This Holiday, Help Fight the Dangers of Wrap Rage

December 23, 2009

This Holiday, Help Fight the Dangers of Wrap Rage

Published in Fast Company
Fast Company | December 2009

By Peter Clarke, Product Ventures CEO & Founder

‘Tis the season for shopping, gift-giving and another less-fortunate holiday tradition: Wrap rage. This is the common name associated with heightened levels of frustration, anger, and potential injury resulting from one’s inability to open a package.

While this phenomenon exists all year round, it is brought to a more pronounced level of frenzy during the holiday season. I know this year I will be “raging” as well, as I help my newly adopted seven-year-old open her impenetrably-packaged Christmas toys, complete with an array of endless and unnecessary twist-ties. As a packaging designer, I refuse to go through one more holiday season without applying my design thinking to solving what has become a very widespread problem. More than a ranting, this is a call to action for designers, engineers, brand owners and retailers to focus our collective abilities towards eliminating this phenomenon so we can enjoy our purchases free from irritation and injury.

The term “wrap rage” has become such a familiar term that it was a finalist for Webster’s 2009 Word of the Year. It was showcased on Curb Your Enthusiasm this season as Larry David poignantly struggles with a package first with his hands, later with knives, finally throwing it to the ground in disgust. In addition to being extremely annoying, there is an intrinsic danger with these impenetrable packages. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, each year an estimated 300,000 people visit the hospital as a result of lacerations incurred from packaging. Emergency room doctors are especially slammed with package-related visits the week after Christmas.

The most common forms of packaging that are likely to incite wrap rage are plastic blisters and clamshells, often referred to as “oysters,” based on their likeness in configuration to the oyster and their difficulty to open. These packages are often welded shut with limited or no means of product egress. Other examples include multi- layered or multi-component packaging that requires numerous steps in the unpacking process.

Before we begin to dialogue together as to what we can do to address this problem, it is important to understand why the problem exists in the first place. Wrap rage is born from the retailers’ need for products that self-merchandise without the fear of theft. Clear plastic packaging offers full product visibility and can also be sealed to keep thieves out. Product theft, or “shrinkage,” is a significant issue. The National Association for Shoplifting Prevention estimates losses from pilferage at more than $10 billion dollars a year. While there are many forms of anti-theft technologies available, retailers are hesitant to employ them as they can be complex, costly, and may actually deter a consumer’s desire for purchase. The easiest solution for retailers has been to place the pilfer-resistant burden on the package itself.

As long as hard-to-open packages are required by retailers, packages won’t be easy-to-open for consumers post-purchase. There are many packaging techniques currently employed, such as cutting instructions, perforated hatches, and locking widgets. But the problem is that retailers request the opening instruction be difficult to find, in order to deter theft. There are tools that can be purchased to aid the consumer in opening packages but ironically many of these tools come in the same difficult packages. If a package is too easy to open, it will be rejected by retailers or placed within one of a myriad of anti- theft technologies used in stores today. Technologies such as keeper boxes, cabling systems, and locked racks assuage the burden of theft prevention from the package, but may actually deter purchase due to their unsightly appearance and requirement for store clerk interaction.

But guess what? The majority of retail theft is done by store employees. The 2009 Global Retail Theft Barometer, conducted by the Centre for Retail Research found that employee theft is the biggest problem faced by North American retailers, as it results in 44% of all losses, compared to 35% from shoplifting, 15% from administrative error, and 4% from vendor fraud. While the sealed package may help to prevent theft in-store, it does nothing to prevent shoplifting through the back door.

So hard-to-open packages aren’t the answer for pilfering as they compromise the consumer’s product experience- -and they may actually impair sales. When retailers embrace this fact, we may then begin to solve the problem with a solution that doesn’t include wrap rage.

Amazon started their Frustration-Free packaging initiative where they offer packaging that is both easy-to-open and more environmentally friendly, requiring less packaging material and using 100% recyclable cardboard. Online retailers like Amazon are able to offer Frustration-Free packaging since the primary role of the package is transport and distribution protection. It is not meant to be

used for merchandising and it doesn’t require the package to be pilfer-resistant. The in-store retailers need to heed the threat of burgeoning online sales due to shopping convenience, including Frustration-Free packaging. Large retailers like Wal-Mart have shown they have the means of setting new industry standards as evidenced by their recent efforts to drive more environmentally-sustainable packaging solutions.

As you gather around the tree on Christmas morning, noting how long it takes for the recipient to actually get to each gift, see if you can devote some brainpower to solving this ongoing dilemma. I encourage you to respond to this blog with your creative thoughts and suggestions. Here are a few of mine:

  • Provide an intuitive-to-open perforated hatch that is loud when opened. Completely-sealed plastic clamshells aren’t necessary as many shoplifters bring their own knife into the store and can cut open the packages swiftly and without a sound. Noise can provide the necessary theft deterrence without the need to make the package impenetrable.

  • Leverage radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to monitor product movement. Since thieves often use aluminum foil-lined shopping bags to silence magnetic sensors, RFID can alert to the discontinuation of product communication signal.

  • Employ new merchandising systems similar to vending machines. Vending machines could provide commercial displays of product features via the touch of a hand and dispense an easy-to-open package upon purchase.

I have seen the power of social media and its ability to magnify consumer concerns. Let this blog serve as a catalyst for needed change and together we can design a future full of joy...and free of oysters.

Peter Clarke is a visionary entrepreneur who founded Product Ventures 15 years ago as the ultimate strategic creative agency for the research, design and development of manufactured goods.. His passion for excellence and dedication to helping shape products and packaging to enhance consumers’ lives have garnered Clarke enormous recognition. Product Ventures has been honored to create innovative and award-winning package designs for such notable clients as Procter and Gamble, Nestle and Bayer, among many others. As an expert commentator, Peter Clarke is frequently profiled in the media, including CBS’ The Early Show, Fox Business News, and news broadcasts discussing industry trends. 

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