Packaging accessibility – an ageing issue

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The ageing population is the largest and fastest growing sector of the market– but when it comes to packaging design, the elderly are often overlooked.

One of the key roles of packaging is to protect its contents, but what happens when it is so well protected, that a consumer can’t access it?

Fergal Barry, strategic partnerships manager at Arthritis Australia says that particularly in food retail, packaging traditionally caters to the nuclear family and couples with children, but this excludes 70 percent of Australians who don’t belong to either segment.

“By targeting that market you’re excluding more than two-thirds of the marketplace. You’re also excluding the one in two people that face some sort of functional limitation,” Barry says.

With 73 percent, or $3,262 billion of Australia’s net household worth belonging to those who are aged 45+, Barry says “surely it makes sense that their needs are actively considered through the design process. A failure to do that creates a barrier to purchase. Simply, if you can’t open it, you can’t eat it.”

In order to address the issue, Arthritis Australia teamed up with Nestle, NSW Health and Georgia Tech to release the Initial Scientific Review, which estimates what percentage of the population can safely open packaging. Arthritis Australia uses the review to assess hundreds of products and passes the findings onto manufacturers so they can consider improving their packaging. It has been adopted by NSW Health to evaluate the food packaging of its suppliers, ranking them from -8 to +8, to help make food packaging easier to open for elderly or frail hospital patients.

Barry says the review represents an opportunity for manufacturers.

“It’s not just [about] designing packaging that people in hospital can open; easy open packaging is a significant driver for innovation and an escape from price-only competition. In the health system a lot of the companies are now competing on more than price, they’re innovating and they’re being rewarded for innovation by winning contracts.”

“Some of the biggest benefactors of accessibility have been small manufacturers. Small to medium organisations have a much greater scope to fundamentally redesign a product. With a multinational, the process of making a fundamental design change to an iconic brand, especially one that’s used nationally or globally, can be quite significant. But if you’re a small manufacturing company and somebody says ‘here’s an opportunity, here’s how to redesign the product and we’ll help you’, you can just say ‘yeah, let’s do it’. When you do that … you can pick up contracts and replace existing suppliers in a market just by putting the consumer at the centre of the design process.”

Barry says that one barrier that manufacturers may face in making their packaging more accessible is being committed to a certain pack format. Another barrier may be regulatory requirements around labelling, which may compel suppliers to put a lot of information on a small space – which those with less than perfect eyesight struggle to read.

A fundamental change in pack format may, (but not always) require a significant investment.

“There is often an assumption that making packaging easier to open is going be very difficult or automatically very expensive, and we’ve helped debunk that myth. In some cases it’s cheaper and you can also reduce packaging waste.”

For example, portion controlled cereals are traditionally packaged in a box and a bag, but many manufacturers have begun to switch to a flow wrap, therefore eliminating the need for a box. By switching, manufacturers have been able to use less materials, save money, and reduce environmental and food waste.

“I think also sometimes manufacturers perceive that if they’re looking at a redesign, that Arthritis Australia are looking for manufacturers to make unrealistic changes. All we want is for companies to make an informed decision on how any change will impact the number of consumers that can consume a product, or buy it,” Barry says.

“The idea is not to focus on designing for one group, it’s to design for all and make their needs part of the decision making process.”

One barrier to accessibility is the need to use a "tool" to open the packaging.

A growing issue

Accessibility was recently added to the Australian Packaging Covenant, a sustainable packaging initiative aimed at changing the culture of business, which has over 900 organisations as signatories.

Gavin Williams, CEO of the Packaging Council of Australia says accessibility was added because it’s a growing issue.

“If people can’t open [a product], they do one of two things: if it’s a real pain to open, they’ll go to another product, or they’ll take a knife or scissors [to it] and there is the risk of injury,” Williams says.

“More and more of [the elderly] are living on their own, so therefore there has been a move to smaller, individually packed products. Products in larger portion packaging for them are often unused and spoiled by the time they come to them again and again.”

Another significant change Williams has seen is where the packaging also becomes a dispensing device, such as the switch from the honey jar, to a plastic container with a twist-spout closure.

“Those are the sorts of devices that are becoming more commonplace, and it indicates that while all products are not perfect in this area, I think there is a real effort made to address this issue, for the benefit of the consumer but, put simply, it also makes commercial sense.”

When redesigning packaging, it’s all about finding a balance.

“Easy opening packaging, by its very nature, raises the spectre that – if it’s easy to open, is it easy to tamper with? You’ve got to build in tamper-evident devices which don’t undermine the open-ability.”

Catering to a need

Adrian Marostica, founding director of Handeepax, produced an easy to use packaging format for sauces and dressings, which is now used by Tasmanian Health.

Marostica identified a need for change after visiting his mother- and father–in-law in hospital and observing them trying to use the packaging presented to them.

“That’s when I started thinking ‘how could we do this better?’

“The old [butter] tub format has been around for 30 years and whilst it served a purpose, the growing elderly population were struggling to open and use them.”

Marostica identified problems with the tub format, including the need for fine motor skills when peeling the tops off, the difficulty in getting all the product in the tub out, and the tendency for the product to rip whatever it was spread upon.

In the design of Handeepax, a number of elements were considered, including ease of opening, the ability to control product flow so it did not cause spillage and so all the product could be removed from the packaging, and the necessity to not to have to use teeth, or any other tool. In the case of the butter, it was also important that the product could be held and warmed in the hand to reach the desired consistency.

Above: the Handeepax packaging.

Throughout the process, Marostica had Handeepax tested for openability and accessibility through Georgia Tech University, and discussed with Arthritis Australia in great depth the design, and what the elderly or people with disabilities need to make the packaging appropriate for them.

Marostica says in the initial days he faced some resistance, as people had the perception “why fix something that’s not broken?”

 “I think the packaging industry was very set in its ways; it wasn’t ready for change. I think that we as a company certainly listened to what people wanted. It’s definitely worthwhile at the end of the day and when you’re creating something new, you know you’re going to get resistance, it’s just the way the game plays, but that resistance usually gives you a lot of guidance and gives you a good story and reason to go in and explain the product to people,” he says.

“There’s room for change and there’s room for looking at packaging with a different eye, and I suppose the costs around doing it can be grave, but I think the rewards are there.

“If you don’t change with what the market wants, then you could be left behind.”