The tertiary sector of economy (also known as the service sector or the service industry) is one of the three economic sectors, the others being the secondary sector (approximately manufacturing) and the primary sector (extraction such as mining, agriculture and fishing). Sometimes an additional sector, the "quaternary sector", is defined for the sharing of information (which normally belongs to the tertiary sector).
The tertiary sector is defined by exclusion of the two other sectors. Services are defined in conventional economic literature as "intangible goods".
The tertiary sector of economy involves the provision of services to businesses as well as final consumers. Services may involve the transport, distribution and sale of goods from producer to a consumer as may happen in wholesaling and retailing, or may involve the provision of a service, such as in pest control or entertainment. Goods may be transformed in the process of providing a service, as happens in the restaurant industry or in equipment repair. However, the focus is on people interacting with people and serving the customer rather than transforming physical goods.
Typically the output of this sector is content (information), service, attention, advice, experiences, and/or discussion (also known as "intangible goods"). Other examples of service sector employment include:
Public utilities are often considered part of the tertiary sector as they provide services to people, while creating the utility's infrastructure is often considered part of the secondary sector, even though the same business may be involved in both aspects of the operation.
To do fact-based work in this area it is necessary to utilize the extensive data collection that takes place using classification systems such as the United Nations's International Standard Industrial Classification standard, the United States' Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) code system and its new replacement, the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS), and similar systems in the EU and elsewhere.
The term service economy, in contrast, refers to a model wherein as much economic activity as possible is treated as a service. For example IBM treats its business as a service business. Although it still manufactures high-end computers, it sees the physical goods as a small part of the "business solutions" industry. They have found that the price elasticity of demand for "business solutions" is much less than that for hardware. There has been a corresponding shift to a subscription pricing model. Rather than receiving a single payment for a piece of manufactured equipment, many manufacturers are now receiving a steady stream of revenue for ongoing contracts.
Economies tend to follow a developmental progression that takes them from a heavy reliance on agriculture and mining, toward the development of manufacturing (e.g. automobiles, textiles, shipbuilding, steel) and finally toward a more service based structure. Whereas the first economy to follow this path in the modern world was the United Kingdom, the speed at which other economies have later made the transition to service-based, sometimes called post-industrial, has accelerated over time.
Historically, manufacturing tended to be more open to international trade and competition than services. As a result, there has been a tendency for the first economies to industrialize to come under competitive attack by those seeking to industrialize later, e.g. because production, especially labour, costs are lower in those industrializing later. The resultant shrinkage of manufacturing in the leading economies might explain their growing reliance on the service sector.
However, currently and prospectively, with dramatic cost reduction and speed and reliability improvements in the transportation of people and the communication of information, the service sector now includes some of the most intensive international competition, despite residual protectionism.
Since the quality of most services depends largely on the quality of the individuals providing the services, it is true that "people costs" are a high component of service costs. Whereas a manufacturer may use technology, simplification, and other techniques to lower the cost of goods sold, the service provider often faces an unrelenting pattern of increasing costs.
Differentiation is often difficult. How does one choose one investment adviser over another, since they (and hotel providers, leisure companies,and consultants,as well as many others) often seem to provide identical services? Charging a premium for services is usually an option only for the most established firms, who charge extra based upon brand recognition.