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Customer "wrap rage" gains retail support

COMMENTARY It's no fun to open gifts that can't be opened.

This week, millions of people will fight with clamshells sealed tighter than submarines, wire twists and plastic zip ties securing toys to boxes, tiny products blistered in enormous packages, and jagged, razor-sharp plastic edges that leave knuckles bruised and bloodied.

Happy holidays, indeed.

Complaints about product packaging are nothing new, but they're getting louder -- in fact, the phenomenon even has a name: "wrap rage." The topic always gets increased attention this time of year, and major retailers are taking it more and more seriously. This year, Wal-Mart joined Amazon in its efforts to address the problem, and they are using their collective might as the largest bricks/mortar and online retailers to push their suppliers to make major changes.

Amazon even has an entertaining page of wrap-rage photos and videos showing real people, real packages and the real frustration that results when the two come together.

The arguments for rethinking packaging are compelling:

It's extraordinarily, and increasingly, wasteful. The EPA estimates that packaging accounts for a third of all waste and that we each add 800 pounds of it to landfills each year. Even if you're not a tree-hugger, the thought that much of what we toss will still be around in 100 years -- or in the case of Styrofoam, forever -- ought to give you pause.

It adds unnecessary cost. From the packaging itself, to higher shipping costs, to retail display space and returns that can't be repackaged, poorly conceived packaging can make things more expensive for everyone in the supply chain and product life cycle.

It annoys people. If a customer needs a pair of scissors to open a package containing scissors, or cuts her fingers opening an impregnable blister pack, or simply can't gift-wrap something without it looking like a kindergartner did it, that product wasn't fully, thoughtfully designed with the user in mind.

Of course, there are also legitimate reasons that the current state of packaging came to pass:

Packaging is, clearly, an essential part of the marketing mix. For most retail products it's priceless real estate. But as the consumer culture exploded and products increasingly fought for attention on the shelves and racks of three-acre megastores, many companies simply supersized their packaging. Bigger footprint, more messaging, less chance of getting buried by competitors. Today it is not uncommon to see a memory card the size of a postage stamp sealed like a ridiculous pimple in a plastic shell nearly the size of a tablet computer -- which also serves the second purpose:

It's more secure. As the portable-electronics industry in particular exploded, so did the need for packaging that was not only protective and organized, but also security-minded. Tiny, expensive items in small packages are easy to steal. Even for the mostly honest customer, packaging that's easy to open makes it easy to "innocently" grab those foam earbud covers you lost. (Hey, what's the big deal, right?). And once a gadget, with all of its cords, adapters and instructions, is taken out of an unsealed package in the store, it's often impossible for the retailer to put it back in "as-new" saleable condition.

These are legitimate concerns, but Amazon and Wal-Mart are right in telling manufacturers that it's time to re-think them. Times have changed: consumers are increasingly sensitive to waste. eCommerce benefits from smaller, lighter boxes. Security technology and loss prevention has evolved. And the need for paper instructions or other collateral material is all but gone.

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If you need proof of the value and effectiveness of thoughtful packaging, look no further than Apple. The most admired company in the world -- which also happens to be thebest-performing retailer -- takes packaging design as seriously as it takes product design ... and as a result has put far less garbage into the global pile and far more smiles on customers' faces. Anyone who's ever bought an Apple product knows that the packaging is almost as exciting as what's inside it.

Though Apple's diminutive packaging may seem like an invitation for shoplifters -- and comparative shrinkage (loss/theft) statistics are not readily available -- the company addresses security in its stores the smart way, through merchandising and staffing. People have always been more effective deterrents than packages; a determined shoplifter will rarely be stopped by a box design. (I've worked in retail and am amazed at what people can and will manage to steal.)

Consumers have far less patience for anything perceived as frustrating or unfriendly, and more appreciation and satisfaction with things that are cleanly, simply packaged with the full product/user experience clearly in mind. If your product is packaged to meet your business needs first, re-thinking it might make a great New Year's resolution.