The not-so-secret market potential of bubble-wrap bubbles


Ask your friends what handy fun items they carry around and most of them will mention their Nintendo DS or their mobile phone, on which they can watch TV, play games and read a novel. But more and more these days, they may also grin and say, “puchipuchi” — referring to the pleasure — and the sound in Japanese — of bursting plastic bubble wrap.

It’s a phenomenon that’s easy to deride for its utter simplicity, but that is precisely its appeal, says Ayaka Sugiyama of bubble-wrap manufacturer Kawakami Sangyo. Sugiyama has been pondering the secret attractions and market potential of bubble wrap popping since she joined the Nagoya-based company eight years ago.

“I have learned that there is a psychological factor involved in bursting bubble-wrap,” she says. “It’s similar to being compelled to sit if there is a chair or to pull if there is a knob. In the same way, you cannot stop popping if you see Putiputi,” she observed, using the brand name that Kawakami Sangyo registered in 1994 for bubble wrap, which the company formerly called just “air bags.” Established in 1968, the company now has a 43 percent share of the market in Japan.

“Putiputi wrap” sounds amusing, but Sugiyama says that when she joined the company there was nothing very upbeat about the business of making and wholesaling rolls of bubble-wrap. Yet, somehow aware of its hidden potential, Sugiyama says she set out to develop new uses for the packaging material that drew on its “approachability and popularity.”

“Putiputi is a functional item, but I thought there must be completely different ways of using it,” says Sugiyama, who now is proud to hold the title of Head of the Putiputi Culture Research Institute at Kawakami Sangyo. “I wanted to make unique Putiputi products.”

One of these is Pucchin Sukatto, a 10 x 10-cm bubble-wrap sheet developed purely for popping purposes. Pucchin is the description in Japanese of the sound made when you pop bubble wrap, and sukatto means to feel refreshed.

To make users feel the latter, the bubble-wrap sheets are made of special polyethylene that creates a sharper sound than your standard bubble wrap when the bubbles are burst.

“They may be useful when you feel irritated, when you feel broken-hearted by losing your lover, and when you are just bored,” Sugiyama says. A package of 10 sheets of Pucchin Sukatto costs ¥198 and was put on the shelves of the convenience-store franchise Family Mart last week.

In fact, Putiputi got attention recently when toy maker Bandai put a key chain called Mugen Putiputi (meaning Unlimited Putiputi) on the market in late September, after codeveloping the product with Kawakami Sangyo. Dangling off the key chain are eight bubbles made with a special plastic material that users can pop as many times as they wish — after being popped, they inflate, ready to go again.

Within 10 days of Mugen Putiputi hitting the market, 300,000 units of the ¥819 product were sold, causing Bandai to change its six-month sales target to 2 million pieces from the initial 1 million, according to the company.

“Mugen Putiputi was Bandai’s idea. They called me one morning suggesting the idea and I was impressed to know that people like Putiputi that much,” Sugiyama says.

But popping it is not only the alternative way to use bubble wrap, she adds. Bubble wrap retains heat, so Sugiyama and her team have come up with bubble-wrap sleeping bags.

“Putiputi sleeping bags are therefore very convenient when you have to stay in the office at night,” Sugiyma explains. “Also, these sleeping bags can be emergency items, such as when we have earthquakes. In fact, we sent 300 bubble-wrap sleeping bags to Niigata Prefecture in 2003 when the area was struck by a big earthquake.”

Her study has not only found new markets for bubble wrap but has also deepened the wisdom surrounding it. You can study her research yourself by reading the “Putiputi Official Book,” which was published last year.

“This book is a collection of tiny, interesting stories concerning Putiputi that I have gathered while working in the company,” Sugiyama says.

The book covers basic questions such as, “Which side is the surface of bubble-wrap?” (The answer is both. When you wrap objects with an uneven surface, you should wrap it with Putiputi’s flat face inside.)

Also, it reveals the truth behind the sometimes heard rumor that you can find heart-shaped bubbles on regular Putiputi sheets.

Kawakami Sangyo put one heart-shaped bubble in about every 1,000 bubbles on a regular sheet so that users can enjoy “petit luck” when they find one.

Asked if she has a plan to further develop unusual bubble-wrap items, Sugiyama said that the company needs to consider environmental perspectives when developing new products.

She did not mention the inherent wastefulness of the bubble-wrap product bought to simply be popped and then discarded but said, “Bubble wrap can end up just being garbage, so we have to try to think about what we can do for the environment.

“For example, we should think more about a way to produce the wrap with less oil, or a way to make it easier to recycle Putiputi.”

Still, while trying to widen the scope of her mission to include an environmental dimension, she has come up with an explanation for the secret of the popularity of bubble-wrap items.

“Everyone knows Putiputi. They have enjoyed popping it at least once. Putiputi is so close to people, but nobody has ever thought about it seriously. And therefore, if they are informed about it and are given ideas of different ways to use it, they find them interesting,” Sugiyama said. “That is the key to the popularity of these Putiputi products, and that’s the reason I’ve been so into Putiputi myself.”