Product Managers Have To Decide: Is It Time For Bubble Wrap To Go Away?

Has the time for bubble wrap come and gone?
Has the time for bubble wrap come and gone?
Image Credit: Miika Silfverberg

If you are anything like I am, when you get a package sent to you in the mail you are excited to receive it. When the package arrives, the first thing that you do is to tear it open and get to the item that has been sent to you. We generally don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how this item was packaged – how did it make it to us without breaking? More often than not it’s been packed in bubble wrap. You know, the plastic sheets of bubbles that we all used to take time to pop when we were kids. Times are changing and bubble wrap is going away. What are those bubble wrap product managers thinking?

The Honeymoon For Bubble Wrap Is Over

I’m not sure if this is going to make you feel old, but the original bubble wrap was invented way back in 1957 by the Sealed Air Corporation. Bubble wrap was a very popular product and for years it was Sealed Air’s best-selling product. The patent on this product ran out in 1981, but Sealed Air has used its manufacturing trade secrets to keep creating a unique product. Now that kind of product success would look good on anyone’s product manager resume!

The problem is that the packaging industry has become more competitive over time. With the rise of e-commerce more and more items are being shipped and this has required the use of more and more packaging materials. Alternatives such as liquid foam and agricultural byproducts have slowly been nibbling away at plastic wrap’s market share. In 2010 bubble wrap contributed 5.7% to Sealed Air’s sales. However, this had fallen to 3.6% by 2012. Clearly the Sealed Air product managers had a problem on their hands.

Just to make things a little bit more difficult, bubble wrap is very difficult to ship and store. Traditional bubble wrap ships in pre-inflated roles that take up a lot of precious room on delivery trucks. Once it arrives at a factory, it has to be stored somewhere on the factory floor. When you consider that factory space is currently at a premium and that giving any space up to storing bubble wrap can be costly, you won’t be surprised when one manufacturer calculated that the 3,000 square feet required to store bubble wrap was going to end up costing them US$75,000 per year in potential revenue.

The Challenge Of Making iBubble A Success

Realizing that they had a challenge on their hands the Sealed Air product managers started taking a look at their product development definition and thinking about what kind of product they could create that would replace bubble wrap. They knew that they had to make it easier to ship – the new product needed to take up roughly 1/50 of the room on delivery trucks that bubble wrap currently took. Once it arrived at the factory, it also had to take up less room on the factory floor. Using these design criteria the product managers went ahead and created a new shipping product that they call iBubble Wrap

iBubble Wrap is sold in flat plastic sheets that when a shipped company is assembling a package, they would then fill the plastic sheets with air using a custom-made pump that is sold by Sealed Air. Although the IBubble bubbles look similar to plastic wrap bubbles, from an end user point-of-view there is one key difference, the bubbles do not pop when pressure is applied to them.

The special pumps that users will have to purchase in order to use the new iBubble product may turn out to be an issue. The pumps currently cost US$5,500. The Sealed Air product managers hope to get this cost down to US$1,000 in just two years. This additional expense may turn off some potential customers. Sealed Air may end up either loaning or giving away some pumps in order to boost the initial sales of their new iBubble Wrap product.

What All Of This Means For You

As more and more consumers use the Internet to purchase things online, the things that they buy have to be shipped to them. This means that things that can break need to be packaged very carefully. One of the most popular ways to package breakable items has always been to use bubble wrap.

Bubble wrap has been around for a long time. It’s very easy to use; however, it does suffer from some limitations. It’s very bulky and so it takes up a lot of room on the trucks that are used to ship it and once it’s in the factory it can take up a lot of valuable factory floor space. The Sealed Air product managers have created a new product called iBubble Wrap that solves both of these issues. The customer packs the item using iBubble Wrap and then uses a custom pump to inflate the iBubble wrap sheets of bubbles.

The market for packaging products is large and will only be getting larger over time. The Sealed Air product managers have had a good run with their bubble wrap product; however, the market is now changing and so they need to reinvent their product. The creation of the iBubble Wrap product appears to be their attempt to do what their product manager job description tells them to do and listen to their customers’ needs and create a product that will address those needs.

There are a lot of alternative packaging materials out there, we’ll have to take a close look the next time that we receive a product in the mail in order to find out who wins this battle for market supremacy!

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: Do you think that the Sealed Air product managers should make it so that any pump could inflate their new iBubble Wrap product?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Let’s face it – being a product manager at a billion dollar global restaurant firm cannot be an easy job. Over at both McDonalds and Yum Brands (think KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell) their product managers realize just how important the China market is to their firms. Both firms realize that they need to take steps to modify their product development definition in order to boost sales in China and having taken a look at the 885M Chinese people who own mobile phones, both firms have decided that they need to work more mobile into how they do business.