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Amazon tries to cut frustration over packaging

SEATTLE » Doug Herrington’s office at Amazon.com suggests that he is particularly bad at getting items out of their packages. Along his wall, there is a Philips Norelco shaver still in its plastic clamshell casing, coffee pods in their retail display containers and a bottle of Tide inside a box.

But Herrington, vice president for consumables at Amazon, is trying to make a point: With a typical online purchase, "you’ve got a ton of packaging and a ton of work ahead of you," he said.

For nearly two years, Amazon has been trying to get manufacturers to adopt "frustration-free packaging" that gets rid of plastic cases and air-bubble wrap — major irritants for consumers and one of Amazon’s biggest sources of customer complaints.

But the frustration persists. Only about 600 of the millions of products Amazon sells come in frustration-free versions. And other big online retailers, like Walmart.com and Target.com, have not embraced the new packaging, even when manufacturers make it available.

"A lot of it is just the inertia of making changes," said Stephen Lester, science director at the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a nonprofit environmental group. "Whenever you have a system set up to run your business, making any change means time and money."

For brick and mortar retailers, traditional packaging remains popular because it can help deter theft. But in Web shopping, there is general agreement that the alternative packaging is a hit with consumers, and that it is simple for packaging companies to create. It is also environmentally friendly, using recycled and recyclable cardboard rather than plastic and wire ties, quicker to produce than the retail packaging and costs less.

Now Amazon, still determined to get more manufacturers to sign up, is making the case by taking the angry customer feedback on old-school packages directly to the product makers. Compared to the traditional versions of the products, frustration-free products have earned on average a 73 percent reduction in negative feedback on the Amazon site.

The strategy worked for Philips, the electronics company. It recently made the packaging change on its Essence electronic toothbrush when the company saw the feedback. "It wasn’t necessarily that the product was the issue, it was the unpack experience — you’ve got to get scissors or knives," said Stephen Cheung, senior consumer marketing manager for Philips Oral Healthcare.

Philips asked the supplier AllpakTrojan if it could create a new package. Because manufacturers usually use one supplier for the plastic part of their packages and another for the cardboard, "even before you make anything you’ve lost a little efficiency in the design process," said Dave Hoover, sales manager for AllpakTrojan.

With this project, though, AllpakTrojan could use a single material, and it went through a machine just once instead of the two to three times required for the traditional package.

"From design to finish, it’s as efficient as it gets," he said.

Within three weeks, AllpakTrojan had designed the new container, tested it by dropping it from various heights and putting it on a vibration table and had it ready. The toothbrush’s travel case protected the brush head, and cardboard compartments held the charger and toothbrush base. Without the fancy printing, shiny cardboard backing and plastic, "it’s much less expensive," Hoover said. And the environmental benefit was significant: The square footage of material used was much smaller, and the cardboard was recycled and recyclable.

Philips said it was so happy with the change that it was looking to switch the packaging for other items. The company said it was also pushing other online retailers to adopt this packaging, to tepid response.

Shannon Jenest, a Philips spokeswoman, said the company had initiated discussions. "They’re open to the conversation, and I’d say we’ll probably expand our frustration-free packaging options with Amazon before we would see it come to another one of our partners."

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.

"One of the biggest hurdles is to convince a company that it’s worthwhile, or the volume is there, to sell the same product in two different formats," said Anne Johnson, director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, an industry working group operated by the nonprofit institute GreenBlue. And because retailers did not work together on a common standard, "you don’t end up with unified approaches to these issues, therefore you never solve these issues," she said.

Amazon introduced frustration-free packaging in November 2008 to minimize what Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive, called "wrap rage." Clamshells exist to make products look good in stores and to help prevent theft by being difficult to open surreptitiously — neither concerns of Amazon. Even with products like coffee pods, Amazon customers would receive packages designed for retailers. So Amazon worked with manufacturers to design cardboard packages that contained the products and could be shipped straight to consumers.

While there were hiccups, like hard drives damaged in transit (Amazon switched that packaging back), for the most part, the change has been popular. In addition to Philips, recent converts include Polaroid and Procter & Gamble. Brands like Duracell, Bounty and Tide introduced their own frustration-free packages.

Duracell, which offers a 28-pack in a frustration-free version on Amazon, had "been getting rave reviews from consumers about the packs on Amazon," said Bob Jacobs, Duracell marketing director. Jacobs said Duracell made that packaging available to all websites that sold the 28-pack, but a check on Target.com and Walmart.com showed that those were still selling only the plastic-encased retail packs.

Target said it did not have a similar packaging program but was exploring more e-commerce-friendly options with some vendors. Walmart.com said it reviewed the size of shipping boxes and tried to minimize the environmental impact.

"It’s such a win-win proposal," said Nadia Shouraboura, vice president for global fulfillment at Amazon. "We don’t expect to make a miracle in a week, but I think over time it’s going to happen."


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