Packaging Prototypes 101: What You Need to Know About Creating the Perfect Sample


Packaging Prototypes 101: What You Need to Know About Creating the Perfect Sample

The “perfect sample” meets all of your packaging specifications and requirements

Packaging Prototypes 101: What You Need to Know About Creating the Perfect Sample

Whether you want to change vendors, redesign existing packaging, or start a new line, prototyping—or sampling—is the moment of truth; it is the seminal inflection point where your brand can win or lose. 

One of the key steps in the decision-making process, sampling serves as a checkpoint for size, color, materials, textures, copy, and everything else your future packaging will include.

When you receive your packaging prototypes from your supplier they should invoke the same unboxing experience that you wish to provide to your consumers, giving you confidence in your retail packaging decisions. 

However, the road to the perfect prototype is rarely linear.

Edge2Edge comes from generations of retail packaging experience. Having mastered the prototyping process and pinned down the best practices, here we share our expertise to help you reach the perfect prototype efficiently and on time. 

What Is a Retail Packaging Prototype? 

A retail packaging prototype is a sample of what your packaging will look like. 

It is important, however, to differentiate between what the prototyping—or sampling—process looks like for off-the-shelf versus custom solutions.

Off-the-shelf prototypes help you evaluate a pre-made product with a limited set of customizations you request.

Custom retail packaging prototypes help you evaluate every component of your product, from fiber to handle. 

When developing a truly unique product, prototyping becomes paramount to achieving your vision.

Prototype? Sample? Mock-up? 

You may have come across the terms “prototype,” “sample,” “mock-up,” “vector files,” and “dieline,” used synonymously. However, in retail packaging terminology, we do distinguish between them. Here is a quick overview of each: 

  • A prototype, sample, and mock-up are synonyms, referring to a packaging sample in its physical form 
  • Vector files are used in large format printing and graphic design. They show what your package design will look like (in a digital format only).
    • Print-ready files (also known as mechanicals) provide camera-ready assembly of type, graphics, and other line copy complete with instructions to the printer
    • A dieline is a template that ensures the correct layout of the final, physical package 

Unlike off-the-shelf products, custom packaging prototypes do not come with ready-made templates where you can add your logo, select colors, order a sample online, and call it a day.

You cannot cut corners in custom design, therefore distinguishing between these and other concepts in the sampling process becomes essential to its success. 

However, worry not! Our team of specialists will equip you with invaluable insights along the way, communicate with our supply partners, and make sure you approve everything before production starts. 

Types of Retail Packaging Prototypes 

In general, there are three types of packaging prototypes:  

  • Brand’s approval/Pre-production sample (PPS): This type of packaging prototype is a sample that you receive before the production starts. It is a sample for you to review and approve the design, materials, colors, labels, stitching, coating, and other elements. 
  • Top-of-production sample (TOP): This type of packaging prototype is taken off the line during the production run and can be used for quality control approval. 
  • Complete samples: Provided at the end of manufacturing to you and your vendor. 

The type of sample, process, timing, and associated fees depend on your project and can be greatly impacted by the materials and processes necessary to fulfill the requirements.   

A woman opens boxes and bags at home after online shopping
Carefully think your branded packaging through – the unboxing experience is becoming increasingly important to customers 

Why Do You Need Retail Packaging Prototypes? 

Retail packaging prototypes put the supply chain in motion.

They help brands make informed decisions about their packaging before placing the order as well as align all parties involved in the production process under a single vision.


For brands, retail packaging is an extension of their identity. It is often the first interaction a consumer has with a brand. 

This is particularly true in eCommerce where unboxing experiences are gaining popularity.

Considering that the share of eCommerce in total US retail sales grew from 11.1% in 2019 to 14.3% in 2020, brands are increasing their investment in distinctive, custom packaging to achieve a better impact with their online consumers.

Prototyping helps brands evaluate the functionality and the impact of their retail packaging.

  • Functionality: Prototypes allow you to test the quality of your packaging and its ability to keep your product safe during transport and handling. It ensures that your functional requirements are met.
  • Impact: It also helps you finetune the visual and even emotional impact of your packaging design, ensuring that your design and branding requirements are executed.

Prototypes can also serve as a proof of concept or tool for gathering customer feedback and presenting concepts to investors, managers, and other stakeholders. 


For suppliers, packaging prototypes help them define, evaluate, and align on every nuance of the requirement including materials, adhesives, threads, tags/labeling, shipping, and more. In essence, a prototype serves as the supplier’s “unboxing” moment with the client or prospect. 

Vendors/factories need prototypes to ensure: 

  • Feasibility—the concept can be manufactured to the client’s specifications
  • The materials are compatible with the manufacturing processes 
  • The artwork is formatted correctly and the design is approved through each stage of production 
  • Quality checks are passed and the full run goes smoothly
  • Clients have access to the process and collaborate with us throughout
Why Vendor-Managed Procurement Will Drive Packaging Innovation in the 2020s

How Your Packaging Prototype Goes from Specification to Top-of-Production 

To deliver on the most challenging requirements, packaging experts like Edge2Edge work with a diverse base of global suppliers. This allows us to source the most innovative solutions as well as large volume orders, however, perfection takes time and effort.

At Edge2Edge, the process starts with a consulting session and a sample request. 

With an in-depth understanding of your vision, timeline, volume, and budget, we identify the manufacturer that can deliver on your requirements.

  1. A typical process of creating retail packaging prototypes include the following phases:  
    1. Initial Request and Consultation
    2. You send a sampling request to a vendor: It can be for a single item or many different items. 
    3. The vendor goes through the request with you: Breaking down details into specifications that may require tweaks, adjustments, and a few consultations to complete the request. 
    4. The vendor sends your request to its network of factories: The bigger the network, the better your chances are of getting the perfect packaging sample and getting into production with a manufacturer that can meet all of your requirements.
    5. The vendor provides a quote: prices vary by factory, geography, and timeline. You review including shipping and delivery fees. You also approve the timeline for receipt of production at your designated location.
  2. Pre-Production
    1. You approve the print-ready files (mechanicals): You sign off on all the technical drawings, data files, and tooling requirements if needed.
    2. You approve fully assembled pre-production samples: Review options from various manufacturers and choose/sign off. This step may require multiple rounds.
  3. Production
    1. Manufacturing begins and top-of-production samples are selected: They are sent to the vendor or their agent and used for quality assurance testing. You may also request a quantity for review.
    2. Complete samples are available at the end of production and sent to you and the vendor.
    3. We recommend creating a sample library for comparison of future projects and production of the same item at a later time.   

During this process, you can request complete samples or request drawdowns. Drawdowns work if you only want to see selected colors or specific inks rather than the whole item.

A color drawdown is a swatch of specific colors printed on a specific material to see how the colors look on the material of your choice. 

An ink drawdown is a sample of ink on a piece of material to accurately show the final look for printed packaging. This is important because the same colors may look different on different materials. 

What Your Prototyping Process Could Look Like

For example, if you want to try Pantone colors of the year 2021 to see how Ultimate Gray and Illuminating fit your branding style, and experiment with sustainable materials to introduce a new, eco-friendly line, your request may include: 

  • A 250gsm paper bag with a twisted handle and your logo on both sides 
  • A tote bag with printed messages made of high-quality certified organic cotton 
  • Three sizes of subscription boxes with different finishing effects on each     

Of course, for the example above, your specifications will be much more detailed for each of the packaging items, including: 

  • Exact dimensions 
  • Color codes (Pantone + CMYK) 
  • Specific types of organic cotton you want to try
  • Coating and foil types 
  • Ink and glue requirements 
  • Artwork requirements including logo size(s) and other copy

The process of sampling may seem simple on the surface, yet there are plenty of complex moving parts behind the scenes.

Factories need to source substrates and ensure color matches, print quality, design execution, attachments, test processes, and make plates, which can be costly and time-consuming. Additionally, execution on a small quantity is more difficult than on a large volume run, where factories can make adjustments. 

To meet your requirements, optimize cost and quality, and deliver on even the most challenging orders, a vendor will match suppliers with your requests. 

Matching each point of your specification document with the packaging prototype can be daunting. Understanding the process behind it is key in producing that perfect sample.  

Some Prototyping Scenarios and How to Navigate Them  

Let us dive into some of the most common hurdles and scenarios you may encounter during the sampling process. 

Scenario #1: Prototyping Is Taking Longer Than Expected 

The biggest issue during a sampling process is the timeframe. 

Typically, a retail packaging prototype takes anywhere from 14 to 21 days.  


  • Factories wait for raw material suppliers to deliver a specific material 
  • When a request is vague, there is a lot of back and forth between you and the vendor   
  • Specification mistakes require rework or starting over    

How can you mitigate this? 

Keep realistic expectations about the time needed, try to prepare everything upfront, and leave room for unexpected situations. 

To avoid delays on your behalf, gather as many details as possible about the packaging items. For a bag, this includes dimensions, color codes, the weight of the paper, the length of the handle, the way the handle is being inserted, finishing effects, and more. 

Scenario #2: Prototypes Are Not 100% In Line with the Requirements 

You may receive a packaging prototype that does not match your requirements. 

Perhaps the color hue is not right, the dimensions are a few inches off, a box cannot be folded the right way, a handle does not fit, a material texture is different than you expected, etc.     


  • A computer screen is not calibrated, so the hues you saw on the screen do not match the printed hues 
  • The material is not available for you to see in person, so your expectations were different 
  • You sent the same specifications to multiple suppliers, but the samples are different because they all use different sources for sampling 

How can you avoid this? 

Keep in mind that even when you send the same specifications to various vendors,  they create samples based on the raw materials and machinery they use along with other factors. 

This is why having expert product developers by your side to guide you through the process of getting the perfect sample is a smart move and exactly what Edge2Edge can help you achieve.  

Scenario #3: You Want to Bring Something New to the Table

If your brand is about to launch a completely new line of retail packaging, whether it is new to your business or a new packaging concept in your industry, creating prototypes can be discouraging.


  • The materials you requested may not be in short supply or unavailable  
  • It is difficult to find a manufacturer with the right machinery for your items 
  • The overall sampling process can become too expensive 

How can you manage this? 

If you want to bring something new to the table, the research, ideation, and conceptualization phases can take a lot of time and resources. Be prepared.   

Also, know that you do not have to do it alone. This is when working with experts through innovation and development of distinctive designs and materials can really pay off. 

This is where the Edge2Edge experts shine. See how we created an innovative, sustainable retail packaging solution for DECIEM  that became their visual trademark.  

Edge2Edge & DECIEM developed an innovative sustainable retail packaging program that became the brand’s visual trademark
Edge2Edge & DECIEM developed an innovative sustainable retail packaging program that became the brand’s visual trademark 

How to Optimize the Prototyping Process: Our 5 Simple, Time-Tested Tips

We want to be strategic partners with our clients and devote the time and resources necessary to fully understand and grow your business. Decades of practice have taught us that communication in the prototyping process is key.  

These are the steps Edge2Edge takes to optimize and streamline the sampling process:   

  1. Overcommunication: We over-communicate early in the process to gather as much information as possible, avoid the back-and-forth, and save time. 
  2. Transparency: We are open and transparent about the time frame, pricing, and expectations with both brands and manufacturers, so you always know what to expect. 
  3. A proactive approach: We are prepared for every possible issue (global pandemics excluded), so if you are on a strict deadline, we can work with you to deliver results quickly and efficiently. 
  4. Consultation and support: We offer expert guidance throughout the process, including strategic planning, material selection, design, and sustainability consulting. 
  5. A large base of diversified suppliers: We have a strong network of reliable and trusted retail packaging manufacturers so you can rest assured knowing your expectations are going to be met.  

Packaging Prototypes: Key Takeaways 

Wrapping it up, these are the key takeaways about retail packaging prototypes and getting the perfect sample for your brand:  

Planning and communication are paramount. As Benjamin Franklin said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!”

  • If your packaging program has multiple items you can request a single sample or multiples – for each of them you need a specification detailing the type of material, ink, glue, stitching, attachments, and other elements, as well as dimensions, colors, branding assets, and more.  
  • The sampling process includes client approval/pre-production samples and, top-of-production/quality assurance samples/ so you can review, approve, and sign off on everything before going into mass production. Final production samples are available at the end of manufacturing. 
  • Plan for hurdles, challenges, issues, and unexpected situations along the way, allowing the typical timeframe of 14 to 21 days to expand and accommodate your needs. To avoid delays and mistakes, set realistic expectations, be prepared upfront, and choose a vendor who understands the difference between acting as a strategic partner versus a typical supplier.

Creating new retail packaging, redesigning existing items, or starting a brand-new line are not projects to take lightly especially knowing that the unboxing experience is so important to your consumers and crucial for your brand to grow. 

Having an experienced vendor to help you navigate all of the specifications, requests, rounds, communications, and expectations can save you time, energy, and resources, and ensure a perfect retail packaging sample. 

quote by diego rodriquez telechea - a prototype is a question embodied