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The Mysteries of the Cereal Box

The complicated history of how a cereal box closes

It's happened to all of us: You open a new box of cereal or crackers, dispense as much of the product as you need, and then prepare to close the box using the package's tab-in-slot mechanism. This requires you to press down on the die-stamped perforation that will create the slot, which is easy enough, until...

D'oh! You press too hard and rip through the box flap. Now your slot is ruined and your box won't close properly. Even worse, you'll have to keep using that ruined slot until you finish whatever's in the box — a constant reminder of your unsatisfying consumer experience.

But here's something you may not realize (or if you do, it's probably on a subliminal level): There are actually two different types of tabbed box-closure mechanisms out there. One is the kind described above, with a perforated slot. The other format involves two interlocking box flaps that snap together without the need for a perforated slot. You can see the differences between the two designs by looking here.

The superiority of the slotless format is obvious: You can't ruin the slot, because there's no slot to begin with. Huzzah!

Still, that hasn't stopped many brands from using the slotted design. A field trip to One-Man Focus Group's local supermarket yielded the following data on how the two formats stack up:

• In the cereal aisle, all General Mills boxes are slotless, as are most Kellogg's and Post boxes. Smaller Kellogg's boxes, however, are slotted, as are most Quaker and all store brand boxes.

• Over in the snack aisle, almost everything is slotted: Ritz, Wheat Thins, Nilla Wafers, Cheez-Its, Crunch ’n Munch, assorted Keebler crackers, and all store brand items. The lone exception is Triscuit, which is slotless.

• Boxes for assorted other products around the store — Bisquick, Domino brown sugar, Ronzoni pasta, Sun-Maid raisins, Brillo pads — are all slotted.

Why would anyone use the inferior slotted format? And why would a big company like Kellogg's use both methods, instead of settling on one or the other? It's a puzzlement.

In an attempt to find some answers, One-Man Focus Group recently contacted a wide range of consumer product manufacturers, box manufacturers, trade groups, trade magazine editors, and other specialists. Information gleaned from these inquiries breaks down like so:

• Both of these box closure and re-closure mechanisms — slotted and slotless — are collectively known in the trade as cereal closures.

• Surprisingly enough, the two versions of cereal closures don't have separate names, which is rather disappointing. You'd think the packaging industry would have come up with endearingly geeky terms for them, no? But no. So we'll keep calling them slotted and slotless, at least until someone comes up with something better. (Have any suggestions? Let's hear ’em.)

• Everyone agrees that the slotted style has been around more or less forever. Most sources also agree that the slotless design was developed by General Mills, probably around 2001, although slotless boxes are also used by many other companies, including General Mills' fiercest rival, Kellogg's, so the design apparently isn't proprietary. (General Mills and Kellogg's both declined to comment.)

• If you're looking for a cheap thrill, you'll enjoy learning that the box flap with the tab, is known in the trade as the male, while the one with the slot is the female.

• Last but not least: Unless you want to be scolded by a series of industry professionals, never refer to these types of boxes as "cardboard." They are more properly known as paperboard.

As for which format is best, every source agreed that the slotted style's tendency to rip and tear is highly annoying. Not only that, but several of the experts identified another important distinction: The slotless style requires less male/female overlap, so the flaps can be shorter. That saves cardboard — sorry, paperboard — which translates to lower costs, greater sustainability, lighter shipping loads, and so on.

So with the slotless design appearing to offer superior functionality and greater efficiencies, why would anyone stick with the slotted format? "Some people think the slotless version feels less secure, because there's less overlap and less of a lock," said Pat Shields, Director of Structural Design at the box manufacturer Rock Tenn. (He also added, "When the slot rips, at least it gives you an outlet for expletives. Hey, we're there to serve.") And Lisa McTigue Pierce, Executive Editor of the trade magazine Packaging Digest, said, "For flour-based products, maybe the larger overlap could help prevent insect infestation."

So that's what the slotted style has going for it: It offers a false sense of security, gives you an excuse to cuss, and maybe keeps the bugs out.

That hardly seems like sufficient justification to keep using a dysfunctional, less sustainable design. We're better than that, or at least we should be. Consumers need to start boycotting slotted products, and manufacturers should start marketing the slotless design a selling point.

Imagine it, comrades — a slot-free world. Don't settle for less. The slotless revolution beckons.

Do you know of a product, service, design, or phenomenon that deserves a closer look? Send tips, samples, press releases, and best intentions here, and follow One-Man Focus Group on Twitter.