At the video game company where I once worked, there was a lot of talk of "shelf appeal." A video game, when you think about it, is just another piece of software. More glamorous than Microsoft Office certainly, but not any more perplexing in terms of getting it that last mile to a consumer.
But in the video game business, that box art was a matter of endless concern. Countless hours were spend discussing precisely which CMYK color to use in the logo. Graphics artists spent many a late night huddled over Macs brightening the glow behind the hero's head just a little more.
It's a different world now. Thanks to the unstoppable rise of online shopping, shelf appeal is losing out to more practical concerns when it comes to designing and packaging goods.
There's a lesson here for plastics executives, even those who couldn't tell a Barbie DreamHouse from a Barbie Glam Getaway House. (Don't worry. I can't, either.)
Thanks to the headline-grabbing demise of Toys R Us, the online trend in the toy industry was slightly more obvious this year. But only slightly.
As long time toy industry observer Richard Gottlieb wrote, "E-commerce has added to the challenge for bricks and mortar retailers by siphoning off highly valuable shoppers, i.e. those who have what is required to shop online: credit and access to the internet."
United Kingdom-based packaging consultancy Smithers Pira estimates that almost all packages used in e-commerce were originally designed for brick-and-mortar retail. This results in shipping lots and lots of empty air to online customers; hardly a cost-optimal solution for anyone.
Some long-popular forms of packaging are clearly not amenable to online shipping. We've all received blister packs with bent cardboard. Intellectually, we realize it has no effect on the product, but we still wouldn't buy it if we saw dangling from a hook in a store.
Another major concern for cost-conscious online retailers are all those foam peanuts, crumpled paper and bubble wrap used to fill up that empty space.
Yet look at the photos in any online toy store. Packaging is sometimes shown behind the toy, but more often, it's not shown at all.
In terms of simple marketing, the question is no longer about what looks good on the shelf but what looks good in a low-resolution photo?
The trend is clear. Packaging methods designed for crowded store shelves are going to matter less in the future. Increasingly, toymakers are designing their products and packaging for ease of shipping.
This could mean that the toy can be shipped in its original packaging directly to the customer, with no need for an "overbox," in Amazonian parlance.
Or it could mean that the package is optimized for ease of picking from a warehouse shelf — by a human or, increasingly, by a robot — and placing in a box for delivery.
Toy executives already know this. One of the few corners of the industry in which U.S. toy manufacturers still flourish is in bulky, lightweight items, like those big plastic playhouses and ride-in toys for small children. One such firm is Streetsboro, Ohio-based rotomolder Simplay3, which sells both online and via Amazon.
"We have always been cognizant of the impact of product design as it relates to cost-efficient online shipping. We remain very focused on this aspect," Simplay3 President Jim Miller wrote Plastics News in an email.
A nice side-benefit is sustainability is becoming an increasingly key selling point. Smaller brands will want to keep up with the likes of Disney and Mattel which already have aggressive efforts to reduce packaging waste.
Savvy processors can recommend resins that make for a lighter, stronger product that's cheaper to ship.
They can even collaborate with product designers to shave weight and increase production yields while assuring that the toy will stand up to the inevitable abuse from hard-playing kids.
There are other lessons to be learned from the toy business. More than most industries, toys are driven by ever-shorter product cycles and short production runs, often geared toward the booming market in collectibles. (You want a Hot Wheels Custom '77 Dodge Van? You got one.) Processors offering prototypes and short runs will have a leg up.
Quick turnarounds are a must, too. For toy executives, no words inspire dread like "Product unavailable until Dec. 26."
The plastics business isn't all fun and games. But it can learn some lessons from an industry that takes fun and games deadly seriously.
Kent Miller is a correspondent for Plastics News.