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Labels, retailers spar over longbox package

Both Geffen Records and the nation’s CD retailers are claiming victory in the standoff that one says is about environmentalism, the other about marketing.

Just before Christmas, Geffen released Peter Gabriel’s “Shaking The Tree,” a greatest-hits compilation, in CD format sans the controversial longbox. The 5-by-12-inch container has been condemned by environmentalists, who call the packaging wasteful – the boxes usually are discarded consumers.

According to retailers, the longbox prevents theft and is a useful marketing tool. The longboxes, they charge, fill the display void left by the LP. When Geffen announced plans to adhere to Gabriel’s demands to package his collection in the small, CD-sized “jewel box,” some retailers threatened boycott.

A Geffen spokesman has stated the expected decrease in CD sales because of some retailers’ refusal to stock the item has, in fact, been “minuscule.” According to Eddie Gilreath, the company’s head of sales, 65% of “Shaking The Tree” sales are in CD format, compared with the 40% that usually accounts for the company’s sales.

Ratios notwithstanding, the album slipped to No. 50 on the Billboard chart for the week ended Feb. 16 after reaching 48 the week before. “To what degree business has been hurt by the jewel box hasn’t really been determined,” says Floyd Glinert, exec v.p. of Shorewood Packaging Corp. and a member of the Entertainment Packaging Council.

Glinert says some retailers’ refusal to stock the item is only part of the Geffen hurdle. Retailers that do carry the CD often keep it behind the counter to prevent theft, a hindrance to impulse buying.

A& M’s foray into unconventional packaging has been more satisfying, at least for retailers. The company is distributing. Sting’s latest album, “The Soul Cages,” in a new container called a “Digitrak.” The package, developed AGI Inc., is a collapsible container roughly the size of a longbox but with two removable strips of hard plastic to prevent shoplifters from folding it into a more concealable size.

The Digitrak fits into existing record store racks, forgoing any need for retailer refixturing. Retailers seem to have accepted the Sting box, with A& M ship Records ping more than 1 million units since the Feb. 1 release date, according to David Gales, v.p., product development and operations. (A reported 300,000 units were shipped in longbox before the Digitrak assembly systems were in place.) The album hit Billboard’s Top 10 after only two weeks.

While Geffen has announced plans to release Gabriel’s next studio album this fall without a longbox, the marketing problems are keeping the environmentally correct jewel box from standard-issue status.

So far, the alternative packaging has come about at the individual requests of performing artists; no record company has announced plans to revamp packaging for its entire roster. A 10 1/2-inch shrink-wrap box, similar to AGI’s Digitrak, is being test-marketed by Sony in selected markets.

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