There is a gap between how well zippers can work and the way that many zippers actually do work as consumers struggle to open and close them.

In the consumer insights story that appeared in the August issue of this magazine, 34% of the consumers surveyed said they were willing to pay a little more for a resealable package-more than twice as many as those willing to pay a little more for a slide (13%) or a press-to-close (12%) zipper. Why the big difference? Isn’t resealability what zippers are mainly about?

Consumers know that zippers aren’t perfect, and package zippers have to meet the challenges of weak eyes and fingers as well as sticky, chewy, slimy, crunchy, sandy, and sugary substances that mess up their tracks. Many consumers find that package zippers just aren’t as easy for them to use as they think they should be. Many attribute the problems they have to their own, idiosyncratic form of zipper ineptitude: “I’m just one of those people who can’t open plastic bags or close plastic zippers.” In spite of the fact that the ineptitude is actually widespread, many consumers love zippers, and some will pay more to get them or will justify buying a more expensive brand because of them. Others are really zipper-negative, avoiding packages that feature zippers.

And contrary to what some marketers seem to believe, zipper-negatives are not limited to older females with arthritic fingers and poor vision. On the contrary, zipper negativity crosses the age spectrum and includes the environmentally concerned; it has even expanded to include slide zippers as well as press-to-close. Consumers have learned that tabs break off slide zippers before the contents are used up and that sliders don’t provide the kind of seal that they can get from a press-to-close zipper-if they can get the press-to-close zipper to close as it’s supposed to.

When we presented more than 2,000 consumers with pictures of a new package that incorporates a zipper, overall reaction to the new package was extremely positive, but verbatim comments about zippers were not. Ten percent of 2,000 consumers who were asked to describe the new package actually used the word “zip,” “zipper,” or “zippers,” and what they said strongly suggests that the quality of zippers needs improvement and/or that the image of zippers needs a makeover.

• 49% of the comments using the word “zipper” were negative.

• 39% of the comments using the word “zipper” were skeptical or questioning.

• 12% were positive without reservations.

Here are some of the comments along with the age and sex of the respondent:

NEGATIVE COMMENTS (49%)

Female, 18: “Sometimes I have trouble with getting the zipper thing closed all the way.”

Female, 25: “I don’t like zip packets in general, b/c when first opening the zipper part, it usually tears and then can’t be reclosed properly, and the stuff inside just spills and goes stale.”

Male, 25: “Zippers aren’t necessarily easy to open or close.”

Female, 29: “Zippers are wasteful. I thought we were moving toward more recyclable, less wasteful products and packaging? I wasn’t aware that we were looking for ways to include MORE packaging. Zipper closure means plastic = petroleum = waste.”

Female, 31: “I am not a fan of the zipper-close top. They seem to separate after several times of reusing.”

Male, 38: “Press-to-close zippers are stupid closures that bring frustration to consumers. The newer (better/smarter) variety includes an actual plastic piece to assist with closing and opening.”

Female, 43: “Zippers are not really all that convenient. Closing the zippers for freshness in NEVER failsafe.”

Female, 44: “If the ‘zipper’ is not good quality, it will be useless!”

Female, 47: “Zipper closures never work as well as they should and the kids have trouble with them.”

Female, 51: “Zip tops don’t always ‘connect’ together, so I wouldn’t care for that feature.”

Female, 57: “Closing these zip lock bags is often hard, you have to really press.”

Male, 60: “Zip lock can be a pain if it gets clogged!”

Female, 66: “I find zipper closures extremely difficult to close. I would choose a canister type (like oatmeal) or a dispenser type (like Cascade) over a zipper.”

SKEPTICAL COMMENTS (39%) Female, 33: “Quality of zipper would make a difference.”

Male, 38: “Zipper closings can be tricky to seal.”

Male, 41: “Sometimes zip tops work great, other times they are terrible, like when they get dirty, etc.”

Female, 47: “I don’t like the kind of zipper bag you have to press. Slider bags are easier to use. I just don’t know if they keep things as fresh.”

Female, 65: “I can’t always get resealable bags to close properly, so I pass them up.”

POSITIVE COMMENTS (12%)

Female, 26: “Zipper prevents spillage.”

Male, 49: “Like zippers, they keep smells down.”

Male, 53: “I like the zipper. It can be used to keep items like food fresher.”

Zippers work (and sometimes don’t work) alone and in context. When they don’t, some consumers say “damn the zipper”; others say “damn the package.”

For some products and some packages, zippers add significant value even if they turn some consumers away. If the package is perceived as very good and very useful without a zipper, it may be perceived as excellent and extremely useful when a zipper is incorporated.

You’ve got to consider what the package seems to promise, how the components fit together, and whether the quality of the zipper closure you are planning to use will meet expectations. One thing that doesn’t depend on context is that poor quality zips do more harm than good.

Mona Doyle is CEO of The Consumer Network Inc., a firm that regularly takes the pulse of consumers on packaging issues. She publishes The Shopper Report newsletter. Contact her at 800-291-0100 or mona@consumernetwork.org.