Toy packaging is frustrating to open, wasteful, and bad for the environment. How Mattel's designers and engineers worked to free Barbie from her shackles.

Mattel's number-one goal with its packaging had been to ensure that Barbie survives the trip from the factory in Asia to the store to your home looking perfect. "We believed that customers wanted to see the dolls rigid in their boxes," says Cary Common, manager of prepack merchandising. So Barbie has been tethered to the package with 14 to 16 inches of plastic-covered wire ties, as well as stitching and tape.

Subsequent research, though, showed that people thought the dolls "look more natural with slight differences." That insight freed Mattel to pursue an easier-to-open package without sacrificing the customer's perception of quality.

Packaging metaphors from other businesses offered alternatives for the exterior. A cosmetics box (left) and the peel-back top for products like refrigerator-case pasta (right) were the two most intriguing ideas. "We loved how both packages allowed customers easy access to the product," says Tanya Mann, director of girls package design.

The design team sketched out both ideas, but chose to pursue a resealable top with easy-release glue and a perforated back, because, according to Mann, "many times, consumers use packaging as storage." A resealable box would encourage that use.

The wire ties presented the biggest challenge in the effort to eliminate kids' or parents' frustration when removing Barbie from the paperboard. In market research, Mattel observed girls opening Barbie packaging by themselves. "Their method is to pull and tear," Common says, "not meticulously untwist the tie-downs that keep Barbie perfectly positioned in the box." Engineers experimented with a variety of materials, from plastic to paper, settling on the "plastic staple" that's used to affix tags to clothing. It lets girls open the package their way: A firm tug can now release Barbie from the paperboard.

For Barbie to look as good as possible in the box, she has to be held in place at her head, hair, arms, waist, and feet. Plastic staples weren't ideal for every spot, so engineers tried stitching her down with standard thread (which had been used previously for her hair) and using a low-tack glue like that used for a magazine insert. Part of the answer came from Barbie's early days. "When Barbie was introduced in 1959," Common says, "dolls were shipped in closed boxes that had internal die cuts to hold her in place." Die cuts now hold Barbie at the elbows and ankles. Nylon fasteners replaced Barbie's hair stitches.

Barbie was subjected to rigorous testing to make sure the packaging did its job. Tests in­cluded being dropped six times from a height of 24 inches, taking a steam bath, and being heated to 130 degrees. She passed.

The new Barbie hit store shelves in July, in preparation for the Christmas selling season. In market research, Mattel timed kids opening the new boxes. The new packaging reduces the time it takes to remove Barbie by up to 70%. And Mattel's overall costs have been reduced, as it's using fewer and less-expensive materials to produce a smaller package.

"Scenery on the box or creating a play scenario," such as the skate ramp on this Hot Wheels package, says Mann, "enhances the experience right out of the box." The box also doesn't immediately go right into the trash. These kinds of scenarios are where Barbie and her kin are headed next.

Mattel's Easy For Me 1-2-3 Barbie

Toy packaging is frustrating to open, wasteful, and bad for the environment. How Mattel's designers and engineers worked to free Barbie from her shackles.

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