Packaging: A Conspiracy Among Dentists?

Regardless of what I buy lately, getting inside the package to the actual product is like breaking into Fort Knox. I recently purchased a pair of carbon fiber trekking poles from Costco. They were encased in plastic sturdy enough to survive wind, hail, sleet, snow and a 500-pound gorilla. But since I had no plans to take the poles with me while still inside the packaging, what was the point?

Regardless of what I buy lately, getting inside the package to the actual product is like breaking into Fort Knox.

I recently purchased a pair of carbon fiber trekking poles from Costco. They were encased in the plastic sturdy enough to survive wind, hail, sleet, snow and a 500-pound gorilla. But since I had no plans to take the poles with me while still inside the packaging, what was the point?

It honestly took me about five minutes to get to the actual poles because it required heavy-duty shears (buried inside our gardening shed), and all of my strength just to cut through the plastic shell. I nearly damaged the poles (not to mention my fingernails) while trying to pry the clam shell pieces a part. Who designs this stuff? And more importantly, why?

These same plastic clamshells are used to encase all sorts of products, equally protected from the hazards of the modern world. I was in an airport a while ago, wasting time between flights by browsing products at the smart phone accessories counter, and every single item was hanging in one of these plastic prisons.

It would be logical to assume that the plastic protects the product from being damaged during shipment, but did that industrial designer ever give one moment’s consideration to the consumer and how they’re going to access the product post-purchase? Who among us travels with scissors or knives (especially in an airport)? And that’s when my conspiracy theory started.

Have you ever gone “old school” and purchased a music CD? Forget trying to listen to the CD in your car on the way home, as there is simply no way to rip open the package—period. The plastic wrap is on so tight there’s nothing to use as leverage to start the “cutting” process.

I’ve tried using my car key, a small screwdriver designed for sunglasses screws, a pen, a sharp stick and, of course, the final resort—my teeth (sorry Dr. Pelfini!). And even then, I’ve repeatedly broken/damaged the CD case while trying to get it open, so it can’t be re-used for storage.

I’ve used my teeth to try and rip open small packages of nuts on the airplane (those little “slits” are a joke for fingers), and am often rewarded with the bag slicing open, but my 10 precious peanuts are scattered across the laps of my seat mates.

I know I’m not alone in this practice: I’ve watched a guy rip off the paper that encases a straw with his teeth and then spit out the torn off end, and a Mom open the plastic bag covering a toy from a fast-food joint with her teeth while her toddler had a melt down.

But it was a recent jar of peanut butter that stopped me cold. After unscrewing the lid, the paper covering that came between me and my craving didn’t have one obvious way to peel it off other than stabbing at it with a sharp knife. While I was lucky enough to be in my own kitchen at the time, I thought about all those kids out there trying to make their first sandwiches, weeping in frustration.

Since packaging is one of the “Five P’s of Marketing,” I’d like to suggest to marketers everywhere that they re-examine their current packaging from a consumer point of view. If opening your product requires knives, scissors and the strength of 10-men, you may want to take a step back and rethink your packaging options.

7 thoughts on “Packaging: A Conspiracy Among Dentists?”

  1. As I understood it from reading a retail magazine article on shrinkage prevention measures a few years back, the hard-to-open packages are partially designed to deter onsite shoplifting (which results in those empty product packages you see from time to time hidden behind some products in the store) versus takeaway shoplifting (steal the whole package; open elsewhere). If it’s difficult to break into at the store, it won’t be as attractive a theft target. But then it does make it a pain to open for the legitimate customer. Personally, I use a folding utility knife to open difficult packages, which does pretty good at slicing through tough plastic. Of course, I carry that in a belt holder, so I’m probably unusual in that I always have a knife handy.

    Merely my opinion, but perhaps one of the reasons product makers make the packages so hard to open is as a psychological trick to deter product returns. They hope that once you’ve basically torn the package to pieces through the difficulty of opening it that you’ll feel bad returning it if you change your mind, e.g., “I can’t return this now; look what I’ve done to their package! They won’t be able to resell it!”

  2. The purpose of those hard shell molded plastic packages is often to discourage theft. Unfortunately, they’re also dangerous to legitimate purchasers. Trying to pry them apart can lead to sliced fingers and hands, apart from long minutes of frustration even if you do get them open without injuring yourself. Consumer-hostile packaging is virtually impossible to avoid in many product categories. I’m hoping for an eventual class action lawsuit that will bankrupt the suckers who design anti-consumer packaging.

  3. Nice column. I agree.
    Everyone hates this stuff.
    I was told by someone in packaging business that it’s mainly a security issue, makes it harder to steal. Sounds like a stretch to me.
    Especially with peanut butter.

  4. Thank you for putting into words what I have been thinking for many years. My other problem with the plastic clam shell is the wastefulness. The size of the packaging is, in most cases, disproportionate to the size of the item it encases. As you get older (I’m 53 by the way), you reach a point in your life where you start thinking about the ramifications of the waste generated by the item you want to purchase. Maybe I’ve become more eco conscious, but I’ve started shying away from items that are 1) almost impossible to open (as you mention); and 2) have a disproportionate amount of plastic clam shell relative to the product. Yes, the plastic is probably recyclable, but how many people actually stop to think about whether it goes in the regular trash bin or the recyclable bin?

  5. I hear your frustration, I feel the same way about things like this. However, regarding food stuffs, they require a bit more security. It is sad that we live in such an un-trusting world, where people would do harm to the unknowning, by placing chemicals or poisons into a retail chains food or HBA stock. It has happened in the past, around the 80’s & 90’s, where someone had laced everything from toothpaste to peanut butter with cyanide or other poisons.

    I’m sure these idiots had no real motive, but we have to face the fact… that these unruly idiots live among us and have no true value for themselves or for human life.

    Regarding the clam-shell cases. Some items are deemed as a high theft value and they take these precautions. Some items are deemed as a high theft value in the beginning, but then it turns out that nobody wants it to begin with. Somebodies golden idea gone belly up.

    Most of these clam shells have security tags prepackaged in them, so they don’t just walk out the door without the alarm sounding. The clam-shells are not really about consumer happiness, it’s more about profit and loss.

  6. This is an area where Amazon should get some love, since they’ve been on a mission to reduce this type of packaging. Of course, they have the volume and influence to get manufacturers to develop a separate, de-packaged, non-retail security obsessed line just for them.

  7. I understand when the I-dare-you-to-open-this packaging is there to deter theft, which makes sense for high-end consumer goods like electronics. I do question its cost-effectiveness for general merchandise–how much extra does packaging millions of products in this way actually save in loss prevention? Or even in-transit damages? I’m far from an eco-hippie, but I have serious misgivings about the quantity of packaging trash generated particularly when the item purchased is also a consumable. The whole process of excessive packaging is wasteful–economically and environmentally.

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