Primary, Secondary And Tertiary Packaging: The Ultimate Guide

Not many people know that there are 3 different types of packaging: primary, secondary & tertiary packaging. Read our guide to find out more.

Now, it’s not often you’ll catch us using unfamiliar words when we can use ones that get right to the point, and which most people understand. But, just like any industry, ours does have its own particular jargon. This includes the terms primary, secondary and tertiary packaging. 

If you’re from outside the industry, you may not have a clue what is meant by primary, secondary and tertiary packaging. Or, to put it more simply, first, second and third level packaging. 

So let’s enlighten you with this quick guide that’ll show you how each of these levels has its own specific part to play when it comes to containing, protecting and transporting a product.

What is primary packaging?

Primary packaging is the packaging used to protect a product.

In the case of the food and drinks industry, it’s a type of packaging that is also there to preserve things. It’s the reason why your baked beans taste as good as they do (if you actually like baked beans), or your beer still has a head on it after being in the bottle for so long.

        beer bottles

Primary packaging is sometimes called retail packaging or a consumer unit. But perhaps the best way of describing it is that it’s the packaging that’s in direct contact with a product. 

There can sometimes be several components to primary packaging. Take that bottle of beer we mentioned for instance, where both the label and the bottle containing the liquid are categorised as primary packaging.

From the consumer’s point of view, primary packaging makes it easier to handle a product, while labelling is used to get across useful information about the product itself. The look of primary packaging can also make a product appear more appealing to them.

Examples of primary packaging

This can include:

  • Tin cans for canned food
  • Aluminium cans for soft drinks
  • Plastic wrappers for chocolate bars
  • Blister packs for pills and pharmaceuticals
  • Glass bottles for drinks
  • Toothpaste tubes

What is secondary packaging?

Secondary packaging is what goes around primary packaging.

It groups a set number of products together into a single pack, and you’ll often find it used to display products at their point of sale, whether that’s on a supermarket shelf or a countertop in a department store.

essential oil bottle

But there’s more to it than that.

As it’s usually on full view, secondary packaging is usually fully branded and designed, printed and finished to a high standard, especially if it’s displaying gifts or luxury products.

Another thing secondary packaging does is to make it easier for retailers to handle and display products while providing an added layer of protection to maintain the integrity of the primary packaging.

It’s often made up of a number of different components, which could include boxes, separators, reinforcement and padding.

Examples of secondary packaging

This can include:

  • Cardboard boxes and cases
  • Shipping cartons
  • Shrink wraps
  • Outer films
  • Paperboard trays
  • Plastic boxes

What is tertiary packaging?

Last up in the three levels is tertiary packaging.

Basically, this is the outermost layer that protects the secondary packaging when it’s on the move.

Sometimes called bulk or transit packaging materials, it’s used to group larger quantities of SKUs when they’re being transported from A to B. From the manufacturer to the point of sale, let’s say.

It’s there to ensure products are intact when they reach the customer. So, if you’ve ever ordered anything online, then you’ve received it in a piece of tertiary packaging.

wooden pallets

In fact, any business that ships any kind of product uses tertiary packaging in the distribution process.

As well as making the transportation of large or heavy loads safer and more secure, tertiary packaging is a big help when it comes to handling and storage. Although tertiary packaging could even include large road or rail shipping containers, the most common types are below.

Examples of tertiary packaging

This can include:

  • Pallets
  • Wooden crates
  • Banding groove lumber
  • Strapping
  • Stretch and shrink wrap  

Right, now you have a clearer understanding of primary, secondary and tertiary packaging, let’s confuse things… because there is sometimes an overlap between the three different levels.

The overlap between primary and secondary packaging 

When is primary packaging not primary packaging? When it’s also secondary packaging. Confused yet? Let’s explain by using that bottle of beer, yet again. 

You see, a bottle of beer can easily be transported without the need for any extra packaging.

spitfire beer bottles

So, when you buy your weekend beers from the office or supermarket, the bottle is both the primary and secondary packaging. At a primary level, the bottle touches the beer, while at the secondary level the bottle protects the beer while it’s on the move.

The overlap between secondary and tertiary packaging 

Some businesses deliver their packaged products without any extra packaging. 

For example, let’s say you forget about the beer and treat yourself to a posh bottle of champagne (because you’re worth it).

If you receive the fizz in the post with a mailing label on the product’s branded box, you could say that the box is both secondary and tertiary packaging.

bottle of champagne in a box

The branded box contains the bottled product, which places it at the secondary level, but it was shipped via the post, protecting the tertiary level of packaging.

Final thoughts

We realise that understanding packaging types can be a little confusing, but as each type is different, it’s important to understand the difference between primary, secondary and tertiary packaging.

So, the next time you’re in your local shop or supermarket, take a look around you and see if you can spot the three different types.

If you’ve taken the time to read this guide, we’re sure that it will now be a piece of cake, whether or not that cake comes in primary or secondary packaging.

If you have any questions about how we can help you fill, cap, label and pack your primary, secondary and tertiary packaging, please take a look at our packaging machinery solutions or contact us on 01274 731222.

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