Holidays 2017

December 2, 2017 8:00 am
Updated: December 2, 2017 9:14 am

How online retailers’ effort to go green could ruin Christmas

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Shannon Boden had a close call this holiday season.

Boden was at her home in Ontario’s Durham Region, when the doorbell rang. Outside was a friendly Purolator courier holding Boden’s recent Amazon purchase: Luvabella, a bright-eyed responsive doll that is one of this year’s hot-ticket toys. Meant to be a gift from Santa, Luvabella was now staring out of a clear-plastic packaging as Boden’s three children approached the door.

“In this house, Santa still delivers via chimney on the eve of Dec. 24, so seeing the delivery man giving it to mommy would have been very disappointing for all of us,” she told Global News via Facebook.

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Luckily, upon catching a glimpse of the kids, the courier quickly shielded the item and patiently waited outside, as Boden said she went back inside to grab a throw blanket to hide the doll in.

She had bought Luvabella on Amazon.ca thinking it would come in an anonymous cardboard box, not the manufacturer’s original packaging, she said, adding that she had to buy a glue removal in order to scrape the label off the box.

Stories like Boden’s are becoming more and more common around Christmas, as retailers cut back on packaging for online orders.

In Canada, some items on Amazon.ca have been shipping in their own container since 2015, the company told Global News in a statement.

“Customers may now elect to conceal the shipment using our gift options. If an item is too large for gift options, or gift options are unavailable, we notify the customer on the product detail page that the packaging may reveal its contents and cannot be concealed,” Amazon said.

Amazon.ca does carry a warning when something ships in its original packaging, an alert that is displayed on all its Luvabella offerings when Global News checked.

But the alert is arguably easy to miss, usually located at the bottom of a long list of product and shipping information.

Starting next year, Canadians will also be able to pick the “Ship in Amazon Box” option at checkout, a feature that’s already available on Amazon’s U.S., U.K. sites as well as in several other European countries, the company said.

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Amazon is not alone in its efforts to minimize packaging.

Walmart.ca, for example, doesn’t offer wrapping services or specialized packaging options, the retailer told Global News.

“Customers looking to avoid spoiling a surprise this holiday season, or for those who want to keep presents out of the little ones reach, we recommend using our free store pickup option, pickup at post office, or shipping to a location other than home,” it said in a statement.

And Canadians don’t have an option to conceal online gift from Bestbuy.ca either.

“Our small orders are shipped in a padded envelope, while our larger items — TVs for example — are shipped as is. Bestbuy.ca does offer a Reserve & Pickup option through which customers can easily reserve a product online and pick it up in store on the same day, preventing any unwanted surprises at the door,” the company said via email.

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An effort to save the planet – and the bottom line

There are two main reasons behind retailers’ drive to reduce packaging, according to Ron Sasine, principal at Hudson Windsor, a consultancy based in Arkansas that focuses on packaging strategy.

One of them is environmental sustainability, he said. “That additional corrugated cardboard box can have a real impact.”

Amazon, for example, recently claimed to have eliminated 181,000 tons of waste and 307-million boxes since launching its war on unnecessary cardboard boxes and bubble wrap in 2008.

The second reason behind retailers’ enthusiasm for minimalist shipping options is economic. Although Sasine estimates packaging accounts for just one to two per cent of the price of most consumer products, he says retailers will cut costs anywhere they can in a world where consumers have come to expect free shipping on almost anything.

Many customers appreciate the effort to spare trees and few miss struggling with needless layers of cardboard, Styrofoam and tape.

But this is the dawn of smarter packaging for e-commerce retailers, and there have been a few bumps on the road, said Sasine.

Getting in Santa’s way isn’t the only problem retailers have run into. Shipping items in their own containers also means that, often, “everybody knows what’s arrived,” Sasine noted.

A colourful box advertising its contents is more likely to attract thieves, he said, adding that he started hearing complaints of items being taken from porches from friends in the greater Toronto area in 2014 and 2015, roughly around the time Canada saw a big push to expand e-commerce for holiday purchases.

Luckily for young and old, though, the retail and packaging industry seem to be coming up with ways to work around these issues.

Retailers are increasingly offering the option for customers to pick up online items in store or at convenient locations like subway stations.

And some have started making boxes designed specifically for e-commerce orders that feature a plain exterior, reserving the inside for artworks and branded highlights.

If original packaging is sometimes spoiling Christmas surprises today, in a not so distant future, that innovation might just make what Sasine calls “the opening moment” even more special.

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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