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Wrap Rage: Easy-to-Open Packages Are Coming

Complaints about plastic clamshells and other frustrating forms of packaging have prompted companies to devise alternatives

From the moment I knew I was going to blog about consumer issues for Next Avenue, I started asking everyone I knew over the age of 50 to tell me the problem that troubled them the most. In 4 out of 5 cases, the response was immediate: “packaging.” (This annoyance is up there with tiny print on labels, the subject of another of my blog posts.) Then my friends regaled me with their frustrations about the following:
Hard clamshells. These dreaded plastic packages elicited not only curses but also blood, my friends told me, as they recounted their experiences trying to break through the hard casing to reach such products as toothbrushes, screwdrivers and small electronic items. My husband has frequently resorted to metal cutters to break open the plastic. A few years back, Consumer Reports issued its annual Oyster Awards for the hardest-to-open packages. The winner: a 2006 Uniden digital cordless phone set, whose clamshell packaging took testers 9 minutes 22 seconds to open.
Plastic security seals on food and medicine. Although many have little pulltabs designed to make opening them easier, the tabs often break off. Some of my friends have resorted to knives, scissors or even their teeth to break the seal. Of course that last method defeats one of the purposes of the seal: a sanitary container.
“Resealable” bags for food, like baby carrots, deli meats and cheese slices. Often the seal is so hard to pull apart that the only way to open the bag is with scissors, which may result in damage to the seal. Similarly, there are the food bags and wrappers with a little slit that's supposed to indicate where to start tearing, but can be incredibly hard to see. Even when you do find it, the slit doesn't always give you the running start you're supposed to get, which means you have to resort to a knife or scissors to open the thing.
Pulltop lids on metal cans for food, from soup to nuts. Designed to eliminate the need for a can opener, these tops can be as sharp as knives. What's more, the tabs break off and leave you with the need to use a can opener. Personally, I keep a box of Band-Aids nearby for cuts that may ensue.
CD cases. They come so tightly wrapped in plastic that they’re almost impossible to open without a sharp implement. There's also a thin seal that’s equally challenging.
Given all the packaging complaints I heard, I wasn’t surprised to find an entire Wikipedia entry devoted to “wrap rage.” As the entry notes: “Consumers suffer thousands of injuries per year, such as cut fingers and sprained wrists, from tools used to open packages and from the packaging itself.”
How Product Packaging Is Improving
I’m pleased to report, though, that I came across some good news while researching wrap rage. Manufacturers, retailers and packaging firms are beginning to design more consumer-friendly boxes and bottles (especially for arthritic hands). In the process, they’re also finding ways to eliminate waste, a point worth noting on the heels of Earth Day, which was last Sunday.
For example, Bayer aspirin and Aleve bottles now have easy-to-open, easy-grip tops covered with soft rubber. Bayer Healthcare, which makes both products, says it was aiming for user-friendly bottles that would appeal to Aleve’s core customer, the arthritis sufferer. The company also decided to minimize waste by selling these bottles without the box cartons that typically surround many over-the-counter medications.
Several other drug manufacturers have followed suit. My local drug store, for instance, sells its private-label pain relievers in similar easy-to-open bottles, without a cardboard box.
But these bottles have a downside: They’re not childproof, so they aren’t appropriate if you live in a household with small children.
Amazon also has what it calls “certified frustration-free packaging” on more than 70,000 of the products it sells. All of these items can be opened without a box cutter or a knife, and they include such brands as Mattel, Logitech, Fisher-Price, Garmin and Seventh Generation.
In addition, Amazon has instituted a “Rate Our Packaging” feedback program, which invites its customers to report how easily they were able to open products purchased on the site, as well as any problems they encountered. The goal is to help Amazon certify more packages as frustration-free.
Voice Your Concerns
These efforts are just the beginning of a wrap-friendly movement among manufacturers and retailers, according to Steve Kazanjian, vice president of Global Creative for MeadWestvaco, an international packager. “We’re entering a new renaissance in packaging,” he says.
In the past, the mindset was different: While manufacturers and retailers cared about how the item looked, they were most concerned about theft and about how the casing protected the item as it moved from factory to store shelf. “That’s why products were hermetically sealed in hard-plastic clamshells," Kazanjian says. “A product would be so secure, even the four horsemen of the Apocalypse couldn’t open it.”
But today, he says, “the customer experience with packaging has become hypercritical.”
Manufacturers and retailers are increasingly looking for ways to make positive brand impressions through simple packaging. Take, for example, Apple products. They come in sleek, simple boxes that make opening them a treat.
And these companies want to hear from consumers. “If you have an issue with a package, let them know,” he says.
You can contact a company directly, through an email, phone call or letter. Better still: Use social media, like Facebook or Twitter — that kind of public complaint can really catch the attention of a business. One complaint via social media can bring “a huge ripple in the pond,” Kazanjian says.
If you've had any problems — or delights — with product packaging lately, email me at [email protected]. I might write a follow-up blog post about what you’ve said. Thanks!
Caroline Mayer
By Caroline Mayer
Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post, covering such issues as product safety, scams, and credit cards. Mayer has received several awards, including the Betty Furness Consumer Media Service Award. She has written for Consumer Reports, CBS MoneyWatch, Ladies Home Journal, Kaiser Health News and others. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer@consumermayer

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