Debate Over CD Packaging Intensifies

THE days of the disposable, compact-disc long box are numbered.

But an intensifying debate about life after the long box has raised many questions within the music industry. What will replace it? How environmentally sound will replacements and store changeovers to accommodate them be? How will they be protected from theft? How much will all of this cost? Who will pay for it?

After years of consumer complaints about the wasteful long box, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which represents record companies and manufacturers, agreed three weeks ago to abandon the box after April 1993. Except for limited-edition CDs, packaging would not exceed 5 by 5 1/2 inches - roughly half the long box size and the actual size of the plastic "jewel box" CD container.

At the time of the announcement, Jason Berman, RIAA president, said "our member companies will work with them [retailers] to explore ways to offset refixturing costs."

The decision was hailed by environmentalists and the press. But last weekend at a convention of music retailers, there weren't many cheers. Jim Bonk, president of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers (NARM), asked that the ruling be reversed, because too many questions remain unresolved.

NARM does not advocate the long box, but questions whether the jewel box - on its way to becoming the industry standard - is the best replacement. Several alternatives involving recyclables have already been tested and NARM says they need to be given a chance to succeed.

"We thought the solution was at hand, but the rug was pulled from under us," says Pam Horovitz, executive vice president of NARM, reached by phone. The ruling will result in substantially higher costs to retailers, she says. "We're not sure there will be offsetting of costs," as RIAA has promised. "But the bottom line is it will raise the cost to the consumer." One estimation is a 50-cent hike per CD to cover a $125-$150 million store-refitting bill.

As it stands, the Eco-Pak and Digi-Pak will likely be the jewel box's biggest rivals. Made of a plastic tray attached to cardboard or other material, they also come in either a longer version or multilevel configuration.

Retailers wonder how appropriate it is to replace millions of pounds of long-box waste with unusable bins and plastic antitheft devices needed to protect smaller-packaged CDs. The plastic alone could total 30 million pounds yearly, according to an estimate by a retailer at the convention.

One company in New Jersey has an antitheft solution. Display empty jewel boxes while CDs are kept behind the register, says Susanna Seirafi, marketing manager of Lift Disc Play Inc., which makes store fixtures for jewel boxes.

But Boston's Tower Records assistant manager, Jim Sugarman, says finding the CDs behind the register would take too much time for his busy clerks.

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