• U.S.

Industry: The Packaging War

4 minute read

The man who finally builds a better mouse trap (see MODERN LIVING) had better be ready to pack it in polyethylene, coat it with form-fitting plastic, ship it off in a fiber can, cram it into a tube or sell it in a tab-opening bottle. Otherwise, the world will no longer beat a path to his door. Attention-getting packaging is the U.S. businessman’s new preoccupation. Last week in Chicago the American Management Association’s 32nd annual packaging exposition drew 440 exhibitors and 35,000 visitors—triple the attendance of four years ago—to pay homage before piles of glittering containers and gargoylish machines that spew forth everything from plastic bags to cardboard boxes. Packaging has become, in the words of one expert in the field, “industry’s indispensable nightmare.”

The case for a preoccupation with packaging is that the average supermarket shopper spends 27 minutes in a store containing 6,300 items and selects 13.7 of them—half on impulse. (If the shopper is a man, he is even more impulsive.) Gone are the days when a manufacturer chose a box because it was the right size and strength, then counted on the familiarity of his product to sell it. Self-service shopping has forced packages to take on many of the functions of advertising, or of the oldtime grocer’s recommendation. With increasing competition for shelf space, each package must sell itself to the wandering customer. Packaging has become a $23.5 billion industry, the sixth largest in the nation.

Misery of Choice. The package business, being highly competitive, is vastly inventive and rapidly changing. Increasingly, such things as clocks, toasters, shirts, ties and sweaters, which used to be sold in the open, now come wrapped by the manufacturer. Such unlikely products as peanut butter, meat tenderizer, cocktail mixes and blue cheese spread are now dispensed from aerosol cans, and the industry is working on squeeze tubes that will give forth coffee, fish bait and ski wax. “Shrink films” of plastic that mold themselves to a product’s shape now protect everything from layettes to turkeys, and other films are being developed that can wrap around liquids and eliminate the need for bottles.

As one businessman put it last week, “we are suffering from a misery of choice.” Paperboard competes with plastics, steel with aluminum, thin tin with glass. The latest battle shaping up is between the new composition cans (commonly paperboard covered with foil) and traditional metal cans, which were already warring with glass. Fiber-foil cans cost 15% less than tin-plate cans, are lighter and usually can be opened with less effort. They have already moved into the motor oil can market once dominated by tin plate, and their makers confidently plan to use them for coffee, paint, beer and soft drinks.

Tab Top. U.S. Steel is promoting tin-plate food cans that, with a handle added, also serve as cooking pots. The aluminum industry is trying to win a bigger share of the 9.5 billion-can beer market (20% of all cans made in the U.S.) with tab tops and all-aluminum cans; it is also putting out orange juice containers with tab tops. Pushing both paper and plastic, Container Corp. is marketing a handy “bag-in-a-box,” a six-quart or ten-quart polyethylene sack of milk inside a cardboard box, which sits in home refrigerators and dispenses milk through a plastic spout.

Both packaging companies and manufacturers are pouring more and more money into research to find what the public thinks it wants. They have found, to no one’s surprise, that convenience foods sell better with labels that show what the contents will look like. The public is a soft touch for reusable packages, such as the vitamin container that is an apothecary jar, the instant coffee jar that becomes a glass pitcher. Portion packaging has also become popular. Campbell Soup has expanded its Swanson TV frozen dinners to include soup and dessert in a single paper-and-foil container. Dow Chemical has developed a packet made of plastic, paper and foil that holds individual portions of butter. But it was left to Allied Chemical to come up with a plastic container shaped like a martini glass. Inside: gin and vermouth.

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