Why Is Toy Packaging So Difficult to Open?

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Whether you’re buying them for your kids or yourself, you’ve surely noticed that Barbie dolls, action figures, and other toys often come packed in their own tiny Fort Knoxes, with layers upon layers of plastic, twist ties and tape all housed in an unbreakable plastic “clamshell.” The problem is bad enough that a term has been coined to describe the frustration and anger that result from trying, and failing, to open the packages: wrap rage.

In 2006, Consumer Reports started the Oyster Awards for difficult packaging; first place went to the hard plastic clamshell that held the Uniden Digital Cordless Phone set, which took CR staffers 9 minutes and 22 seconds to open and required a box cutter and a razor blade. Second prize went to American Idol Barbie’s packaging, which didn’t require all that hardware, but took 15 minutes and 10 seconds for "untwisting wires, snapping rubber bands, stripping tape, slicing thick plastic manacles off her arms and torso, cutting off a tab embedded in her head, and carefully ripping a series of stitches securing her tresses to a plastic strip on the back of the box."

These packages are frustrating for consumers, and all this excess plastic can’t be good for the environment. So why pack toys like this?

Try Before You Buy

There’s a couple different reasons. One is marketing. Everyone knows a Coke bottle when they see one. You can usually spot them from way across the store. Not many toys have that sort of iconic packaging and branding, though, so manufacturers want to give kids, and adults, as much of the experience of the toy as they can right there on the store shelf. The consumer should see the whole toy, and if it lights up or makes noise, they should be able to test it right there in its box. To make this happen, toy makers pack their product in those elaborate molded plastic containers that showcase each and every component, and allow shoppers to interact with the thing before buying it.

The packaging is also a matter of security. Theft is a problem for any retailer, but especially when the products themselves are small and can easily be concealed and whisked away. Then there’s the problem of unattended kids who, while mom and dad are shopping, might open up a toy, play with it right in the aisle and leave it there when their parents beckon. Once they’ve been opened, and possibly damaged, products can’t just go back on the shelf. Packaging that requires a few minutes (and maybe a box cutter or a pair of scissors) to open helps deter would-be thieves of all kinds.

For the Road

Then there’s the need to protect the toy during shipping. Take a look at whatever you bought your kids for Christmas—chances are it was made in the Far East, then shipped here by boat and truck. There’s a whole lot of transit and manhandling that goes on between the toy factory and store shelves, and each little piece of the product needs to be secured in place to keep it from being lost or damaged. This partly ties back into marketing: When you see Barbie or Darth Vader on the shelf, you want them be in good condition—hair neat, cape in check, and cell phones and lightsabers where they should be—not looking like they just came off a bender together in the Malibu Dreamhouse.

For what it’s worth, I’ve always found the can opener useful in opening those clamshell packages. Any tips you want to share? Put them in the comments below.