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Updated on September 7, 2010

As a result of socioeconomic changes, packages have become increasingly important in the scheme of distribution. Packages must perform the threefold function of containing, protecting, and merchandising. Early in the 20th century packages were of a few basic types and performed their functions far less satisfactorily than they do now.

The cracker barrel which was seen in grocery stores at the turn of the century may be compared with today's neatly wrapped package of cookies or biscuits. Each contains a certain amount of food, but in the case of the cracker barrel it was necessary to remove the desired quantity and place it in a paper box or bag for the purchaser to take home. Now the manufacturer prepacks various weights in cartons. These packages protect the product far better than the cracker barrel with its open top; they keep both disease-carrying organisms and moisture from the crackers. The customer thus is assured of obtaining a product that is sanitary and in a crisp condition. Finally, the package with its attractively designed panels printed in many colors can effectively promote the sale of that brand of crackers on the supermarket's or grocer's shelf. The cracker barrel, while perhaps a colorful institution, was not considered a colorful merchandising device.

Package Types and Contents

Just as the field of packaging spans many product areas, from food and drugs to automotive parts and hardware, it also uses products of the glass, paper, metal, and plastic industries. Packagers use corrugated shipping containers, metal cans, paper-foil cans, glass bottles, plastic bottles, plastic film pouches and bags, paper cartons, paper wraps, and many other types of packages. Into these they place literally almost everything that is manufactured.

Of the tens of billions spent on packaging, about 40 percent went into food packaging, 10 percent each into beverage and durable goods packaging, 7.8 percent to drugs and cosmetics, 2 percent to confections, 1 percent to tobacco, and 29.2 percent for packaging other nondurable items. About half of the monies expended went to purchase packaging paper, board, and corrugated containers. These corrugated shippers accounted for about $2 billion, the largest amount spent for any container type. More than $1.75 billion went for metal cans, about $1 billion each for glass and plastic containers and films, and about $500 million for wood containers.

Problems of Packaging

In many manufacturing companies a packaging committee works out packaging difficulties and develops new containers. The problems of the packaging operation and the package itself are so numerous and involved that the packaging department usually makes certain that the company legal counsel is on the committee to provide advice on labeling and pure food and drug laws; the traffic manager is available to advise on shipping regulations; the production department is represented to see that package design is compatible with running, filling, and closing on production equipment; the sales and advertising departments to see that the package is properly designed to sell; and the purchasing department to handle supplier relations.


The use of the package as a merchandising aid has become increasingly important since the widespread establishment of supermarkets began in the late 1930's. A clerk no longer serves the customer as requested or advises what items or brands to buy. In markets today, packages themselves must attract the attention of the consumer who is passing them by at the rate of 300 items a minute. The consumer generally will spend about 20 to 30 minutes in the market on each trip and will arrive at the checkout counter with an average of 21 items. Since edibles account for about 50 percent of all packaging, it is easy to see why there has been such an emphasis on attractive packaging design and appearance.

The same is true in the area of cosmetics, where design is deemed such a strong merchandising factor that the average life of a cosmetics package before redesign is only three to six months. Design of the package is important for any product that will be used in the package in the home, such as vitamin pills and cleansing tissues. Packages alone, however, cannot sell a product. Many surveys have found that an attractive design cannot bring repeated sales of an inferior product.

Features of Convenience

Besides design for protection and appearance, design for convenience is important to both packagers and purchasers. Features include devices for easy opening, such as tear tapes and strips; means of easy re-closure, such as fold-over tabs; dispensing spouts and slots; and usability of the package as a storage container or as a means of using the product, as in the case of frozen prepared food sold in a plastic pouch in which the food is heated for serving.


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