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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 10, 2013

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Packaging, Small Trash Bags

During the season of gift-buying, we tried to balance our online and catalog shopping with local purchases. We believe in keeping local stores alive, and that only happens if we do our buying there whenever possible.

But there's a natural shift going on. Local stores can't afford to keep low-demand items in their inventory. These naturally become the province of online retailers, who can maintain enough inventory in a single warehouse to satisfy the demand of the entire nation.

If only three hundred people want to buy a thing, that probably means that I'm the only person in Greensboro who wants it. Just how many stores should order that item and keep it in inventory, just for me? The answer is: zero.

However, when I'm buying a high-demand item, why buy it online when I can pick it up in local stores?

Also, there's the browsing factor. Some local stores carry rare or one-of-a-kind merchandise that nobody knows they want until they see it on display.

I'm not going to go online to discover a cool gadget or toy or bit of art or household item that we don't know we want. I'm going to find such things by walking around treasure stores like The Extra Ingredient, Caryl's Christmas Shop, Fleet-Plummer, Irving Park Art & Frame, Toys & Co., Mori Luggage & Gifts, and Loco for Coco. (I really missed Smith Fine Living this Christmas.)

But there are things they don't carry, and that I can't find at the big chain stores, either. So I do a lot of shopping online.

Which brings us to shipping.

We're grateful that UPS Stores exist. Back when they were still Mailboxes Etc., they acquired a great deal of expertise in packaging things for shipping so they arrive unbroken and in good condition.

We try to bring them things in big plastic bags so that styrofoam peanuts don't end up clinging to all the items -- sending someone a box of packaging peanuts is only one step above sending someone an envelope full of glitter. It does not brighten their day.

The UPS Store folks find the right box; I have never had anything they packed for me arrive broken, and the only time anything arrived late was when there was a snowstorm in the area where the package was being delivered.

I wish I could say the same of Fedex-Kinko's. But the Kinko's people were all trained in printing and copying; packaging was a sudden sideline and even after all these years, everywhere we go in America we find that we have to watch carefully and give minute instructions to the Fedex employee in order to get items packaged in a manner that is up to UPS Store minimum standards.

Ditto with packaging done at office supply stores. They have all the materials; they just don't know what they're doing. The only time I use any service but the UPS Store is when I have to ship something after hours (Fedex-Kinko's keeps more convenient hours in most places) or when there's no other choice. And then I usually end up taking the materials and doing the packaging myself.

But what about when I'm ordering something to be delivered to me -- or to someone else as a gift?

Amazon.com is usually very good about shipping things to arrive intact. Books would seem to be an easy packaging job, but this is not so. Books, art, and other printed matter don't need padding, they need stiffening and edge protection.

Amazon ships books and other paper goods in cardboard that extends well beyond the edges of the items; they also use big air bubble bags inside to keep the items stationary. This works perfectly, most of the time.

But sometimes Amazon's business partners aren't so careful. I remember buying two jars of Country Life Mood fish oil supplement pills from a company that, on Amazon, offered to send two bottles at once.

I assumed this meant that they knew how to ship two bottles together. They did not. They put the two bottles in the same box, but put no padding between them.

The result is that with the normal shocks and impacts of shipping, the two bottles crashed into each other repeatedly, with no more padding than the thin cardboard of their retail packaging.

I don't know about you, but once there are tiny shards of glass all around, I don't feel confident of my ability to rinse off all of them thoroughly enough to safely swallow the pills.

Since Earth Fare stopped carrying the brand I like, I still buy them online -- but I buy only one bottle at a time. Since that decision, no mishaps.

This Christmas season, we learned a lot about defective packaging.

Most stores that do a lot of mail order work are splendid about packaging. Some are shockingly incompetent -- but inquiry usually tells us that the person who packaged our item for destruction-in-transit was "a new employee."

Personally, I think it's insane to assign a "new employee" to package up expensive items for shipment without close supervision and intense training. For instance, Pavo Real Gallery in Boca Raton lives on its ability to ship ceramics; yet we received one set of items that was so badly packaged I had to wonder if the employee had deliberately sabotaged it.

The company made us whole, but I couldn't help but wonder how they stayed in business with slipups like that.

Sometimes it's not really the retailer's fault. We ordered a highly discounted but very charming nativity set from a company that I will not name, because the problem was not their fault.

This nativity was designed so that all the ceramic figures nested cleverly inside the arched openings of ceramic buildings styled to look like houses in Bethlehem.

But the manufacturer's original packaging shipped these items nested -- with no padding at all between the ceramic pieces.

My wife and I unwittingly both ordered the item. Hers arrived intact, but we now regard that as a miracle. Mine arrived, identically packaged, but with the figures and the buildings torn apart inside.

The replacement set that the company sent was also self-shattered -- but different pieces had survived. Enough that we could assemble three intact buildings and their contents; the fourth was a total loss in both sets.

We gave the miraculous full set to a friend who collects nativities, and kept the three-quarter set for ourselves. Meanwhile, though, we wondered how the manufacturer stayed in business, with packaging that resulted in a 67 percent self-destruction rate in transit.

Buying art online is always a bit perilous -- the more valuable the item, the less you want to run the risks of packaging errors.

Some companies, however, strive for -- and achieve -- perfection. For instance, I bought my wife the complete Patience Brewster twelve-days-of-Christmas ornament set. Each ornament accompanied the appropriate gift I gave her in our traditional twelve-gift run-up to Christmas.

If you aren't familiar with Patience Brewster ceramics, they combine whimsy and humor with dashing style and superb workmanship. There are lots and lots of thin, delicate parts, all of them highly breakable.

Their packaging clearly showed that someone had thought about every possible means of breakage -- and acted to prevent it.

Not only did every ornament come out of the box perfectly intact, they were also relatively easy to unwrap!

I mean, what good does it do to package something so carefully that it arrives unbroken, only to make it impossible to get it out of the packaging without cutting or breaking either the item or parts of your own body.

Patience Brewster ceramics are packaged and shipped with better protection than babies in the womb -- and with a far simpler process of extracting them from the packaging.

Nobody else meets that standard, but then few items are so delicate as to need it.

Art that we ordered from FineArtAmerica.com, whether it was printed greeting cards, rolled-up prints, or stretched canvases, arrived with flawless packaging.

(Their printing was also excellent; this is a company that means to win the trust of artists and customers alike, and I'm recommending their services to my artist friends who don't want to mess with printing and fulfilment, yet want to ensure high quality.)

So with pieces ranging from Tom Dickson's artist in-joke "Realist," which I bought framed, to a stretched, frameless print of Dave Allen's photo "Blue Ridge Parkway Sunset: The Great Blue Yonder," with mirrored-image sides, I was delighted with the excellent way they were cradled in transit.

FineArtAmerica.com's greeting cards -- not just Christmas cards with customized messages I wrote myself, but also one-at-a-time cards from Christian Jackson's witty series of think-for-a-second fairy-tale posters -- arrive in sturdy black boxes attractive enough to use for gift-giving, and sturdy enough to protect the cards thoroughly.

The place where shipping gets tricky is with rolled-up prints and canvases shipped in cardboard tubes.

I don't know why, but packagers often get confused by these tubes and think that they're shipping hazardous materials or liquids, so that they tape the ends down with plastic tape so thick and tight that nothing, not even cosmic radiation, can get through them.

Here's a clue: The plastic inserts that close the ends of these tubes are sufficient protection for the content. If you fear that they might work free in transit, a single piece of plastic packaging tape across the ends and running a few inches down the sides will be all the protection you need.

Such a single strip of tape would be easy to remove; then the plastic plug could easily be pulled free. No pain. No harm.

But when the tape is thick, you have no choice but to take out a knife and start slicing.

The trouble is that because you're slicing on a curve, nothing works right. It takes great precision and many microadjustments in how and where you apply pressure on the knife to keep from having the knife break free and slice other things -- like fingers, table surfaces, and so on.

Shippers who seal their rectangular boxes with a single strip of tape across each seam become paranoid (or sadistic) and hermetically seal their cardboard tubes. Do they own stock in artificial-finger manufacturers?

Those of us on blood thinners really don't appreciate having people go to so much trouble to require us to carry out delicate knife work. Nor do I want blood on my art, however eloquent a "statement" this might make.

FineArtAmerica.com passes this test -- I open their tubes with no trouble.

Art Renewal Center (www.artrenewal.org), alas, requires just a bit more training of their employees. Even though they do a fine job of printing -- almost (but not quite) as good as FineArtAmerica.com, and I wholly subscribe to Art Renewal Center's philosophy, I do have to warn you that they aren't always paying attention.

You can receive tubes that are nearly impossible to get into.

And, when you pull out a canvas, it can leave you standing there in bafflement. When you buy a rolled-up print on canvas, the idea is to have a local framing store stretch the canvas on a frame.

This means that you need several inches of canvas beyond the edges of the printed art, so the framers are able to wrap it around two edges of the wooden stretching bars and firmly attach it behind.

So imagine my astonishment when I unwrapped a favorite Bouguereau (their signature artist) and found only a half-inch of free canvas on the two ends!

My resourceful framers at Irving Park Art & Frame, instead of stretching the canvas, mounted it for me, and the result was quite stunning. But really: What were they thinking at Art Renewal Center?


Then there's the matter of shipping costs. Because Amazon.com is working very hard to be an even more evil monopolist than either Microsoft or Apple, I would dearly love to do more of my book buying at Barnes & Noble.

But it seems that nobody at B&N has checked to see what the competition is doing. With my Amazon Prime membership, I never have to pay more than four bucks an item for overnight shipping of in-stock books.

But at BarnesAndNoble.com, as a Member my free shipping guarantees 1-3 days instead of Amazon's 2 days, while expedited delivery promises only 1-2 days instead of Amazon's overnight -- and the cost, instead of $3.99 per item, is $15.48, essentially doubling the price of the book.

I'm sorry, but there is no way I can move my book buying business to Barnes & Noble as long as they're not serious about competing with Amazon.com.

And that just kills me, because Amazon.com really is trying to create a monopoly on the ebook business -- and our insane government is trying to help them bring about that monopoly by suing publishers for "collusion" in refusing to set the price of ebooks at Amazon.com's ludicrously low, publisher-killing price.

Amazon.com intends to be the only publisher and seller of books, and the government is trying to help them with this frivolous yet expensive lawsuit. (See how your tax dollars are spent? Promoting monopoly in the name of preventing it!)

Are we going to be left with only Google to try to provide us with an effective alternative to Amazon, as they are trying, with Android, to be the only effective alternative to Windows and Apple?

And what's to prevent Google from behaving just as badly if they succeed in breaking the market dominance of any of the others?

Meanwhile, Amazon.com continues to be the most effective department store online, and I continue to be a regular customer, because they do almost everything better than anybody else.

It's only as a writer that I find Amazon.com terrifying. I dread the day when they are the only publisher. How will they punish me then, for my opposition to their monopoly now?

For they have already proven themselves to be punishers -- when my publisher refused to go along with their impossible demand for too-low ebook prices, Amazon.com temporarily stopped selling their print books as well -- including mine.

The message was clear: If you don't obey Amazon, you will be punished.

Fortunately, people did want my books enough to buy them from other sources, and Amazon finally relented. For the time being.

But if the government prevails in its pernicious lawsuit to force publishers to meet Amazon's price, it will eventually put many publishers out of business and leave us with only Amazon. And then we'll see how they punish holdouts and resisters like me, who believe the free market must be protected against the monopolistic practices that are the natural tendency of capitalism.


I believe in recycling. And with a houseful of very convenient plastic grocery bags, I try my best to find uses for them. I often walk my shirts to the cleaner, carrying them folded up inside plastic grocery bags. I figure that second use takes some of the curse off the waste of plastic.

But here's an even cooler way to reuse all your plastic grocery bags at least once. Sportys.com sells the "bag can," an attractive metal wastebasket specifically designed to use plastic grocery bags as the liner.

The cans are solid and well-made; the grocery-bag fit is perfect. The can costs about thirty bucks, plus shipping. We have them all over the house, and we really are using up those grocery bags in a productive way.

Considering that it's almost impossible to find trash can liners in small sizes, and they don't stay in place anyway, the Sporty's Stainless Steel Bag Can is the best small wastebasket you can buy -- and the plastic liners come free with your groceries!


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