Suppliers – choose packaging with product safety in mind

The Maze, Safety Pin, Design icons

We’ve all seen courier vans buzzing around our streets delivering goods that have been purchased online. Are the couriers careful with the boxes? Are the goods in sound condition when they arrive?

I recently read an article in Melbourne’s The Age Thinking outside the box after courier dramas about Incy Interiors which sells children’s furniture from its head office in Sydney and has experienced multiple instances of products getting damaged in transit.

This made me wonder whether this aspect of ecommerce might impact product safety.

The problem

All products should be designed and made for safety of the end user. Some types of children’s furniture, for example – things like cots, bunk beds and change tables – need to meet standards for head and limb entrapment, fall hazards and so on. Manufacturers and importers have to follow strict compliance and quality assurance processes to ensure their products meet the standards and are safe to use.

But what if the safe, compliant product gets damaged in transit in a way that makes it unsafe? Would a consumer even know?

At Incy Interiors, they have tried different couriers but found similar problems. Incy founder, Kristy Withers, described customers sending pictures of a parcel that had been run over and its contents crushed; and another where the parcel had a forklift hole through a dresser!

Online retail perspective

I got in touch with Australia’s National Online Retail Association (NORA) and spoke with their CEO, Paul Greenberg. Paul acknowledged the challenges associated with efficiently delivering goods purchased via online shopping. He said NORA works with companies and organisations, including Australia Post, that are involved in distribution to make the fulfilment experience successful for all parties.

Paul said the size of the Australian market (relatively small consumer numbers and long distances) adds to the challenge in courier efficiency. And he added that expectations of ‘free delivery’ continue to grow.

Paul is aware that much of the packaging industry is working to improve the level of protection provided for products sold online and delivered by third parties.

Legal and insurance protection?

I asked a lawyer colleague who specialises in retail law. Rosalyn Gladwin of Gladwin Legal said product damage is a big issue for online retailers and unfortunately there is not a lot they can do about it.

Rosalyn says ‘We often try and push for liability in the contracts, but the companies push back quite strongly and generally have a take it or leave it approach.  Sellers can have insurance, but the problem is that if the damage is on a case by case basis, often the damage is not significant enough to warrant an insurance claim after their deductible is taken into account.’

Rosalyn also noted that liability for a non-compliant or defective product will still rest with the product supplier in terms of both compliance with product safety standards and any injury claims.

What suppliers can do

Product suppliers – whether manufacturer, importer or retailer – need to understand the risk of damage to products in transit and then manage that risk as well as possible. If the potential damage could lead to a product becoming unsafe, then it is essential to minimise the damage risk.

As with all product safety, suppliers need to assess and manage the risks. Think through the types of damage that might happen in transit and whether that could create new hazards or increase existing ones.

Suppliers of babies’ toys, for example, would need to check that their packaging avoids the risk of small parts breaking loose from the product to form a choking hazard and that battery compartments remain secure so batteries can’t be accessed by toddlers.

Such damage may be obvious to a customer receiving the products. Or it may be undetectable. A bicycle helmet, for example, always comes with a warning not to use it once it has sustained a crash (polystyrene liners can only absorb one blow). It’s not possible to assess this by visual examination, so if a helmet sustained a blow in transit it would not protect the customer’s head.

Packaging needs to be ‘fit for purpose’, taking all the risks into account. According to The Age article, Kristy Withers at Incy has done the right thing and revised the company’s packaging to minimise the risk of damage in transit.

What consumers can do

If you’re buying products online, it’s very important to check them properly before use. If the box or other packaging is damaged, use that’s a cue to check thoroughly for any clues that the product is also damaged.

If you have concerns, check with the original supplier.

The Australian Consumer Law protects consumers in their purchases from Australian suppliers. Information from the government consumer agencies’ websites provide some useful guidance. Although the quotes below are from different sites and states, the information included is applicable across Australia.

From ACCC’s website:

“Consumer guarantees applying to goods 

Businesses that sell goods guarantee that those goods are of acceptable quality – the goods must be safe, lasting, have no faults, look acceptable and do all the things someone would normally expect them to do”

https://www.accc.gov.au/business/treating-customers-fairly/consumers-rights-obligations#compensation-for-damages-amp-loss (Accessed 24/6/2017)

From New South Wales Office of Fair Trading website:

“Who is responsible for damage in transit? 

Read the delivery terms and conditions before you buy from an online seller. That information usually explains how such issues are handled and who is responsible if goods are not delivered or get damaged in transit. If you are not sure whether insurance is included in the cost of the goods or the shipping charges, email the seller about this before buying the goods.

While completing a sale, you might sometimes be given a choice of delivery options and even asked if you want to insure your goods at extra cost.

Contact the seller immediately if your goods are damaged.”

http://www.fairtrading.nsw.gov.au/ftw/Consumers/Ways_to_shop/Online_shopping.page (Accessed 24 June 2017)

From Consumer Affairs Victoria website:

“If a product arrives damaged, it may not meet the ‘consumer guarantee’ of acceptable quality. To meet this guarantee, it must be:

* fit for the purpose for which it is commonly supplied

* safe, durable and free from defects

* acceptable in appearance and finish

Depending on whether the damage is major or minor, the consumer may be entitled to a refund, repair or replacement. For more information, view our Faulty product page.

Before returning the product to the store or seller, the consumer should take a photo of the damage for their own records. For advice on returning a product to the store or seller, and on who pays return costs, view our Guarantees that apply automatically page.

Note: The store or seller is responsible for resolving any issues with Australia Post or courier company used to deliver the product.”

https://www.consumer.vic.gov.au/products-and-services/problems-with-a-product/products-missing-or–damaged-in-transit (Accessed 24 June 2017)

For products purchased from overseas suppliers with no Australian base, the ACCC has the following advice:

“If you buy from an online seller based overseas, you should be aware that you may experience practical difficulties in obtaining a remedy from them.

If your seller is based overseas and writing to them doesn’t resolve your problem, try asking the consumer affairs agency in their country if it can help.”

https://www.accc.gov.au/consumers/online-shopping/shopping-online (Accessed 29 June 2017)

One novel solution

A Dutch bicycle company, VanMoof, got so tired of damage to their boxed products they decided to put an image of a television on their carton in a bid to have them handled with more care.

Photo: https://www.vanmoof.com/en_us

“After a while, ‘FRAGILE’ labels — which we have tried, believe me — become like wallpaper,” VanMoof co-founder and CEO Ties Carlier told Business Insider.

Carlier admits the tactic of printing a TV on a box containing a bicycle could get so popular that shipping companies eventually catch on and stop being as careful. “But even if they do,” he says, “we hope they will still treat the bike more carefully by realising the lengths we go to for its safety!”

See also my media release on this topic Couriers and product safety – Think inside the box. And think about the box!