Types of Packaging: Primary, Secondary & Tertiary

When most people think about packaging, they stop at primary packaging— the container or wrapping that directly holds the product. However, secondary and tertiary packaging also play a key role in ensuring products get delivered intact and on time. Knowing the types of packaging and their purposes, you have a greater understanding of the logistics involved and how it all affects supply chain management.

The Types of Packaging

Packaging can be categorized into three main types: primary, secondary and tertiary. Each type has a unique function in protecting and transporting goods from the origin point at the manufacturer to delivery to the consumer.

Primary Packaging

Primary packaging is the first layer of protection and the type of packaging that comes into direct contact with the product. Its primary function is to contain and protect the product while presenting an appealing display to consumers. Examples of primary packaging include:

  • Bottles and cans for beverages and liquid products

  • Blister packs for pills and small electronics

  • Tubes for toothpaste, medical creams and certain cosmetics

  • Wrappers for candies and snacks

Primary packaging protects the product from contamination and damage and displays the product details, such as ingredients, usage instructions and any brand name or identifiers. It's designed to be user-friendly and to enhance the consumer experience or entice them to purchase.

Secondary Packaging

Secondary packaging groups similar primary packages together. This packaging type aids in the process of branding, marketing and logistics. It also provides additional protection during transportation and storage. Secondary packaging examples include:

  • Cardboard boxes: These may include multiple primary packages, such as a multipack box of cereal with individual cereal bags inside or multiple products combined for more efficient delivery.

  • Shrink wrap: This can hold together a 6-pack of soda cans or a deck of cards.

  • Display boxes: These often organize and present products on retail shelves and serve as tidy containers for smaller items.

The distinction between primary and secondary packaging lies in their roles: primary packaging directly protects the product, while secondary packaging protects multiple primary packages and facilitates handling, storage and transportation.

Tertiary Packaging

Tertiary packaging occurs in bulk handling, storage and distribution. This type applies to large quantities of products and ensures the items are transported safely and efficiently. Tertiary packaging includes:

  • Pallets: Help consolidate multiple boxes or products for easier handling by machinery such as a forklift

  • Stretch wrap: Secures the products on a pallet

  • Crates and drums: Used for transporting bulk materials

Tertiary packaging comes into play in the overall logistics of product transportation, particularly for long-distance shipping. It provides the highest level of protection against the rigors of transportation and handling and maintains product integrity during large-scale distribution.

Factors That Impact Secondary and Tertiary Packaging

Several factors influence the design and choice between secondary and tertiary packaging or the use of both. These factors ensure products are adequately protected and efficiently transported.

Perishability or Fragility of the Contents

Perishable items, such as food and pharmaceuticals, require specific packaging that preserves their freshness and integrity. For instance, refrigerated trucks and extra insulation are needed to transport fresh produce or frozen goods. Fragile items, such as glassware or electronics, require cushioning materials and sturdy packaging to prevent damage during transit.

Hazardous vs. Nonhazardous Material

Packaging for hazardous materials must meet stringent regulations to ensure safety during transport. Hazardous materials include:

  • Chemicals

  • Flammable liquids

  • Radioactive substances

These materials require specialized secondary and tertiary packaging to prevent leaks, spills and contamination. Even though they're not strictly regulated, nonhazardous materials also need appropriate packaging to protect them from damage and to ensure they arrive safely at their destination.

LTL vs. FTL: How It Will Be Shipped

The shipping mode — less-than-truckload or full truckload — significantly impacts packaging requirements.

LTL shipping involves multiple loading and unloading processes, increasing the risk of damage. Therefore, more secure and robust secondary and tertiary packaging is needed to withstand handling during these transfers.

FTL shipping involves transporting goods from one point to another without additional stops. This allows for slightly less protective packaging since the products receive less frequent handling and aren't jostled as much.


The goal of any packaging decision is to preserve the profit margin of the product being sold. Effective packaging must strike a balance between cost and protection. Overly expensive packaging can eat into profits, and insufficient packaging can lead to damaged goods and increased return rates. Additionally, shipping costs can vary depending on how the package is classified and handled.

Packaging Beyond the Basics

Understanding the levels of packaging allows you to optimize your packaging strategies to ensure products are delivered intact, on time and cost-effectively. In the end, the complexity of packaging involves a strategic approach to ensure goods move smoothly through the supply chain, from the manufacturer to the consumer, as efficiently and safely as possible.