business news in context, analysis with attitude

The Seattle Times has a piece about Amazon's Packaging Innovation Lab, where "packages are put through the wringer. The lab has a machine to simulate the bumpiness of the back of a semitrailer, as well as one that mimics slamming into the walls of those trailers if the driver pumps the brakes. It has extremely cold chambers, and extremely humid ones. And it tests falls — on every side of the box, following a specific 17-drop protocol."

The goal, according to Justine Mahler, Amazon’s director of packaging innovation, is to stress-test the entire delivery chain, from “pack-to-porch,” with a "testing protocol that Amazon has set up to improve its packaging, aiming to reduce the amount of plastic, cardboard or other materials it uses to ship items. The ultimate goal, Mahler said, is to get rid of packaging altogether."

The Times goes on:  "The Packaging Innovation Lab is one of Amazon’s efforts to reduce the considerable amount of pollution it generates. On the road, it hopes to shift toward electric delivery vans. In its data centers and corporate buildings, it plans to switch to renewable energy. In its warehouses, it wants to reduce the amount of packaging used for each shipment while ensuring each product arrives on time and undamaged.

"Amazon says it’s making progress but environmental groups, employees and stakeholders are increasingly calling on the company to do more."

The lab, which is located about a dozen miles east of Tacoma in the city of Sumner, is said to run "about 100 tests a week. It also trains labs around the world to do their own tests, and then reviews tens of thousands of results from those each week, the company said.

"For comparison, Amazon says it delivers more than 10 million customer packages globally every day.

"From the lab, Amazon sends information to manufacturers, suppliers and vendors, as well as analyzing some of it on its own. Those data points can then help make decisions about the best way to package an item — balancing that desire to reduce packaging while ensuring the product is on time and in good condition."

KC's View:

The "get rid of packaging altogether" construct is interesting, if a little misleading.  The goal, more accurately  put, is to get rid of redundant packaging - a product comes in a box, and Amazon is trying to figure out ways to stop putting boxes inside of boxes, which will create economic savings as well as eliminating waste.

I find this fascinating because in so may ways those Amazon boxes - adorned with the ubiquitous smile, which most people immediately recognize as part of the Amazon logo - are an exercise in branding.  We know how ubiquitous and dominant Amazon is by how many boxes in the system carry its logo;  if those boxes go away, it eliminates one of the ways in which the company communicates an important marketing message.

That, of course, isn't enough of a reason to keep creating needless waste.

(Which itself seems like a redundant phrase.  Isn't all waste needless?  Except, of course, human waste.  I need to think about this.  But I digress…)

It is possible, that as Amazon more and more owns its distribution networks, with trucks that carry not just its packages but also its logo and implied marketing messages, having that logo on boxes will be less necessary.

But I do think that this is not just an exercise in how to eliminate tangible packaging materials.  It also is about less tangible branding messages, which is critically important to any organization.

This leads, I think, to a broader business lesson for every retailer - are you taking advantage of every opportunity to communicate your brand message?  Are there places where you can communicate how essential you are to the shopping experience, but at the moment may be irrelevant in terms of customer perception?  Because if there are, you are missing an opportunity.