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How Mattel makes sustainable packaging frustration free

How Mattel makes sustainable packaging frustration free
Matchbox Mega Rig package

Matchbox Mega Rig packaging versions
There’s a story that Matt Petersen, vp of design for Mattel Inc., tells about how he learned the top three complaints from parents about traditional toy packaging. “I was at my godson’s birthday party,” remarks Petersen. “This party was for a two year old, so all these moms and all these toys are around and I said, ‘I just took over a packaging job here at Mattel.’ I got berated by these mothers. They were livid about their experiences opening these toys: ‘Too much packaging,’ ‘all the twist ties,’ ‘a terrible experience’ was what they told me. They asked, ‘What’s wrong with you [Mattel]?’”

“I really took that lesson personally and realized that we [Mattel] could be so much better, and our consumers care deeply about that experience,” he adds. “Since then, we have been doing everything we can to make it better.”

Re-imagining toy packaging
To this end, Mattel partnered with Amazon.com to create packaging for direct-to-consumer delivery a couple of years ago. Today, the Mega Rigs Pirate Ship is one of many toys offered by Mattel and Amazon in both traditional retail packaging and a new type of sustainable packaging designed to take the frustration out of opening toy packages. This new packaging, which is aptly named Frustration-free Packaging (FFP), was co-developed by Mattel and Amazon and does not require the twist-ties, securing bands and the inner blisters often used to market and secure toys in traditional packaging.

Some assembly required
Like its traditional counterpart, pirate ships to be sold in FFPs are manufactured, assembled and packaged under one roof, going from plastic pellets to packaged product. Traditionally packaged product, though, is assembled and secured with plastic bands, plastic tabs and inner blisters to a paperboard insert. A pirate ship in FFP is shipped unassembled with its accompanying smaller parts in taped plastic bags.

Traditionally packaged products also receive an extra layer of packaging to protect the brightly printed, windowed primary packaging. Before shipment to Amazon’s distribution centers, traditionally packaged pirate ships are placed two to a corrugated case. In contrast, ships to be sold in FFPs are loaded directly into shipping containers.

Worldwide effort by Mattel

Mattel had approximately 10 people worldwide working on creating traditional and FFP packaging for the pirate ship. Project manager Gabriel Sheffer led the team through the ideation process; much of the package structure design was done by Mattel’s packaging engineer Franklin Stowe.

“At the beginning of a product design project—whether it begins on a sketchboard or in someone’s mind—we’re already starting to think about ways in which we could make it more sustainable,” Petersen remarks. “Sustainability’s all about making choices, and each one of those choices usually takes more time, money, [employee] energy and effort. As a company, we must have strong convictions that it’s an important principle, and we have to be disciplined in terms of how we go about doing it.”

The team was charged not only with making sure that the FFP packaging was designed in the most sustainable way but also that the regular package was as eco-friendly as possible. Overall, the company has succeeded at reducing packaging material use across the board. Petersen boasts that Mattel has reduced packaging by 5 percent every year.

Still the need to have high shelf impact required certain concessions. “Knowing that we had to make it as marketable as possible required us to do certain things, such as using a window box,” says Petersen. “So the original is the window box, showcasing all the products in a really dynamic way.

Because of this, the FFP yields substantial sustainability benefits over the traditional packaging: It uses 54 percent less paper material; 100 percent less PVC because there is no window; 96 percent less overall plastic packaging material; and 100 percent fewer twist-ties.

The dreaded twist-tie
 “Why does one want to get rid of twist-ties?” Petersen asks rhetorically. “Twist-ties are very important to packaging toys, especially when packaging heavier items. But consumers hate them. They do. They hate them. They looked at our [previous] packaging and thought that it was very difficult to open. This is the antithesis of what we wanted the experience to be, which is a fun experience with a toy. So, from a brand perspective, we knew we needed to move away from that.”

Mattel has introduced a formal program to remove the amount of traditional packaging restraints. The Plastics Reduction Program focuses on reducing the amount of these restraints used, as well as making it easier for consumers to open and access Mattel’s products. This doesn’t mean that twist-ties are going away completely, though.

“Many of our plants, though, are in places far away,” he adds. “So we know we need to lock that product down. And the heavier the material, the more we have to make sure that it’s secure. Product protection is also important, because it’s not a positive experience to open a toy and find that it is damaged from being not sufficiently packaged.”

Tested from A to Z
“We’re dramatically cutting back on twist-ties across everything that we do,” Petersen comments. “Because of this, we test packaging in a multitude of different ways: drop testing, transportation tests; humidity and heat tests. We even have machines that just shake packages for days and days.”

In the case of the FFP, testing is done not only by Mattel but also by Amazon in its packaging laboratory. “Vendors can ship the package for free to use, and we evaluate the packaging—testing it for trans-shipment, to ensure that the product is secure,” says Nadia Shouraboura, vp of technology for worldwide operations at Amazon.com Inc.

As part of its ISTA 3A testing (Intl Safe Transit Assn Test Procedure 3A is a general simulation test for individual packaged-products shipped through a parcel delivery system. Basic requirements for this test include atmospheric pre-conditioning, random vibration with and without top load, and shock testing.), Amazon vibration tests FFPs on a Dynamic Solutions DS1300.

This vibration testing system puts out 1,320 force-lbs. with a 26-in. magnesium head expander. This expanded mounting surface enables testing packages in vertical orientation. The shaker system operates over a frequency band from 2- 2500 Hz. However, Amazon’s system is designed primarily for transportation simulation testing in lower frequencies of up to about 500 Hz.

Engineers operate the air-cooled vibration test system with Dynamic Solutions DVC8 controller software, which is designed to run on Windows-based PCs with an available single PCI slot. This software enables Amazon’s packaging engineers to conduct sine, random, shock, sine on random, random on random, and field data replication testing. With eight channels, an engineer can set one as its control and then monitor response from seven points on the test package.

Soliciting feedback

 Shouraboura says transit testing is only one part of Amazon’s packaging testing program. “We look at two aspects of it: One is that the product is well protected during transportation; the other is that the package is easy to open and customer friendly,” she explains.

The company does this by actively seeking consumer feedback. “We offer two ways for our customers to leave feedback,” she explains. “We print a URL, which invites our customers to leave feedback, on our printed boxes. Amazon customers also can look at their order history online, click a button next to an individual item and leave packaging feedback.”

Predominantly positive

According to Shouraboura, consumer feedback for the FFP pirate ship has been overwhelmingly positive. She shares this Amazon consumer remark: “This was my first time ordering something with Amazon’s Frustration-Free Packaging. It definitely lived up to its name. I was very pleased with how simple it was to get to the item without having to remove 17,000 twist ties that are knotted in an inhuman manner. I’ll definitely look for more items packaged like this in the future!”

Amazon says that its consumers are giving other products in FFPs a thumbs up. Another consumer remark shared by the Internet retailers speaks directly to how well the FFP performed in the most primary of packaging purposes: product protection in addition to the FFP’s sustainability attributes:  “The item is still shipped securely, but now I don’t have to deal with that horrific plastic armored stuff.”

Shouraboura is understandably pleased with such positive feedback and is looking forward to expanding use of FFP. “This is how I see our future: In 10 years, every product that Amazon ships will be in frustration-free packaging,” she exclaims. “Of course, our third-party merchants can complement our selection with other types of packaging.”

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