Monday, August 16, 2010

Clamshell Combat

The fight was short, but brutal.

After five minutes of close combat, despite suffering several wounds and in complete disregard for my own safety, I defeated my opponent with a violent thrust from a pair of industrial-sized scissors.

Wiping the sweat from my forehead and the blood from my arms, victory was mine. I was finally was able to remove my new electric toothbrush from its "clamshell" plastic packaging.

Of all the outrageous slings and arrows visited upon consumers in the last several decades, impenetrable plastic packaging may rank close to the top. (Closely followed by "tamper resistant" caps that can be easily opened by a simple push-pull double reverse half-gainer twist.)

The "clamshell" packaging seems to be designed by people hand picked for their sadistic tendencies. They have created a product that lets you see your purchase but renders it unobtainable unless you carry a 3.4 amp powered handsaw in your pocket or purse.

According to one report, consumers suffer thousands of injuries per year, such as cut fingers and sprained wrists, from tools used to open packages and from the packaging itself.

Not to mention lingering anger management issues and physical exhaustion.

Consumer Reports even presents "Oyster Awards" for the products with the hardest-to-open packaging.

Lucky me, my brand new Oral-B Sonic toothbrush kit was a winner of the coveted Oyster. The magazine described the product thus: "A tight fit between the plastic skin and cardboard thwarted scissors. Our tester grabbed a box cutter but hacked up the box as an unavoidable result. After removing the clamshell and opening the box, she had to dislodge parts from a foam case, yank off one plastic bag covering the power cord and another protecting additional components, then pop perforations on smaller clamshells shielding the toothbrush heads. Her work table was littered with sharp plastic shards."

Another Consumer Reports winner was a Uniden cordless phone set: It took 9 minutes 22 seconds to unwrap completely and nearly caused injury to the person opening it.

Yet another prize went to "American Idol" Barbie and her packaging, which didn't require lethal weapons but took 15 minutes and 10 seconds to untie all the wires, rip the stitches from her hair and slice the thick plastic manacles off her arms and torso.

One shopper complained of buying a large kitchen knife that couldn't be separated from its package unless you used - drum roll - a large kitchen knife.

A British researcher complained that "we are still chewing through plastic like wild dogs."

In a survey conducted at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business, almost 80 percent of households "expressed anger, frustration or outright rage" with plastic packaging. Consumers also tended to use words such as "hate" and "difficult" when describing these products.

My question: Who are the 20 percent who were apparently satisfied with sealed plastic products? Oyster shuckers? Orthopedic surgeons? Sushi chefs?

The idea behind this packaging is to intentionally make products difficult to open to reduce package pilferage and shoplifting. I know this is a big and costly problem for business.

But I wonder if the loses from those crimes is exceeded by the decline in business and goodwill from customers fed up with engaging in martial arts to open a package with a light bulb inside.

I ask because some merchants are responding to the cry of the wounded consumer. Wal-Mart Stores, Target and Sears all have programs to phase out clamshells, according to the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, as does Best Buy.

Amazon has begun a "Frustration-Free Packaging" initiative. Sony launched a "Death to the Clamshell" campaign.

Truth be told, many of these changes are being made for environmental and toxicity concerns rather than the mental health of their customers.

But if it will prevent me from looking like I just emerged from a knife fight after buying a new toothbrush, I'm all for it.

There is a loser in all this, and it's not the emergency room docs.

It's the cottage industry of clamshell packaging openers that sprung up over the last few years.

One such device, the OpenX, has sold in the millions, according to its inventor.

The irony of it is that if you find an OpenX in a store, it will probably be encased in hard-to-open clamshell packaging.

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