When I think back to what it was like opening up a new consumer product ten or fifteen years ago, one thing that sticks out is the obnoxious packaging that used to be so commonplace. It seemed like everything in those days came in an airtight container of styrofoam, which turned brittle and covered half the floor when you tried to liberate the product from its package.

These days, most items are wrapped more sensibly, and it appears that cardboard and other paper-based materials are the dominant packing choice. When you do see styrofoam, it’s typically in a more resilient form that doesn’t break off and make a mess. And of course, a much higher percentage of packing materials are recyclable. 

Of course, there are still some holdouts. For instance, I bought a few new lamps recently. When I opened the first box, little styrofoam pellets spewed out and landed all over the floor. I was even more careful with the second one, but no matter how delicately I tried to cut the lamp base out of the styrofoam, I still ended up with pellets stuck to the product, the carpet, and even my clothes.

What’s the takeaway here? Obviously, paper-based packing materials are a smart choice if they’ll work for your type of product. But if you have a good reason for sticking with styrofoam, be sure it’s not the old brittle kind that makes a huge mess. Your customers — and their brooms and vacuum cleaners — will thank you for it.

I spotted a great deal on some really nice, modern kitchen chairs, which came out to something like $29 each for a set of four. When I opened up the box, I was pleased to see that the parts were in fairly good shape. However, once I started counting the screws and washers and such, I realized there were only enough parts to assemble three of the chairs.

Did the manufacturer forget to include the right quantity? That’s hard to say, since the parts bag had torn open during shipping, and some of them may have escaped through the various puncture wounds that the box sustained in transit.

I ended up contacting the retailer to make things right, but this got me thinking: why do manufacturers seem to only include the exact number of parts you need? If even one piece is missing, that means a costly return or replacement, or at least a separate expense to mail you the missing parts.

A smarter approach is to look at the cost of the parts and use some common sense about how many to include. For instance, if you’re selling a $100 item and additional screws are two cents each, then throw in a couple of extras. By making this tiny investment, you’ll save all the money you would otherwise have spent dealing with people who ended up one washer or screw or bracket short, while delivering a better customer experience and fostering positive feelings towards your brand.

There’s a big grocery store about a block away from where I live. More accurately, the store’s parking garage is only a block from me; the front of the store is another two blocks around, assuming you stick to the main roads. After some trial and error, I found out how to walk through the garage and end up right at the front entrance, which is a big time saver. However, I’m a little surprised that the store has done so little to help shoppers navigate the garage side of the building.

Perhaps they never expected anyone to walk into the garage on foot, or maybe they don’t want pedestrians clogging up the vehicle lanes. But short of putting up a gate that only opens for cars, you’re going to end up with people walking in the garage, especially in an urban area.

The sensible approach is to acknowledge that the parking garage serves multiple types of customers, and provide navigation cues for each. In the case of people in cars, that’s pretty much a given. And for people on foot, all it takes is clearly-marked stenciling on the ground and some signage to help them find the store entrance and garage exit. By taking these simple steps, you’ll make it easier for customers to reach the store quickly and easily, which can only mean good things for revenue and profits.

Part of the allure of online shopping is that you don’t have to physically cram the items into a shopping cart or bag, and then get them home. In other words, while the notion of a shopping cart provides a useful metaphor, everyone knows that an online cart can hold a lot more than an old-fashioned metal one.

With this in mind, I was puzzled to encounter a situation where a particular website only allowed you to place one item in their shopping cart at once. If you wanted to buy two or three of the item, you had to repeat the entire ordering process multiple times.

Granted, it took me longer to figure out the scope of the problem than to actually deal with placing two orders. But I think there are several takeaways here. First, try not to place arbitrary limits on how many items customers can buy at the same time. And second, if technical limitations prevent you from providing the expected shopping cart functionality, be sure to tell customers upfront that they’ll need to place multiple orders. Although they may be a little bit surprised by your low-capacity cart, at least people will know what they’re dealing with before they get fed up with a shopping cart that doesn’t seem to work as expected.

No matter how many lists you make, it’s difficult to go on a trip without having to purchase at least one or two things after you get there. In my most recent experience, I needed to buy a particular skin care product that had somehow leaked out and evaporated during the trip. So, I set out to find a replacement at the grocery store.

The name brand version was quite expensive, and I noticed they had a store brand option right next to it. The list of ingredients was identical, so I decided to give it a try. I can’t vouch for the quality of the store brand, since we haven’t actually opened the bottle yet. However, I did notice something curious about how the retailer is marketing it.

Specifically, the name brand version comes in a pump top bottle, while the store brand is just a twist or snap off design. If the retailer went to all the trouble to mimic the ingredients and package colors of the more popular version, why didn’t they emulate the pump part, too?

As far as I know, there’s nothing notable about the pump; it’s probably a generic part that dozens of companies include on their bottles. But for whatever reason, the people designing the store brand opted not to mimic that one aspect of the name brand product. This seems like a missed opportunity. Even though I ended up buying the store’s version based on the list of ingredients alone, I bet a lot of other customers would look at the bottle and quickly dismiss the store brand as functionally inferior, all because the familiar pump top is nowhere to be found.

While seeing some family over the holidays, I found myself in the car heading to a big nature preserve. We knew roughly how to get there, but still had to rely on street signs to figure out where to turn. At one intersection in particular, neither of us in the car could figure out which road we were approaching until it was too late to get into the correct lane.

Why the difficulty? Apparently, some genius decided to make the text much smaller so they could cram the words “Mall entrance” right under the street name. This was particularly amusing, since the mall entrance itself was so huge that it was basically impossible to miss. Putting the same info on the small road sign was not only unnecessary, but made the sign far less useful for people who were trying to discern the street name from further away — in our case, to determine that it wasn’t the place we needed to turn.

A straightforward rule of thumb can help prevent this type of mishap. If you’re designing a street sign that may also need to identify a landmark that the street leads to, take a look at any existing signage or other visual cues. If those cues already make it obvious that the landmark is right there, and assuming that you’re free to include or exclude a reference to the landmark, then it’s best to leave that text off the sign.

In other words, if you only have a single, fixed-size sign to work with, people are probably best-served by a simple approach that makes the street name as large as possible. By keeping distractions and clutter to a minimum and letting the landmark’s existing signage do its job, you’ll make it easier for drivers and pedestrians to find their destination, without forcing them to decipher overly-cramped street signs at the last minute.

One of our relatives was in town last weekend, so we decided to meet up with her for coffee. Most of the places that I’d normally grab a coffee close by 3 pm on Saturday and Sunday, so our late-afternoon meeting time meant that I had to pick a different venue than usual.

I remembered that a new Mexican restaurant in my neighborhood has a coffee shop on one side of their space, and they stay open until 10 pm or so. We decided to give it a try, and sure enough, the coffee was great and everyone had a nice time.

One thing struck me as odd, though. The coffee bar wasn’t separated from the main dining area at all, yet the staff acted a bit weird when we asked where we could sit. Apparently, the coffee shop section was designed mainly for take-out, with a tiny bar counter as an afterthought. Since the restaurant wasn’t that busy, they let us sit in the main dining room, but I kept feeling like they could do a lot more with the two seemingly separate sides of the venue.

For instance, why not offer a 10% discount on dinner to anyone who comes in for a coffee and may want to stick around for a full meal? Or, how about describing one of the featured menu items from the restaurant on the coffee shop receipt or via a separate handout?

Either way, if you’ve got customers coming in and only purchasing from one part of your establishment, it makes sense to use those interactions to cross-sell them on your other offerings. Even if only a few feet separates one part of your venue from another, a little encouragement can go a long way towards motivating customers to try new products and services that they would otherwise breeze by during their daily routines.