The difference between primary packaging, secondary packaging and tertiary packaging is significant.

You’re walking down the soda aisle in your local grocery store, the vitamin aisle at CVS, or the electronics section at Target. You’re seeing all sorts of packaging, from plastic mouthwash bottles and fancy LaCroix cans, to green and orange vitamin containers, to shrink-wrapped computer mice, and everything in between. Are you seeing primary or secondary packaging, or both? Where does tertiary packaging come into play?

The short answer is: It depends on the product. We’ll break it down for you.

Primary Packaging Blister Pack

Primary packaging is the packaging that most closely protects the product. It can also be referred to as retail or consumer packaging. Primary packaging in the beverage industry would be the bottle or can the beverage is stored in. The label on the bottles or cans is also considered part of the primary packaging. In the pharmaceutical industry, primary packaging refers to the blister packs (shown above) that holds a certain medication, like the kind you would see for over-the-counter allergy medications or a prescription “Z-Pack” you got from your doctor.

2018 has shown a rise in demand for more sustainable primary packaging and the use of less plastic for less waste. According to a study reported by CNBC, humans globally buy 1 million plastic bottles per minute, and only recycle 9% of them (Trevor Nace, CNBC). On the contrary, this article by The Dieline introduces some unique and sustainable primary packaging on the market today.

Secondary Packaging Lacroix Boxes

Secondary packaging is used for the branding and display of the product. The pill pack that holds the allergy medication comes packaged in a small paperboard box that you see displayed in the pharmacy aisle. Additionally, if you buy a 12-pack of Lacroix sparkling water or Miller Lite, a branded box contains the cans. Secondary packaging makes it easier for retailers to display and handle products.

The demand for unique secondary packaging is a marketing priority for all major consumers. You’ll notice that a company’s re-brand is often reflected in its secondary packaging, including brands like Pepsi and Miller Lite who just recently went retro with their secondary packaging.

Tertiary Packaging with Partitions

Tertiary packaging is used for the protection and shipping of a product. Any company that ships any kind of good uses tertiary packaging in the distribution process. If you have ever ordered anything online, you’ve received it in a piece of tertiary packaging. Its purpose is to protect its products, and facilitate their delivery from Point A to Point B.

There are exceptions to the packaging “rules,” of course.

If you purchase a single bottle of soda from a vending machine, its primary packaging would really be both primary and secondary, since the brand is printed on the label and it does not come in traditional secondary display packaging as it would in a grocery store. Primary and secondary packaging overlap in many circumstances, whereas tertiary is more consistent.

Next time you take a trip to any retail store, see how many different types of packaging are on display. We bet you’ll notice it more now than ever before.