Taking a stab at product packaging Knight Ridder Newspapers March 12, 2006

Teeth, fingernails, knives, hacksaws, wire cutters, ice picks. It used to be when you bought something you could open the package quickly with your hands without risking injury. Good luck with that today.

Entombed in blister packs, shackled with 10 feet of twist ties or locked down in riveted hard-plastic clamshells just try to open these products without resorting to household weaponry.

In some cases its nearly impossible.

I bought a weed whacker last fall, and it took me 20 minutes to get it out, said Brian Mitchell, a Kansas City sales rep. I had to use box cutters to cut plastic and slice through thick cardboard, and pliers to take out the huge staples. I had to unbolt things and untwist things and unscrew things. By the time I got it out of the package I was too tired to use it.

But its more than frustration. Its bodily harm when consumers slash themselves with knives or box cutters.

We see that type of injury all the time, said Joseph Reuben, an emergency-room physician at Shawnee Mission Medical Center and St. Lukes South Hospital in Kansas City. Especially around the holiday season. Mostly hand injuries.

Honestly, does it have to be this tough?

Thats the question Consumer Reports poses in its March issue. The magazine asked online readers to share frustrations about restrictive retail packaging. Some of the implements they reported using to try to open packages?

You guessed it: Teeth, fingernails, knives, hacksaws, wire cutters and ice picks.

We really struck a nerve, said Consumer Reports senior editor Tod Marks. People told us in incredible detail what they went through to open these packages.

Frustration is what led the magazine to go in search of Americas hardest-to-open package.

The winner: Hard-plastic clamshells complete with pain-in-the-neck rivets. It took Marks more than nine minutes to open a 14-piece cordless phone set encased in such a multiriveted plastic clamshell. Not only was the plastic impossible to open by hand and too thick for scissors, neither brute force nor a screwdriver made any headway against the nearly impenetrable rivets.

Worse still, Marks said, he could have cut himself on the packages many sharp edges. The only solution was a box cutter, which proved tricky to control around plastic curves and added to the danger. He managed to avoid bloodshed but wound up slicing the instruction manual and nearly cutting through battery wires.

Finishing a close second: Toy packaging, including what the magazine called Prisoner Barbie.

Marks wrote: Freeing Barbie and her stuff entailed untwisting wires, snapping rubber bands, stripping tape, slicing thick, plastic manacles off her arms and torso, cutting off a tab imbedded in her head, and carefully ripping a seam of stitches securing her tresses to a plastic strip on the back of the box.

The whole process took more than 15 minutes. The only reason this kind of package didnt finish first is that the clamshell package proved more dangerous with its sharp edges.

In some cases we have redesigned our packages (after) consumer feedback, said Mattel spokeswoman Lauren Dougherty. But at the end of the day, parents expect quality. When the children open up the toys we want them to be magical.

Third place went to packaging for CDs, DVDs and video games (jewel cases imprisoned in a difficult-toremove cellophane skin, complete with security stickers, or extra armor such as elongated hard-plastic yokes).

Fourth place went to pills in blister packs, of which one Consumer Reports reader wrote:

The peel off doesnt peel off. Ive tried soaking them in water, Goo Gone, microwaving, knives, scissors, hatchet and .45 caliber!

But before you go off halfcocked, experts say, just know packages are harder to open today for many reasons, including: Federal safety laws that require tamper-evident safety protection on medicines, foods and other consumer products.

Warehouse clubs started the whole revolution in packaging, Marks said. There are no fancy displays or staff. Its bare-bones. What the clubs want to be able to do is put (the products) on a forklift, crack open the box, slice the top off and hang up these perfectly symmetrical clamshells. It protects the package, shows off the products, travels well and protects against thieves.

More imported products must withstand rigorous overseas voyages to the United States. And todays packages must also display the products, since research shows consumers like to see what they are buying.

Packages are asked to do things consumers never think about, says Karen Proctor, chairwoman and professor of the packaging science program at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

There are a lot of situations where a product is very expensive, and (manufacturers) are trying to give themselves some protection from pilfering, she said. Take memory for a camera. That product is only an inch by an inch. But it could cost $30 to $100. And so you say to yourself, What techniques do we have to make this less resistant to stealing?

The answer is bulkier, hard-to-open packaging.

The demands on packaging are greater than ever.

Take potato chip packages, Proctor said. Manufacturers figured out how keep chips fresher longer. Packaging had to catch up with the technology.

The bag has to keep the chips fresh for up to a month. To do that, packagers pump out most of the oxygen and replace it with nitrogen.

But people dont know that, she said. They just never think about all the things packages have to do.

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