Consumer Electronics Packaging and Wrap Rage

New York Times has an article about’s battle against consumer “Wrap Rage” – the frustrating experience of unpacking stuff that you buy from them.

Wrap rage by Amazon
I have long been amazed at how stupid packaging has gotten, especially for small electronic items that are sold in transparent clamshell type packing which is very convenient for retailers to display, but require industrial shears to cut away. I love what is doing. It not only addresses “wrap rage” but also cuts down on waste. The packing material is less in quantity and is both recycled and recyclable. It costs less for the manufacturer. The box that carries the item can be smaller which saves money for Amazon. All in all it is good for consumers, for the manufacturers, for amazon and for the planet. So shouldn’t it be a roaring success?

Apparently not. From the same Times article

Environmental experts attribute the slow response to the intransigence of big manufacturers, the complexity in having different packages for physical retail and electronic retail and a lack of coordination among the major e-commerce companies.

While this implies that the manufacturers are intransigent, the real problem is that retailers still want the pretty clam shell packs. Their stores are designed so that those batteries can be hung on hooks, looking pretty while providing consumers easy access to them. Let’s call this the “display value” of merchandise.

My first job after business school was at a consumer marketing company and I saw the impact of display first hand. In Indian kirana stores in the early 90s it worked. Better displayed brands sold better. But in 2010, in the US, I believe the value of display is overestimated. Retailers haven’t adjusted to consumer behavior.

Consumers don’t just walk around a store and buy a Philips electric shaver on impulse. They know they need one and they research it – on the internet, ask friends on Facebook – before they decide which one to buy. When they come into the store they know exactly what they want to buy. Maybe they have a question or two to ask of the store sales rep. Otherwise they just take the shaver and go.

There are shades of grey of course. What I am saying is that today, when a product is likely to have been researched to death outside the store, the “display value” of that product matters less. Much less that what retailers think it does. But I will also admit that “display value” for many products has not dropped to zero. I do get reminded that I need AA batteries when I walk past them in the grocery checkout line. And that is worth something to the retailer.

But I don’t think that the trade-off between display value and consumer frustration with packaging is being made correctly today.

Let me give you another example. I just started going to a different grocery store because their produce is better. Now, most grocery store layouts have a certain macro level logic to it. But when it comes down to looking for Rice Milk or something like that, I am rendered completely helpless. Like most males, I hate asking for directions. Until I am forced to, which is like after 15 minutes and two trips across the length of the floor.

Wouldn’t it be easy for the store to put up kiosks in the store and even something on their website, where you could check availability and location of a certain product? Its probably the most obvious solution to a common problem. But the store won’t do it. Why? I’m now guessing here, but I’ll bet it is because they believe that if I wander through their aisles looking for Rice Milk I am likely to pick up a few more things that catch my eye (essentially another form of “display value”).

One day, retailers will make that trade-off between display value and security on the one hand and customer frustration on the other and come up with some solutions. Perhaps display things whichever way you want to but sell things in friendlier packaging. Until that day arrives, I’ll shop with thank you very much.


  1. Richa says:

    The positioning of milk and bread towards the back is indeed designed to force you to walk through the length and breadth of the store, in the hopes that you remember you needed to buy toilet paper, and cereal, and this and that. There have been studies done on this subject — I remember reading a few of them a while back. It may not influence a big-ticket purchase, but grocery items do seem to be affected. Even though I know the business logic behind the placement, I dread walking into an unfamiliar grocery store in the US unless I have half an hour to kill.

    Along similar lines, I remember a tongue-in-cheek ad by a gas-station (don't recall which chain) . A little kid saying 'thank you for making the gas pumping faster. I promise, we will still remember to go into the convenience store to buy slurpees' …or something like that 🙂


    1. Basab Pradhan says:

      @Richa – also placing the pharmacy right at the end of store. same funda.


  2. Basab Pradhan says:

    @Raj – that's kind of what I had in mind too. The display will need to be redesigned though. Presently, the two functions display and stocking are combined. If you separate them, the store shelves will have to be redesigned.


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