By Rob Brink
TransWorld Skateboarding Business January 2003
Whether it's cute, gimmicky bearing packaging, boxed wheels, toys that come with mounting hardware, complete setups in huge cardboard boxes, or aluminum-boxed truck gift sets, it's safe to say that product packaging in skateboarding has gone haywire in the last few years. But how much of it is really "necessary" and how much is simply a by-product of the consumer culture around which skateboarding thrives?
Many areas of skateboarding require packaging. Shrink-wrap on skateboard decks is done to protect graphics in shipping and also to maintain the authenticity of the board—differentiating it from other market rip-offs and/or counterfeit boards. Now many decks come with posters, warranty cards, stickers, strips of Roofies griptape, stencils, and other promotional materials. A simple shrink-wrapping was also the case with many brands of wheels. However, in recent years, wheel packaging has evolved from a shrink-wrapped sets of four, or dozens of wheels arriving to the shops in a plastic bag, to individual sets in blister packs, much like you would find a Star Wars figure wrapped in (Speed Demons). More recently, skateboarding has even seen the rise of the cardboard-boxed sets of wheels (Ricta and Spitfire).
Most people are aware that Phantom and Titan trucks ship in boxes. Hardware packaging has evolved from small plastic bags to cardboard-backed blister packs (such as Lucky and Diamond) as well. Some include toys while others include tools. Bearings used to come in small, no-more-than-necessary boxes or plastic tubes. Nowadays there are Pez dispensers, plastic hand grenades, metal tins of all shapes and sizes, cigarette packs, and more. Most softgoods are, more often than not, individually wrapped in plastic when they arrive at the shops. Since skateboarding has mimicked major clothing companies over the last few years, most clothes now come with cardboard tags attached, pants have size stickers on the legs, button-down shirts come wrapped like Ralph Lauren dress shirts with pins, collar protection, tissue paper, and cardboard inserts.
It's safe to say that many companies are exploiting packaging. Perhaps they are simply trying to do something fun and unique, or just keep up with the next guy. Packaging is obviously an integral part of product marketing dynamics in skateboarding. But is it necessary for all of this material to just go straight from the manufacturers to the landfills? Wouldn't companies spend less production money without it? Other than protecting the product, what purpose does the packaging really serve? Why the recent packaging boom, and what are the alternatives to excessive packaging? Has the involvement of stores like PacSun and Zumiez encouraged skate companies to enter the realm of high-tech elaborate packaging in order to measure up to the other products in the stores?
Rob Mertz, vice president of marketing for Syndrome Distribution, feels that packaging serves as a reminder to the kids that skateboarding is the coolest thing in the world. Syndrome offers bearing cases that kids can put anything into when they are done with the bearings. They have plastic boxes for Phantom trucks to keep them from getting scratched while shipping. And they now package Unit tools in plastic to battle counterfeiting of this best-selling tool. Mertz says, "We are constantly looking for new cool packaging. Shops can do whatever they want to sell the stuff. If they want to throw something away, there's not much we can do about it. If the packaging is cool enough, it won't make it to the trash compactor. But high-end products must come with high-end packaging." Mertz adds that Syndrome tries to manufacture packaging in as eco-friendly a process as possible and hopes that kids keep their packaging instead of throwing it away.
Jeff Kendall is director of marketing NHS' skateboard division. By boxing Ricta wheels, NHS is hoping for differentiation and logo identification on the shelves—so that the wheels stand out. "But it's more than aesthetics and marketing," says Kendall. "It's about protecting the wheels because the urethane is super pure—if we don't box them up, the fluorescent lights will yellow them. So that's the main reason. Getting rid of the boxes could definitely could reduce our costs a little, but then we'll have brown and yellow wheels, and those aren't going to sell. They get affected pretty quickly, and to us it's not worth it."
Kendall is aware that most shops just throw away the packaging and place the wheels in the case without it: "You can't change the way a shop merchandises its stuff. If a shop is used to yanking the wheels out, it doesn't matter how elaborate the packaging is or how helpful it will be to sell the wheel, they are going to yank it out and sit it next to the Spitfires and have it look exactly the same. Our Slims packaging folded so that you could make it into a P.O.P. display. I visited some shops and saw maybe one out of four using it, but I know for a fact that not too many people bother with it. We tried to design a way for shops to keep them in that packaging, but I don't think we had a lot of luck there."
"Packaging goes in waves," continues Kendall. "There was a period when packaging was nuts. We did Doritos-bag packaging, bean cans, oilcans—that was more of a gimmicky, parody type of thing. If the product itself isn't very differentiating, then people can use packaging to make their product look different. It's something that people fall back on sometimes, but it could also help you stand out in a shop if they decide to use it."
Tony Buyalos, president and owner of Shorty's, admits that packaging doesn't serve much of a purpose, but he feels it should reflect the product inside. If it's a quality product, it should have quality packaging: "There's nothing worse than high-quality packaging with nothing but shit inside. The hater side of me wants to say that the recent packaging boom is because everyone is a copycat, and when they see you do something that works, they all jump on the bandwagon. The lover in me says, 'I really don't know.'" Buyalos says the toys given away with Shorty's Lil' Hardware is not really a gimmick to help sell the product because the toy costs about a penny—it's just a little bonus that gives the customer a cheap thrill. Buyalos continues, "To be honest with you, I'm a hippie at heart and I don't like to use excessive packaging."
Shorty's has been researching some good alternative materials for packaging and Buyalos doesn't feel they have ever really gone overboard on packaging. "Except on those stupid-ass watches we made," Buyalos explains. "The watch was cool but the packaging was over the top, I just felt like watches didn't stand out in shops. I wanted our watches to stand out, but I think it backfired in our face. If I'm going to make a nice package, like for First-Aid Kits or Black Panthers, I like to try and use packaging that can be reused, like little containers. As a rule I like to spend as little as possible on packaging. I think the majority of Shorty's competitors spend more on packaging than they do on the product inside. Shorty's isn't the first company with nice packaging. As a whole I think we took it to another level, and I have seen and heard competitors in the past at our trade-show booths comment on how nice all the Shorty's packaging is, and since then (they) have upgraded all their own packaging. I'm not pointing the finger at anyone, but to me as a consumer, if you put your product inside a toy, then to me your product is just a toy itself and not to be taken seriously."
For now, it seems like the end of packaging excess is not on the horizon. One thing is for sure: all the products in the catalogs and shops sure look good. The bright side is that most packaging, whether cardboard, metal, or plastic, can be recycled if the shops of customers are inclined to do so. Perhaps the future will bring back the days of dozens of T-shirts, hoodies, hats, pants, trucks, or sets of wheels piled into one plastic bag to minimize waste. And maybe, just maybe, the bag will be photodegradable, like those used in supermarkets today. Hopefully plastic and cardboard cases for all types of products will be made from recycled material that can and will be recycled again when their purpose is served. Then maybe we skateboarders can smile and brag for once about how environmentally friendly we are.