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11/3/2008
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Amazon Fights 'Wrap Rage' With Easy-Open Packaging

The Web retailer's Frustration-Free Packaging initiative aims to reduce the plastic clamshells, coated wire ties, and fasteners that drive consumers crazy.

In 2006, when tech billionaire Mark Cuban sliced his hand trying to free a Seagate hard drive from its hard plastic packaging, he exclaimed on his blog, "WHO THE F*** DESIGNED THE PACKAGING ON THIS THING AND WHY DO THEY STILL HAVE A JOB !!!!!"

"Damn you and any other product manager who thinks wrapping impenetrable plastic around a product is a smart move," he fumed. "It isn't."

Lately, retailers appear to be getting the message, though more to address environmental and toxicity concerns than to curtail clamshell-packaging injuries. Target last year committed to reducing the use of polyvinyl chloride plastic in products and their packing, joining companies like Apple, Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, Nike, and Wal-Mart that are pursing similar goals.

Amazon.com also sees environmental issues with packaging, but the company's new "Frustration-Free Packaging" initiative focuses more on what CEO Jeff Bezos calls "wrap rage."

"Wrap rage describes the frustration we humans feel when trying to free a product from a nearly impregnable package," he wrote in a note posted on Amazon's Web site Monday.

Injuries arising from plastic packaging resulted in 6,400 emergency room visits in 2004, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

A U.K. study suggests those numbers might be low. According to a 2003 University of Sheffield study, 70,000 people in the United Kingdom seek treatment in emergency rooms each year because of accidents with packaging. Some of this total represents children suffocating on plastic bags, for example. But a University of Sheffield news release asserts that "a large percentage of the accidents caused by packaging affect the elderly" and that some of the "most common packaging injuries are cuts from glass and tins and from using scissors to open tear off cartons."

Amazon's "Frustration-Free Packaging" initiative begins in the United States with 19 products from manufacturers like Fisher-Price, Mattel, Microsoft, and Transcend. The Web retailer aims to expand the program internationally next year.

The company has launched "The Gallery of Wrap Rage" as part of its packaging improvement program and is asking customers to submit photos and videos of wrestling with difficult-to-open packages.

The initial video in the gallery offers a side-by-side time trial of opening two Fisher-Price pirate ships, one traditionally packaged and the other one in "Frustration-Free" packaging. The former took 11 minutes and two seconds to open; the latter took 44 seconds to open.

By slipping the Fisher-Price Imaginext Adventures Pirate Ship into "Frustration-Free" packaging, the manufacturer and the customer no longer have to deal with 36 inches of plastic-coated wire ties, 1,576.5 square inches of printed corrugated package inserts, 36.1 square inches of printed folding carton materials, 175.25 square inches of PVC blisters, 3.5 square inches of ABS molded styrene, and two molded plastic fasteners.

Among those posting on Amazon's site, the change has been well received.

"If Amazon can get [manufacturers] to get rid of clamshell plastic packaging (you know, the kind guaranteed to drive you to tears and then slash your hand open when you finally wrest it open), I will just give up my bank account completely and have my employer deposit my paycheck directly to Amazon," quipped Amazon customer Kathy Grace.

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