Follow Slashdot stories on Twitter

 



Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Businesses

Amazon Tries To Figure Out the Packaging Box Problem It Created (t.co) 169

Have you noticed that your tiniest ecommerce items, which used to be shipped in a box, are now arriving in a padded envelope? WSJ reports: Amazon is trying to ship each order in one correctly sized package instead of multiple boxes, responding to rising shipping costs and consumers' concern about the environmental impact (Editor's note: the link may be paywalled) and general nuisance of all that cardboard. That means adding bubble envelopes, tweaking algorithms and negotiating with manufacturers to make smaller packaging specifically for online sales, not store shelves. [...] This year, Amazon added machines in its warehouses that create padded mailers on demand to fit smaller items, all of which used to go into the company's smallest-sized box. Almost half of all of Amazon's products fit into the new mailers and poly bags, says Kim Houchens, director of customer packaging experience. Her team has been working to improve algorithms that help decide which size box and how many items should be packed together in each shipment. The algorithms use machine learning to test out new combinations -- for example, shipping a breakable item in a smaller box with less cushioning. The algorithm can scan customer reviews and other data to see if it worked and adjust as needed.
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Amazon Tries To Figure Out the Packaging Box Problem It Created

Comments Filter:
  • Packaging... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by muphin ( 842524 ) on Thursday December 21, 2017 @03:06AM (#55781477) Homepage
    love the quote" The algorithms use machine learning to test out new combinations -- for example, shipping a breakable item in a smaller box with less cushioning. The algorithm can scan customer reviews and other data to see if it worked and adjust as needed."

    so peoples packages are now used for "testing"... well that lamp broke... oh well, try something new....that poor person at the end of it now has a broken lamp to deal with.
    • Re:Packaging... (Score:5, Informative)

      by nnull ( 1148259 ) on Thursday December 21, 2017 @04:32AM (#55781651)
      Well, the good thing is, Amazon seems to have no problem replacing your product. I've already had Amazon ship me free stuff when my package was a week late, and when it does arrive, they don't want it back. Their customer service is excellent so I don't see why they can't experiment a little with the good coverage that they have.
      • Because there might be a reason why I buy something. Ya know, like, I need that item. I don't know why you buy stuff, but that's why I buy it. It takes me time to take it home (from work, because that's where I pretty much have to have it delivered to because not sending it there means they find an empty house and take it to their "drop station" in some godforsaken corner of the planet where you can then go to pick it up... or the even more fun variant of them putting it down in front of your door where you

        • If only there was a place you could go to buy goods at your convenience precisely when needed, avoiding the shipping step... That would be amazing!

          • Before Christmas? There is a limit to the atrocities I want to endure.

          • Most of the shops in my town are 9 to 5:30, so they're not convenient if you have a full time job. Besides, whiles there's plenty of choice for fine jewelry, locally butchered meat and clothes, there's nobody that sells SSDs, etc.

          • by Megol ( 3135005 )

            Yes if only... I actually don't know of any shop that carries the goods I use Amazon for. In fact that's _why_ do use online shopping - because I can't find the stuff in local stores (and I use local in the sense of >2h transport to the place).

            Don't forget that not everyone lives where you do, have the services you do _and_ have the needs you have.

          • by sjbe ( 173966 ) on Thursday December 21, 2017 @07:40AM (#55782111)

            If only there was a place you could go to buy goods at your convenience precisely when needed, avoiding the shipping step... That would be amazing!

            Well when they invent such a thing then I'll change my buying habits because the options now are anything but convenient. As it is I have FAR too busy a schedule to want to want to spend hours getting in my car, driving to a random location on a map, browsing through merchandise on a scavenger hunt, paying an exorbitant markup, and being unable to do something else more productive with my time.

            Oh and stores still ship stuff they just use YOUR vehicle to do the shipping instead of theirs. So unless you have a store with a star trek transporter I don't know about it's still getting shipped and probably less efficiently.

          • If only there was a place you could go to buy goods at your convenience precisely when needed, avoiding the shipping step

            For the stuff I typically buy there? Used to be in a mail-order catalog before that. Closest retail store with those items is 100+ miles away.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by bickerdyke ( 670000 )

      If it's about improving something existing it's called controlling, not testing.

    • I don't think that they send out things in completely unsuitable packaging. This is about a fraction that gets broken during shipment. A small number of items always break. With a simpler packaging a few more items might break. The question is how many, and this is what this algorithm will learn. It is just doing basic statistics.
    • so peoples packages are now used for "testing"... well that lamp broke... oh well, try something new....that poor person at the end of it now has a broken lamp to deal with.

      Probably more along the lines of learning from their mistakes. I've done a lot of shipping. I used to own a company that shipped tens of thousands of custom boxed packages a year. We had a good crew but there were a lot of lessons we learned the hard way and effectively on our customer's dime. I can only imagine the difficulty in scaling what we did up to the scale of Amazon. Basically they are going to have shipping problems - the real question is whether they can use the information learned from the

      • by omnichad ( 1198475 ) on Thursday December 21, 2017 @11:16AM (#55783045) Homepage

        The problem is that Amazon's not just trying to ship the items well. They're trying to cut corners to the absolute cheapest possible.

        Like ordering vitamins that come in a glass bottle to see them come broken in a padded mailer. They knew it would do fine in a corner crush resistant box with a little padding. But they wanted to see if they could save money over returns/replacements by cutting costs to the absolute minimum.

        • The problem is that Amazon's not just trying to ship the items well. They're trying to cut corners to the absolute cheapest possible.

          Having been on the shippers end that it s distinction without a difference. I'm not sure people fully appreciate just how complicated that problem is. Amazon isn't a high margin business so they have a tough balancing act. They need to package well enough but not waste money over packaging. This is not an easy thing to do.

          I assure you that when you hire tens of thousands of people to pack and ship random orders of stuff, not all of them are going to be the best and brightest. If you think you have a de

          • If it were the employee choosing badly, sure. It's not. They set their systems to defy good sense and that system tells the employee to use worse packaging. The employee can't even override that without great effort.

            If they weren't a relatively high-margin business, they wouldn't be wasting my shipping subscription dollars producing original video content I never asked for.

            • If they weren't a relatively high-margin business, they wouldn't be wasting my shipping subscription dollars producing original video content I never asked for.

              Amazon's financial statements are public record [fungglobalretailtech.com]. You can verify for yourself that they have gross margins roughly comparable to Walmart or Target or Home Depot, none of which are high margin businesses. The fact that they plow their profits back into video production and other projects has nothing to do with their margins. Walmart is the canonical low margin business but if you do enough volume low margin businesses can be very profitable.

              • The fact that they plow their profits back into video production and other projects has nothing to do with their margins.

                Yes, it does. Those aren't profits that are being put into video production. It's extra expenses that they didn't need subtracting from their margin.

                You're looking at the retail price margin only. What about the actually shipping subscription service margins?

    • I wonder what reviews might lead an algorithm to decide that it's necessary to ship a gel wrist rest for keyboards like this:

      https://i.imgur.com/t9gCMCM.jp... [imgur.com]

      I was so dumbfounded by the size and the packaging material, I didn't even realize that the box was double-walled until I tried tearing it up to throw it into recycling.

      (Though to be fair and ruin part of the joke, that was an Amazon marketplace seller who didn't user amazon for shipping.)

    • Being the medical industry does these blind studies and risks peoples lives. That fact that you might be slightly inconvenience by not getting you gizmo seems rather pale in comparison.
      You have people with a life threatening condition. If they volunteer to be part of a test for a new drug that may save their life. Half of them get a placebo and half get that drug, and they compare the results.
      So half of the people are getting no treatment where they may be better off getting the current treatment. Just to

    • by zilym ( 3470 )

      Also love the quote about "consumers' concern about the environmental impact" of cardboard boxes. Last time I checked, cardboard comes from trees, a 100% renewable resource. And since cardboard comes from trees, cardboard is completely compostable. Flatten that box, stick it out in the yard, cover it with mulch, and within short order, it will be recycled back into the Earth, ready to grow new trees all over again.

      Now, the bubble envelopes that Amazon is replacing cardboard boxes with, they're predominately

    • Well, don't you WANT them to check that their packaging is working correctly?
  • by EETech1 ( 1179269 ) on Thursday December 21, 2017 @03:07AM (#55781479)

    I would think the cardboard packages are much more reusable and recyclable than the plastic lined paper envelopes.

    Amazon should be leading the way into sustainable packaging, even multi use returnable packaging.

    • by thesupraman ( 179040 ) on Thursday December 21, 2017 @04:25AM (#55781635)

      Absolutely this.

      This is all about Amazon reducing shipping costs, NOTHING to do with environment.
      Plastic is many, many times worse than paper/cardboard in just about every environmental measurement, however this new packaging allows for a significantly larger of shipments for a given packaging volume - therefore lower costs for Amazon.

      But hey, is that any surprise? of course minimising shipping costs is a prime need for Amazon, but why do they have to try and greenwash it?

      • In 5-10 ten years Amazon will be nationalized.

      • by nnull ( 1148259 ) on Thursday December 21, 2017 @05:05AM (#55781719)

        I'm sure this is more than reducing shipping costs for Amazon. Yes, it does reduce the costs for Amazon overall. Plastic is unfortunately much cheaper and more durable than paper. Plastic packaging machines are much cheaper over all, easier to control and for the most part, less error prone. The various quality issues has forced me to move away from paper packaging, too much moisture cause it to curl and the machine jamming up all the time, waste of time. Paper might be more environmentally friendly, but in the manufacturing world, paper is not being cost friendly at all lately due to various QC issues at paper mills and box plants lately (If you buy paper containers, you know what I'm talking about).

        And then the bouncing up and down costs of packaging is just insane. It makes it difficult to plan long term when GP, IP or the other big mills decide to raise the prices dramatically for no reason at all (They've done so multiple times this year already). Then you have Asia wanting to dump their shit paper products onto the US market that somehow winds up in container manufacturers that used to be good. There's a whole lot of shit that's going on in the paper world that you're just not aware of.

        I can see why Amazon wants to move away from it too.

      • by kyncani ( 873884 )

        But hey, is that any surprise? of course minimising shipping costs is a prime need for Amazon, but why do they have to try and greenwash it?

        Well it is harmless public relation.

        They could have said smaller packages and efficient distribution will allow more children to receive their packages in time for Christmas.

      • by Megol ( 3135005 )

        Not generally true actually. There are ecologically friendly plastics made from waste byproducts and recycling cardboard products require some work and nasty chemicals. Treated cardboard can be hard to reprocess too however IME Amazon doesn't use anything but fairly thin standard cardboard.

      • This is all about Amazon reducing shipping costs, NOTHING to do with environment.

        It can be about both. Anything that reduces material waste is both an economic benefit and an environmental benefit. While I'd agree that Amazon's primary motivation is almost certainly economic that doesn't mean that environmental considerations are nil. It can be a win/win in this case potentially.

      • by Ogive17 ( 691899 )
        A box that is too large requires more bubble wrap as interior cushioning so even moving these these padded mailers is still reducing the amount of packaging material. Yes, it's likely saving money on packaging and it's also saving money on shipping. The saved spaced on the delivery trucks also adds to the environmental savings as less trucks are needed to deliver the product.

        As a packaging engineer, finally an article where I'm the expert! :)
        • In the boxes Amazon has used paper for taking up the extra space, not bubble wrap or any other products made of plastic. So I've been folding the boxes up and putting them in my recycling bin. I have to throw the padded envelopes out in the garbage because there no facility to deal with them (paper glued onto plastic).

          While it may be better for the environment by being able to get more packages into a truck or container with the envelopes at the end of life they are worse. I can re-use a box easily, recycle

          • by Ogive17 ( 691899 )
            I see air pillows more often than paper.

            The padded envelopes I receive are also completely made from plastic.
      • by DogDude ( 805747 )
        but why do they have to try and greenwash it?

        They don't have to. Amazon's customers don't care about the environment, already. Nobody who cared about the environment would have every little item to their house delivered.
        • I'm actually curious about the environmental impact of that. I suspect it's not as clear-cut as you state.

          Most people in the US drive, so when they're going to the store to buy something, they're still burning gas to do it. Also, people often don't make all of their purchases in one trip.

          So, what's the difference between the environmental impact of buying a bunch of things from physical stores when you've made a separate trip for many of them, vs having them delivered to you where a whole bunch of deliverie

          • by DogDude ( 805747 )
            With brick and mortar stores, you have a few trains and trucks delivering to the stores, then people going to last mile (via car, bike, foot, etc.) to get stuff.

            With delivery, each individual item is packaged and shipped separately to lots of different locations.

            Unless I'm missing something obvious, it's clear to me that all of this "home delivery" stuff is much much more energy intensive than shopping locally.
            • My point is about that last mile. With brick and mortar, a separate car trip is made for each item sold (more or less). With delivery, a whole mess of items are sent to the homes in one truck trip.

              It seems clear that for the "last mile", the total miles driven if everyone is picking the goods up form the store is larger than the total miles driven if a truck picks them all up in one go.

              As I said, I don't know how this works out environment-wise, but on the face of it, it doesn't seem obvious to me that one

        • Nobody who cared about the environment would have every little item to their house delivered.

          Every item in your house was delivered there by one means or another. Do you think it is better for the environment to have the same items delivered to a store first, to wait indefinitely on a shelf in the hopes that someone will make a trip there to purchase them and drive them home, compared to shipping them directly from the warehouse? For the majority of items which are not produced locally, I see no reason to think that online shopping would not be much better for the environment than buying the same i

    • Amazon should be leading the way into sustainable packaging, even multi use returnable packaging.

      How about a robot whose hands end in cups, like the two halves of a coconut? Detachable, many different sizes and foam-lined interior configurations available. The robot goes to the warehouse, picks up the item, locks the cups together, then rolls to a bus which delivers it to your door. The robot trundles up to your door and then sends you a text message, and hands the item right to you.

      I don't think that's much more complicated than "ship something in the wrong packaging, it gets damaged, return it and sh

    • Maybe; it depends. The thing is that a box takes up a lot more space and so can be considered to use a lot more fuel to ship. An envelope is probably 2-10x more fuel efficient than a box.

    • Are the padded mailers even recyclable? They aren't marked as such.

    • Or you can do your part and let your cart build up so everything can be shipped in one box instead of wanting everything at once. Then Amazon can ship it the eco friendly way you want. Amazon even has a choice at checkout to delay your shipment so they can send everything in as few boxes as possible.

    • If proper recycling is taking place then that is not the case:

      http://www.technikpackaging.co... [technikpackaging.com]

  • by SuperKendall ( 25149 ) on Thursday December 21, 2017 @03:11AM (#55781491)

    When ordering multiple items from Amazon, from what I can tell the algorithm is "throw all items in bon with a few inflated tubes and let everything fend for itself".

    To be fair as this article says, some things have stated coming individually packaged and in better shape. But even recently we've received a number of items that had a few dings from being loose in package. Were I ordering anything like an action figure I didn't want a card even slightly bent on, I'd be super leery of Amazon still.

  • The cost is rising because they sell more. If your send 2 packages instead of 1 the previous week, your cost has 'risen' 100%. So the cost per item has staid the same. They just want to "understandably" reduce the cost.

    And that 'customer concern' is just an added bonus they can add as to why they do it. I reality it is just about money. Not that that is a bad thing.

  • This article reminds me of books I received from an Amazon UK order I placed earlier this year. The post office handed me the remains of the box (2 pieces of cardboard) - and the contents, 3 soft-backed books (one of which was slightly damaged - just not enough to make me goto the trouble of returning it).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 21, 2017 @06:40AM (#55781949)

    Why is the link to a t.co URL? So Slashdot's not only doing slashvertisements but also click tracking now?

  • I'd rather they spend some time trying to understand delivery hours. Lately Amazon has been trying to deliver packages themselves instead of using couriers like UPS or FedEx. I usually have stuff shipped to me at work because 1) it's more secure and 2) my driveway is long and un-navigable during the winter by delivery trucks (steep grade + ice). But Amazon hasn't figured out how to instruct their delivery drivers about hours of operation for businesses so they constantly try to deliver after hours. For

    • I tell Amazon to use USPS whenever that's an option (and it usually is). That resolves all such issues for me, as there's a USPS package lockbox on my street.

      Also, package tracking is much better with USPS, and they've yet to mess up a delivery.

      • Also, package tracking is much better with USPS, and they've yet to mess up a delivery.

        That's kind of damning with faint praise because I find USPS tracking to be borderline useless. It typically doesn't tell you much if anything about where the package is until it is already delivered. UPS and FedEx are much better in this regard.

        • This can be true, depending on where the package is being routed through. Usually, though, I can see what city the package is in and whether it's currently moving or is sitting in a distribution center.

          It could very well be that I'm lucky and the system works better in my area than yours.

  • >" responding to rising shipping costs and consumers' concern about the environmental impact "

    I can't stand those damn "poly bags". They are beyond frustrating to try and remove the damn labels and the bags are not recyclable. The padded envelopes lined in bubble wrap are not any better.

    Just give me a nice cardboard box with some scrunched paper for padding...

    • by fermion ( 181285 )
      I would prefer smaller boxes to padded envelopes, which as said are not recyclable.

      My big concern is that they are trying to put more stuff into the box, resulting in items not being broken, but being scattered about as the container breaks.

      My second concern is using padded bags when simple strong plastic bags would do.

  • Was immediately reminded of this el reg article:
    https://www.theregister.co.uk/... [theregister.co.uk]
  • by cascadingstylesheet ( 140919 ) on Thursday December 21, 2017 @10:00AM (#55782559)

    Dang, my wife loves the free cardboard boxes for various purposes.

    How is a free cardboard box that is more environmentally friendly than plastic wrap a "problem"?

    • How is a free cardboard box that is more environmentally friendly than plastic wrap a "problem"?

      For one thing, the box takes up unnecessary volume in every single leg of the distribution chain between Amazon and you. That means more trucks on the road to achieve the same number of shipments. Whether that environmental cost outweighs the substitution of plastic wrap for cardboard is not a simple question, but the logistical costs definitely go down.

  • Might kill Amazon's business model, but start charging a small, flat fee per order regardless of order size. Including for Prime customers. I know my wife will order something on Monday and something else on Tuesday when she could theoretically have combined those two purchases into a single order. Charging a per-order fee might encourage people to time-shift some of their purchases to consolidate them into a single order.
    • Prices on Amazon fluctuate so quickly that you may want to ensure that you get the price listed right now, rather than whatever they're charging tomorrow.

      They already do some stuff like "if you choose slow shipping, you get some coupon for a later order." Maybe they could offer a reward if you choose to have them delay your shipments for a few days so they can optimally batch things together. It doesn't seem like they do that currently with the slow shipping options, but it's a fairly obvious optimization

      • They already do some stuff like "if you choose slow shipping, you get some coupon for a later order."

        Which I'd totally take advantage of if the future credit could be used on any purchase I make. But they tend to be limited to specific categories, and are never categories that I actually buy products in.

  • stop the high quotas so workers have more time to wait for an box size that needs to be refilled / stop them for just dumping into the nearest box to make rate.

  • Amazon does everything else now, maybe they can start doing on-demand cardboard pickups for Prime customers. Or, they could collect recyclables in general and assign a certain day of the week to send a truck by your house to collect them from a bin placed at your curb. This kind of zero-click technology is incredibly innovative, and clearly warrants a patent.

  • I'm surprised that no one has mentioned "Kim Houchens, director of customer packaging experience"

    That's actually a directorate level career?

    I wonder how many children pick Master of bags, boxes and packing peanuts as their goal in life in their 5th grade career day.

  • It always deeply irritates me when a box (sometimes radically oversized) is used to ship something that could easily have just been put into an envelope instead. I'm very happy to hear that Amazon is addressing this. I hope it catches on with others as well.

    From TFS:

    negotiating with manufacturers to make smaller packaging specifically for online sales, not store shelves

    This is also really welcome! Product packaging designed for store shelves has also bothered me for a very long time (whether I get them from

    • by J053 ( 673094 )

      Worst instance of this I ever saw was a few years back when (HP? I think) sent a license certificate to $WORK packed in a 13x10x3 inch box swaddled in air bags. For a piece of paper.

      • HP is (was?) notorious for that sort of thing. I remember, a couple decades ago, receiving a small cable from them packaged in a 3'x3' box. My first thought was that they accidentally shipped me an empty box. My second thought was that the people working in their shipping department must truly hate their jobs.

  • I liked the combination of "...responding to ... consumers' concern about the environmental impact ... That means adding bubble envelopes". Those bubble envelopes are a glued sandwich of polyetheline and paper, which can't be recycled. Good job adressing environmental concerns, Amazon! I'm sure Scott Pruitt is thrilled.

1 1 was a race-horse, 2 2 was 1 2. When 1 1 1 1 race, 2 2 1 1 2.

Working...