, he said, but it's too expensive for most manufacturers.
"The loss prevention managers at these big retailers are really the driving forces behind it," Mr. Sullivan said. "They're really concerned about gangs of people who come in and scoop up all this kind of stuff."
Of course, "high-visibility packaging" allows thinly staffed big box stores "to showcase products with a minimum of staff involvement," he said. "You just hang it on a peg and let it sell itself, while the employees in blue vests stay busy hiding themselves from the customers."
But in the world of Barbie, words like "theft" and "economics" are no-no's when it comes to the raison d'etre behind her impenetrable packaging. Instead, it's all about -- what else? -- looking good. A spokeswoman for Mattel, which makes Barbie dolls, noted that all those wires and manacles holding Barbie down -- which she delicately referred to as "points of restriction" -- are designed to keep America's favorite doll in great shape during her multi-thousand-mile journey from the overseas factory.
"Part of the magic of looking at Barbie is how she smiles at girls from her box on the shelf," said spokeswoman Lauren Dougherty. "And when our little girls open up that package, they want her to be in pristine condition, with neat hair and clothes all in check."
Regardless of the reasons behind Barbie's restraints, some enterprising firms are looking for ways to defeat them and other causes of "wrap rage": Late night TV advertises "Package Shark," which promises to cut through the thickest plastic, and at DiscCap.com, you can order special cutting tools in "five hot colors" to "open disk labels fast."
As baby boomers move into middle age and beyond, more companies are starting to think outside the box -- literally -- by developing new, more user-friendly containers, said Laura Bix, a professor at Michigan State University's School of Packaging, where she works to develop universal design principles.
There are now Folger's coffee cans with a peel-back foil lid, Sherwin-Williams' twist-and-pour paint cans and Starkist Tuna's plastic pouches.
"A few companies have made the leap, taken the risk, gotten out there, innovated and been successful," said Ms. Bix.
"But economics is still the overarching factor, and I think most companies are completely and solely focused on economics, so while you'll be seeing some changes in packaging, they probably won't be as rapid as consumers would like."
First Published March 5, 2006 12:00 am