You know us, we’re The Packaging Company and we absolutely love packaging. Our team is filled with passionate and dedicated people, and it’s great to know others who feel the same. One such person is Robin Patel, a genuine packaging expert we’re lucky to interact with. Robin has an M.Sc. in Packaging Science from RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology), is a CPP (Certified Packaging Professional) with the IoPP (Institute of Packaging Professionals), and is also a CPLP (Certified Packaging Laboratory Professional) with ISTA (International Safe Transit Association). It’s safe to say he knows a lot about packaging—so he’s here to help us with a little packaging 101.

Packaging is a big topic to cover, for sure. Robin’s graciously agreed to sit down and have some Q&A fun with TPC. We’re going to pick his brain on the origins of the packaging we use today, the importance of using it to ship and protect products, and how companies can best use packaging to their advantage. Like we said, it’s a little bit of packaging 101, so let’s get down to it.

Oh, and—Robin looks great in a white lab coat. Just sayin’.

What exactly is packaging?

Packaging is any material or medium used to enclose and protect a product during transportation, storage, sale and use.

When was packaging first used or developed?

Since we showed up on the planet, we’ve been using packaging to carry and protect things. And as we’ve evolved and progressed, so has packaging. For example, the first cardboard box was produced in England in 1817, 200 years after China began using papyrus paper to create boxes. Corrugated paper was patented in 1856, but was used as liner for hats until 1871 when the first corrugated box was made. The 20th century has brought a lot of advancement when it comes to packaging materials.

What are the main types of packaging materials?

Paper-based products include corrugated material, honeycomb, chipboard and paper. Polymer-based products include foams and films in various formats.

Are there ways to test if packaging can protect a product?

Yes, there are many ways to validate packaging strength. For example, ISTA (International Safe Transit Association) has developed tests that confirm products will be protected during shipping, including: rotary motion (vibration), corner drop, edge drop, face drop and package compression. Corrugated boxes are also rated in one of two ways: Mullen test, an outmoded rating which measures the bursting resistance of the box walls, or ECT (edge crush test), a rating (based on modern shipping techniques) which measures the crush resistance of the box edges.

TPC Tips: Read our blog on Mullen Test vs ECT to learn a lot more about these ratings.

What’s the impact of packaging on a retail business?

A retail business can use their packaging to communicate and connect with a customer. They can leverage graphics, textures, colors and content (like unique options, history or awards) to add to their product’s value. Any of those features can be the differentiator that motivates customers to buy their product over their competitors.

How do packaging needs differ for brick-and-mortar and e-commerce stores?

When a customer buys something from a brick-and-mortar store, they need a way to carry it home. That usually takes the form of a shopping bag, which gets them from the store to their car to their home. That means the packaging (the shopping bag) is meant for convenience, not protection.

When a customer buys something from an e-commerce store, that product needs to be shipped to them. That usually takes the form of a corrugated box or a mailer envelope, which gets that product to them safely. That means the packaging is meant for protection, not convenience.

Both stores use secondary packaging to care for primary packaging in very different ways.

What’s the difference between primary packaging and secondary packaging?

Primary packaging provides protection for an individual product, like the box you buy a digital camera in. It’s also typically printed on, showcasing any branding or marketing for the product.

Secondary packaging provides protection for multiple products, like the box used to ship a dozen of that same digital camera to one store. It often has minimal information on it, such as a brand’s logo and a description of what’s inside, but it can also be fully branded as well. The packaging e-commerce businesses use to ship products to customers is also secondary packaging (and can be plain packaging or covered in their branding as well).

Should packaging be considered during or after product development?

During product development, hands down. That way you can design the packaging around it, reflecting both your product and your brand. You’ll have plenty of time to choose the right materials (foam or bubble?) in the right formats (bubble sheet or bags?), and change your mind if need be. Packaging should never be an afterthought.

Is it worth the time, money and resources required to develop product packaging?

Absolutely. If it’s poorly designed, your product can be damaged or destroyed before it ever gets to a customer. Well-designed packaging should be able to withstand a bumpy ride. This is especially true for e-commerce businesses—customer orders can be treated roughly and change hands several times before finally getting to your customer. Your packaging needs to be prepared for that.

Do you think the costs associated with packaging can be avoided?

Not if you want to create packaging that is effective. It provides marketing opportunities, protection during transit, and a place to safely store products when not in use. Packaging is an integral part of a product’s survival, and more and more companies are realizing that. Like I said before, packaging should never be an afterthought.

Packaging is a wide and varied topic, for sure, and we’re happy we get to explore it. Thanks, Robin, for lending us your knowledge and insight. We thoroughly enjoyed chatting packaging 101 with you, and we look forward to doing it again soon!