To Limp Ice-Cream Box, Stiff Paper, a Couple Pieces of Magic Tape and
a Sticky Seal to Close the Lid
by Dick Lehman
After you make a retail sale to a customer, how do you package your
work, and why?
For many of us in the contemporary studio pottery tradition, packaging
decisions are among the most difficult that we make in the marketing
arena - shy of the advertising decisions through which we sweat, in
an effort to attract customers to our business locale in the first place.
We attempt to keep our prices affordable; at the same time, we are painfully
aware that every dollar we spend in packaging and presentation translates
into about $2 worth of retail price increase. While we try to keep the
customer in mind, we must measure dollars against image, inflation against
the reverence and assurance that come from receiving a purchase in exquisite
wrapping and packaging.
If you are like me, you likely have experienced a vast range of packaging
decisions made by retailers when you are on the purchasing end of the
exchange. The same goes for pottery purchases: I have been at arts and
crafts fairs where potters simply handed me the piece with no wrappings/packaging
whatsoever ("gee, we ran out of sacks about an hour ago") and muttered
barely a "thanks." Other times, I have been handed a pot in a recycled
sack, with no other packaging/insulation.
I have visited several Mingei-sota-style potteries where the "help
yourself" mentality prevails: affordability is translated into "please
don't bother me.I'm busy working and trying to be as efficient as I
can in order to keep the prices low.you can wrap your purchase in my
old newspapers and place it into the grocery sack that my neighbors
collect for me; and oh, by the way, here's the cash box..make your own
change.we trust you to be honest."
I have also experienced what many of us recognize as the "newspaper-butt-end-roll"
packaging: good recycling mentality, and really quite adequate stiff
paper to protect from most bumps and knocks. So wrapped, these purchases
are sometimes put into a standard new (not reused) paper sack purchased
from Sam's Wholesale Club, or some counterpart. Occasionally the sack
has been rubber stamped to remind me from whom I made the purchase.
A step down from all of these is the potter who, some years back, apparently
recycled some carpet padding from a local dumpster. Carpet padding is
a wonderfully safe packing material. But it would have been a much more
satisfying transaction (for me, anyway) if, in his dumpster diving,
he had chosen carpet padding from someone whose dog had been housebroken.
We have all (hopefully) experienced the step up from this: nicely printed,
custom-made paper bags, perhaps in a color other than kraft brown, inside
of which purchases are nestled in tissue or even some first-time-use
bubble wrap (secured with something other than masking tape).
Handled, custom-printed paper bags are the next step up, in my experience.
These sacks sometimes contain tissue-wrapped pots snuggled inside purchased-by-the-pallet
cake boxes. A half step up from this (which received a half point extra
credit in the grand scheme of things) would include a custom-designed
rubber stamp imprint (by hand of course) on the box..smudges optional.
(Add one full extra point, if the rubber stamp matches the seller's
I have also purchased pots that were packaged in well-made, securely
constructed gift boxes. Sometimes they are stock boxes; sometimes they
are printed with the potter's business name, address and phone (occasionally,
a toll-free number!). Some of the nicest gift boxes (even in the kraft
variety) have a foil stamp in copper or gold, setting off the commonness
of the box, with a classy, legible hot-stamp image.
And very occasionally, I have made a purchase that caused me to wonder
whether the packaging may have actually cost me more than the pot: silk-fabric-wrapping,
inside a handmade drawstring bag, or a handmade wooden box with or without
the fabric treatment just mentioned.
My most memorable purchase with respect to packaging? My treasure was
wrapped in rice paper, which was wrapped in fabric, which was in a custom-printed-marbled
cardboard box, which was wrapped with handmade rice paper, which was
nestled inside a handmade wooden box, which was tied with ¾ inch-wide
silk ribbon, which was covered in gorgeous wrapping paper, then bubble
wrap, and placed inside a first-time-use shipping box that arrived by
next-day-air from a foreign country.
Of course, for each of these choices along the packaging spectrum,
there are good (legitimate and defensible) reasons for choosing any
of these options except, perhaps, those of the misguided dumpster
diver. Fancier, pricier and more extravagant do not necessarily translate
to "better." Our choices are driven by our location, our customers/market,
our product price range, our style of work, our competitors, our individual
sensibilities, our profit margin, our marketing experience, our aesthetic
the list goes on.
Each of us must find a way of packaging that "fits" us, our budget,
and most importantly, perhaps, that fits our customers. Occasionally,
we will pick up subtle hints from customers regarding the propriety
of our choices. Other times, their comments will hit us over the head.
Such was the case of the letter that I received many years ago from
a customer who had visited my studio on a Saturday, and made a purchase.
And while I was not personally at the studio when he arrived, had I
been there, his experience, sadly, would most likely have been no different
than that which he here recounts.
To receive the full force of this letter, be sure to read it with a
stiff English accent. And, if you do not sense the caustic edge that
this letter intends (although somewhat mellowed by his high regard for
my work and his sincere wish that my studio had done a better job by
him with regard to packaging), return to its beginning and start reading
all over again.
Dear Mr. Lehman:
I visited Goshen and your gallery last Saturday, March 9th, with
the sole purpose of purchasing an example of your saggar-fired porcelain.
I believe I have obtained a fine example, and am very pleased with
it. On the other hand, I would like to offer a suggestion, which would
give customers like myself who are not experts in the field of pottery,
more a feeling of having obtained a unique piece of art, a treasure,
rather than an object of utility.
Let me contrast the situation with that of a couple of months
ago, when visiting a store in Okayama with a Japanese friend. We had
traveled a considerable distance by taxi to obtain an example of Bizen
pottery. It was his wish that I would do him the honor of accepting
a gift both unique and of beauty. The saleslady showed us a number
of choice pieces. My friend selected two for me to choose the one
that gave me the greatest pleasure. The decision was made, the gift
was swaddled in a piece of cloth, lowered into a cloth bag of fine
material, put into a white wooden box of exquisite construction, and
the whole finally lowered into a fitting carrier bag. As I left the
store to get on the train, I was in possession of a treasure. The
reverence in the way it was handled and the manner in which it was
packaged gave assurance.
Well I guess you must know what is to follow: the limp cardboard
box of the type ice-cream cakes are packaged, the heap of paper in
the bottom, the bottle wrapped in the same stiff paper - not even
the tissue you would get when buying an ordinary cup and saucer. A
couple of pieces of magic tape and a sticky seal to close the lid.
Finally, the box deposited into a brown paper sack similar to those
used at the grocery store.
There is no doubt in my mind which of the two treatments the majority
of customers would prefer. As to the difference in cost involved,
does one really care?
I now have a dilemma. The bottle is intended as a gift for my
Japanese friend who will be visiting the U.S.A. at the end of this
month. Should I repackage it in the materials that were used for the
Bizen vase? No, I guess it more appropriate to break with the tradition
of a neatly wrapped gift, and just hand it to him unadorned.
At the moment, it stands in my curio cabinet and is an object
of pleasure to me. I will certainly have to visit Goshen again in
the very near future.
Yours sincerely, R. J. Addicott
While one may or may not agree with Mr. Addicott's suggestions and
conclusions, over the years, this letter has served well as a reminder
to me of just how important packaging decisions can be. I have kept
it at the very front of my correspondence file, where I must see it
each time I file a letter.
I have always been grateful that Mr. Addicott took the time to write
to me. Difficult as it was to receive and read his letter, it has really
been a gift to me. I always think of it when making conscious determinations
(and not merely decisions by default) about how I send purchases on
And, oh yes, if you are wondering: I no longer have the limp ice-cream
cake boxes. I have both stiff paper and tissue paper. For some pieces,
I have hand-made drawstring bags. And for those who wish to purchase
them (as Mr. Addicott did on his very next visit), I have handmade wooden
boxes (at no small expense, I might add): but then for some, "Does one
This article is reprinted with expressed permission from
the June/July/August 1999 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box
6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org
© Dick Lehman, 1999. All rights reserved.