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Sending Ecommerce Packages without the Box

3M Scotch TM Flex & Seal Shipping Roll
3M Scotch TM Flex & Seal Shipping Roll

The same company that brought you Post-it Notes has developed a revolutionary packaging solution that eliminates the need for cardboard boxes when shipping ecommerce orders.

But is it sturdy enough to protect all kinds of items, from pottery to ephemera? And will online sellers trust it to ship their orders?

3M developed the Scotch Flex & Seal shipping roll with feedback from online marketplace sellers – but our experience testing a roll indicates it should have consulted buyers as well.

3M Scotch TM Flex & Seal Shipping Roll
Image from 3M website shows how it works.

The concept is great – simply place an item on the roll, cut the sheet big enough to fold it over the item, and then press the material together all around the item. (“Don’t wrap like a present, fold and press like a calzone!” the company advises.) Your item is now encased in a package that is similar to a padded envelope, but it’s a custom fit – and no other packaging required.

It works because of a layer of gray material on one side of the roll that sticks – but only to itself. You can’t feel any glue or tackiness when you touch it – and it won’t stick to anything else, but if the gray material is folded together (gray touching gray), it holds. Magical is the only way to describe it.

The advantages to such a system are obvious: you don’t need to order boxes and envelopes in various sizes, nor do you need to buy packing material.

We asked 3M what items could and could not be packaged using the Scotch Flex & Seal Shipping Roll – Would it be safe for pottery, glass, clothing, electronics, ephemera/memorabilia, and toys, we asked.

“The Scotch Flex & Seal Shipping Roll is recommended for hundreds of less fragile items including books, clothing, accessories, home goods and electronics, which account for about 60% of all items that are bought online and shipped,” the spokesperson told us. “Sellers have shipped everything from jewelry to hockey sticks. Other items shipped include books, DVDs and cookware. Additionally, two Amazon reviewers shared they shipped an oddly shaped toy and canvas prints respectively,” she added.

We saw a review of the 3M product on Amazon that said, “I wouldn’t use it to ship anything I wouldn’t ship in a padded envelope. It’s not rigid like a box, but more pliable like padded envelopes.” We asked 3M if that was a fair assessment.

“Because Scotch Flex & Seal Shipping Roll conforms to the shape of your item, which immobilizes your item to protect during shipping. It also securely seals around the shape of your item, which may help to reduce dimensional weight by helping to eliminate unnecessary supplies,” the spokesperson responded.

After testing a roll for ourselves, we’d agree with 3M and the Amazon reviewer – Scotch Flex & Seal is not a safe choice for glassware, dishware, and other fragile items.

But beyond that, we experienced a major problem: opening the packages! This is not “frustration free packaging,” to use Amazon lingo. It’s impossible to open a sealed package without a scissors. We couldn’t peel the gray material apart at the edges that had been firmly pressed together. Unfortunately, you have to cut right up against the product inside, which could lead to the recipient damaging the product.

I first tested a paperclip – a completely random choice. Easy to package, but upon opening, I was unable to get the gray material off of the clip – the gray material completely encased it like a mummy. That could be a problem for anything that has small holes, like rings or certain other jewelry.

Note that it wasn’t the fact that the paperclip was metal – I tested a dime to be sure. It’s the fact that one side of the gray material had stuck like glue to the other side of the gray material – all around and inside the paperclip.

I then tested a paperclip enclosed in a small sheet of paper, and the gray material did not stick to the paper or the clip – excellent. However, for an item that thin, I did not know where it was safe to cut the package with the scissors to ensure I didn’t get too close to the item and potentially damage it. What if the seller had sent their buyer a postcard, a playbill, or other ephemera? A buyer could inadvertently cut it while trying to open the package.

I then tested the Scotch Flex & Seal shipping roll on a small box. Again, I had to cut right up against the product inside with my scissors – which would be okay if the integrity of the box is not important.

To be clear, the gray material does not stick to the product, just as the company claims – it only sticks where it’s gray-on-gray. Our concern is that in the process of getting to the product inside, a scissors might cause the buyer to damage the product.

The 3M spokesperson responded to our concerns. “When opening packages, 3M recommends that you use scissors to open the seal. The seal is designed to be tight to avoid it coming open during the shipping process, and to make it difficult to be tampered with. Additionally, when sealing the package, 3M recommends keeping a 1 inch parameter around the item to ensure that the outer edge does not stick to your item. Flex & Seal conforms to the shape of your item, so if you leave enough of a border, that should help you see where the product is so you don’t risk cutting the item inside. If it is helpful, here is a demo of how to open the package – just scroll down and click the “See how easy it is to use Scotch™ Flex & Seal Shipping Roll” video.”

Note that the product label doesn’t include instructions telling the shipper to leave a one-inch border (and the video shows the shipper NOT leaving a border when packaging a ping pong paddle). Nor can the shipper guarantee that during the shipping process, a one-inch border would be maintained. (We’re not even sure how to leave a one-inch border around a product when packaging it – if you can figure that out, you would be good to go!)

3M launched the product first on eBay and Amazon with plans to expand to bricks-and-mortar locations in the future. The company links to 10-foot rolls by 15 inches for sale by etailz on Amazon and on eBay priced at $9.99 with free shipping.

We love the idea of this product, and for certain items, this would work. But before you take the leap, make sure you test OPENING packages you’ve created using the roll. Otherwise, you could end up with frustrated buyers leaving negative feedback for what you thought was a carefully packaged order.

Note that the spokesperson said feedback was always helpful “as the brand continues to evolve Gen 1 of the product.” We look forward to seeing if 3M finds ways to make this product easier for buyers to open. You can learn more about the product on the 3M Scotch Brand website.

Ina Steiner on EmailIna Steiner on LinkedinIna Steiner on Twitter
Ina Steiner
Ina Steiner
Ina Steiner is co-founder and Editor of EcommerceBytes and has been reporting on ecommerce since 1999. She's a widely cited authority on marketplace selling and is author of "Turn eBay Data Into Dollars" (McGraw-Hill 2006). Her blog was featured in the book, "Blogging Heroes" (Wiley 2008). She is a member of the Online News Association (Sep 2005 - present) and Investigative Reporters and Editors (Mar 2006 - present). Follow her on Twitter at @ecommercebytes and send news tips to ina@ecommercebytes.com. See disclosure at EcommerceBytes.com/disclosure/.

3 thoughts on “Sending Ecommerce Packages without the Box”

  1. I have gotten books in that type of material as far back as 2 years ago. Maybe now just becoming available to the consumer. Not much protection. A lot of the major book sellers use it. If you are just going to read the book, not a collectible, and don’t mind it getting mashed around the edges, it’s perfect! On the other hand, for slightly more cost, you can get an oversized corrugated cardboard mailer that will do an excellent job of protecting the contents. I’d go with the upgrade. And that’s the new normal in life – what used to be standard is now an upgrade.

  2. We get coins wrapped in this stuff. WHAT THEY FAIL TO TELL YOU IS that in order to get the package opened you need strong fingers, a large pair of scissors, a few cuss words, strength, and patience. We no longer do business with the company that insists on using this packaging as it isn’t worth the effort it takes to open it. Imagine an object incased in something that doesn’t want to unstick itself.

  3. I’m in the same corner as Chester !!! I have tried to buy books (supporting thrift stores when possible) and they are arriving in plastic envelopes (the same stuff as LLBean mails clothing) – not even as much packaging as the Scotch stuff, but that is going to be the same — SMASHED corners!!! I have a great market in a group shop for children’s books — but I cannot resell damaged books! I have contacted the shippers/sellers with no luck – asking to please, please use good packing so this does not happen – the book prices are a pittance with “free” shipping, so why not use decent packing and charge a buck or two? But no, I get no response.

    But it goes beyond books — ANYTHING with square corners or firm edges is going to be smashed. The only way I might use it is to cover a box with the item inside the box, but why bother when bubble wrap and an outer Tyvek envelope will be 1000% better?? and a lot cheaper !!

    I also sell paper and ephemera to collectors – I can’t imagine trying to use scissors to cut the stuff!!! and not causing damage. I have problems with people trying to open my packages now, with a couple of strips of scotch tape to keep something in the center of a padded envelope.

    All that said — in comparison — Post-Its were so incredibly ingenious I suppose they are entitled to something equally the opposite once in a while ???????

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