Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A Bad “Wrap” For Packaging

Coming off the holiday season, I feel like packaging is getting a bad “wrap”. I have been inundated with stories about how packaging is a bad thing: People getting cut trying to open a package: adults spending the hours wrestling with opening a package, families members hauling bag after bag of non-recyclable packaging materials to the curb and so on.

Interestingly, I did a segment for NBC TV about toy packaging and illustrated why toys are packed in a particular manner. It proved to be quite fascinating. Unfortunately, the producer wrapped up the segment with angry consumers trying to open toy packages. The consumers were hacking, ripping and tearing away at what they deemed were over packaged products. If you had seen this segment or have read some of the articles I have seen since the holiday you would believe that packaging is the scourge of the modern world. Can those who are not involved in the industry begin understand the role of packaging?

Don't get me wrong. I know there are examples of excess and bad packaging in every category, but the searing question is where would we be without the package. The package is essential. Getting product from point A to point B in good condition sounds simple enough. But who thinks about that? More importantly why should you care?

I know I do. Sometimes I get carried away at the store. I have been known to turn over the box and spill the contents to see who made it or open the package at the store to see if I can get into it. I'm an avid reporter of damaged goods to the store manager. I feel it’s my civic duty to report when I see that a packaged is damaged at the store. I anxiously walk the store isles hoping I can find a failure. (A package that didn't do its job.) I use these as examples when I speak about the role of packaging. It’s much easier to make the point about the package when you can show that something is broken or damaged. Then people understand.

An interview for an upcoming Forbes article about the most important package innovations in the last 30 years got me thinking about all of the packaging innovations we take for granted. Where would we be without the aluminum can, the PET bottle, the toothpaste tube, the pizza box, the milk carton, the juice box, the zip lock bag and so on? The list is endless. These packaging innovations impact the way we shop and eat every day. Packaging drives 10% of every dollar we spend at retail. This is a hidden but necessary cost that we never consider.

Packaging is so commonplace, i.e., the corrugated box, that people think it just exists. Maybe it is the fruit of some exotic tree. Little do they know how complicated the process is to get that product from the tree to the finished result.

This pencil analogy is the best example I can come up with when explaining to people the intricacies of packaging. Simple pencil manufacturing is very complex. Someone shapes the wood, another one extrudes the lead, another one provides the eraser and another one provides the wire thingy that attaches the eraser to the pencil. Finally, someone assembles it all. (Get the point?)

Every day I see new and incredibly innovative new products (many of which couldn't exist without the package). Take the fresh produce category for example. Pre-washed, ready to eat carrots in a bag are not produced by a simple process. People are astounded when I explain to them exactly what makes this product work. Kids especially just take it for granted. Carrots plus bag – for them, it’s a fact of life. This entire category didn't exist 10 years ago, now it’s one of the most important and profitable supermarket areas. This category works because the package makes it happen.

When speaking at a university recently, I mentioned the Tylenol package incident. Guess what I got. I got blank stares from a generation of students too young to remember pre-tamper evident lids. They did not realize the Tylenol incident spawned a whole new category of tamper evident materials and packaging. Again, something the average consumer misconstrues--products have seals and tabs to make them difficult to get into. Product integrity drove the innovation packaging that makes up this entire category of packaging materials.

As I travel the world, I am reminded that many of the packaging innovations that exist in the U.S. aren't available in other countries. In fact there are many countries where the whole foodservice category simply doesn't exist. Imagine, No Grab and Go, No Ready to Eat, No Ready to Serve, no HMR-Home Meal Replacement.... Where would we be without this category of packaged products? We’d spend much more time in the kitchen for sure, so cooks should take notice.

We expect things packaged to be “PrePared.” When you examine the supermarket, this category is exploding. Preseasoned, precooked, premeasured, the list goes on. Pre-something foods have surpassed the plain meat category. Once again, it’s the packaging that does all the work to make this category possible and successful.

Next time you visit a supermarket, consider what products couldn't exist without a package. One of my favorite tricks with students is to send around a bag of smashed potato chips or a broken egg. That opens a lot of eyes. A simple egg carton, mull over how that has evolved over the years. The materials, the shape, the number of eggs per carton have all evolved. It’s amazing. Even the most common items require a package of some sophistication.

Many of the latest packaging innovations have been developed as a result of a need. Tamper evident and anti-counterfeit are two examples that come to mind. All those holographic seals and packages you can't get into exist for a reason. That's what most people fail to realize. The inherent problems in opening a package exist for protection – the product’s or ours.
Consider where we would be in any disaster relief effort without packaging, no food no water no medical supplies. All of these items are transported in some type of packaging.

So the next time you want to give packaging a bad "wrap” think about how you would shop, eat and just plain exist without packaging.


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