Wrapped too tight
There's many a tussle under the tinsel with presents sealed inside cocoons of plastic and cardboard. But at last some packagers are becoming OPEN-minded.
For many, it's the most wonderful time of the year - at least until it's time to open all that packaging.
Odds are that's when someone in the household will contract a serious case of wrap rage.
Terminology unfamiliar? It's the maddening frustration that builds as you work laboriously to extricate a shiny toy truck from yards of twist ties bent more ways than a Cirque du Soleil acrobat. Or when you cut, hack, and pry apart the plastic sheath sealed tighter than Sing Sing to liberate your gee-whiz gizmo.
"By the time you get it out of the box, the kids are asleep," complained Tasha Jordan of South Philadelphia as she shopped for toys at the Gallery with sons Rhyshine, 5, and Tariak, 1.
Or someone ends up injured - about 6,500 a year are hurt seriously enough to seek treatment at a hospital emergency room, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
This year, though, wrap rage is under attack.
More manufacturers, as well as online seller Amazon, have heard customers' pleas and are working to make product packaging - whether Garmin GPS accessories or Barbie dolls - hassle-free.
Since 2007, Mattel says it has increased the number of toys it considers easy to open - that is, those that take 60 seconds or less and do not require a tool. Many others have fewer twist ties or other impediments to access.
Amazon's Frustration-Free Packaging, launched last year with 19 products devoid of tie-downs and clamshells - that rigid plastic covering that often encases electronics - has grown to hundreds. The company also offers certification, in which packaging engineers evaluate merchandise and recommend modifications or give a seal of approval.
"It's all about convenience," said Nadia Shouraboura, Amazon's vice president of global fulfillment. "You shouldn't have to look for tools in your garage to open a package."
The program has the side benefits of less waste and environmental impact plus lower costs for manufacturers. Amazon noted that the frustration-free version of Fisher-Price's Amazing Animals Sing and Go Choo-Choo eliminates, per item, 2,084.13 square inches of corrugated materials, 33.4 square inches of PVC blister materials, 12 wire ties, five printed inserts, one packer (and a partridge in a pear tree).
The site's customers, who now can provide packaging feedback in addition to merchandise reviews, have made it clear they "hate clamshells, and they hate twistie ties," Shouraboura said. "We know how unpleasant it is for parents on Christmas Day to have children open presents and be impatient to play with the toys and have to watch their parents struggle with scissors."
Wrap rage is real enough that the Pennsylvania Medical Society, based in Harrisburg, issued guidelines this month as a result of a poll it conducted.
The July survey found that 17 percent of more than 400 Pennsylvanians 21 or older had hurt themselves or knew someone who had in opening the packaging of a holiday or birthday gift.
"I don't think we can ignore it," said Peter Lund, past president of the society, who founded its Institute of Good Medicine. The urologist should know - he has a large scar to show for a struggle with packaging. "I have to admit that I myself lacerated my left thumb trying to open up a lightbulb package with a box cutter."
The institute recommends that consumers never hold products between their legs while opening them, always cut away from themselves, and try to use blunt tools.
Amazon products deemed frustration-free are not shackled by wire and plastic manacles nor encased in plastic shells. Instead, they are shipped in a brown cardboard box, often with cardboard inserts. "You open the box," Shouraboura said, "and you have the product in your hand."
Can you hear the hallelujahs?
"Any efforts to improve packaging should be applauded," said Tod Marks, senior editor of Consumer Reports, which has in the past given "Oyster Awards" for hard-to-open containers, including a power toothbrush enclosed in a clamshell straitjacket, a cereal bag that required bodybuilder strength to pull apart, and a doll and her accessories that were bound, taped, sewn, and glued to the back panel.
In an Inquirer time test on Mattel's Matchbox Rocky the Robot Truck, the frustration-free shipment took one-seventh the time to open - 2 minutes and 26 seconds - compared with the regular packaging found in retail stores, which clocked an infuriating 16 minutes and 23 seconds largely due to six plastic-coated wire ties that trapped the toy inside its cardboard housing. (See accompanying story.)
Kathleen Cowling, vice president of the American College for Emergency Physicians, welcomed efforts to improve product enclosures. "I've seen people accidentally stab themselves in the thigh," she said. "Carpet knives, X-Acto knives - holy Moses, those can go so fast so deep and can cut tendons."
Why does getting at that doll require Ninja tools and extreme patience?
To some extent, the hyper-packaging is a necessary evil.
For products sold in stores and not online, the container serves as a display window - and that means the item has to look perfect despite a voyage halfway around the world.
"If you ride in a container for six weeks, how are you going to look?" asked Chris "The Toy Guy" Byrne, content director at TimeToPlayMag.com. He keeps wire cutters handy to minimize his own wrap rage.
Then, manufacturers have to devise ways to prevent pilferage - or shrinkage, as the industry delicately puts it - because some customers will steal Barbie's high heels from under her if they're not firmly tied down.
Just three years ago, wrap rage seemed an impossible-to-escape fact of life. No more.
"We are and many others are overzealous in protecting that product, and we can do much better than that," said Matthew Petersen, vice president of design for Mattel, based in Los Angeles.
In recent years, the company has cut back on tough toy restraints. For example, instead of sewing Barbie's hair to the back panel - which required a surgeon's skill to remove - her coif is kept in place with a piece of threaded plastic that requires one pull of a string to release, Petersen said.
Many consumers are delighted. As one purchaser of a flash memory card posted to Amazon's frustration-free message board:
"It's really awesome - no cuts, no knife and all so fast!"