You'd think that companies would get it right. They spend $130 billion a year on boxes, bags and blister packs, yet many packaged goods still remain hard to open, undersized or overwrapped for the products inside.
Consumer Reports recently took a close look at common packaging challenges consumers face. By sorting through reader and Facebook fan submissions, it identified four basic gripes and more than a dozen product-specific examples.
Four packaging gripes
•"Oyster" is Consumer Reports' term for hard-to-open products. These are often gadgets imprisoned in clear, tight-fitting plastic, which displays merchandise from all angles and discourages theft. But it also foils honest folks who have tried razor blades, scissors, box cutters and even saws to free the contents they've bought.
•"Black holes" are products surrounded by lots of air. Federal law is supposed to prevent excessive "slack fill" – nonfunctional or empty space. But there are loopholes in the law, if, for instance, the package does double-duty as a dispenser. One example a Consumer Reports reader pointed out was Kraft Velveeta Shells & Cheese containers. Even when cooked, the shells and sauce occupy little of the container.
•"Downsized products" are those whose packages are shrunken by companies typically as an alternative to a blatant price increase. Companies usually blame downsizing on higher costs of ingredients, labor and energy. Downsizing can occur in sneaky ways – Huggies reduced the number of Pull-Ups diapers from 72 to 70 but kept the words "New Larger Size" on the label.
•"Golden cocoons" are tiny doodads shipped in oversize cartons, sometimes with enough paper, bubble wrap or airbags to cradle a priceless vase. Not taking any chances, Williams-Sonoma cradled the cotton napkins it sent to one reader in bubble wrap, then placed them in a large box before shipping.
Consumer Reports also discovered that some companies are aware of packaging problems. For example, Amazon's frustration-free packaging program is meant to reduce wrapping for shipped products and make them easy to open, but it doesn't always ensure it's better, cheaper or even different from the usual packaging. Some of Amazon's more than 100,000 frustration-free items have the same packaging whether bought from Amazon or elsewhere. To ensure the wrapping is truly frustration-free, Consumer Reports suggests calling Amazon before ordering to find out exactly how the product's packaging differs.
Packaging faux pas
Here are a few examples of packaging faux pas, submitted by Consumer Reports' readers and Facebook fans. For each product, it asked a company rep to explain the packaging decision.
•Allegra Allergy: Empty compartments. Not only could the bottle fit many more tablets, but the box has extra partitions. The company says: We are looking at options that are less challenging to open.
•Fiber One 90 Calorie Brownies: Big box, little brownie. The Fiber One bar is about 2 1/2 inches long; its wrapper, about 4 1/2 inches. The company says: We're sorry we cannot give you an exact answer, as we use different suppliers at different times. This has been forwarded to our quality department.
•Ivory Special Edition: Lowering the bar. When reader Yves Veenstra, of Cherry Hill, N.J., bought a 10-pack of Ivory Soap recently, he felt a difference. "I got home and compared the new bars with one from a prior purchase. Surprise!" Each new Special Edition bar weighs 4 ounces; the old bar weighed 4.5. The company says: Higher manufacturing costs meant increasing bar cost or decreasing bar size.
•Barbasol Beard Buster: Shaving contents. Kathleen Kraemer, from Newton, Mass., saw that the old and new cans were identical in size. On the outside, that is. The contents had shrunk from 11 ounces to 10. The company says: We are in no way trying to trick our customers. A slightly reduced product volume within our cans creates improved function from the very first shave, while continuing to deliver superior quality to the very last shave.