Farming Magazine - June, 2010


Farm Marketing: When is a Bag More Than a Bag?

By Diane Baedeker Petit

It turns out that a shopping bag is more than a container to hold items bought in a store. After the District of Columbia instituted a 5-cent tax on plastic shopping bags last summer, some interesting things happened. The purpose of the tax was to discourage the use of disposable plastic bags provided by stores, and encourage the use of reusable shopping bags to reduce pollution. Apparently, the problem has become so bad that plastic bags often clog the Anacostia River after a storm.

According to a recent Washington Post article, D.C. shoppers rebelled against the tax. As a matter of principle, many customers who forget to bring their own bag refuse to pay the extra nickel and carry their purchases out of the store or restaurant loose. Not surprisingly, as a result, people have been dropping groceries, or their lunch, on the sidewalk or parking lot.

Beyond the utilitarian aspect of shopping bags, the article points out that bags offer a certain amount of privacy. By carrying their purchases out of the store loose, customers are telling the world, or at least their neighbors, about their dietary habits and other personal preferences. One shopper quoted in the article said that she feels like she’s stealing the items if she walks out without a bag.

The first retailer to ever offer customers a bag to put their purchases in surely did so to encourage them to buy more by making it convenient to carry their goods home.

Many people have come to feel they are entitled to a bag with every purchase, whether it’s needed or not. Sometimes, check-out clerks will ask a customer purchasing a single item if they would like a bag. Many customers opt for the bag, if for no other reason than they feel they’ve already paid for it.

I have to admit that I’ve often opted for a bag to carry out a single item, partially because I felt entitled to one, but also for some of the reasons that Washington shoppers are experiencing: the item is easier to carry, more private, protected from the elements and clearly paid for.

Wholesale clubs typically do not provide bags. This helps keep operating costs, and therefore merchandise prices, down. Plus, goods are often sold in quantities so large that bags would need to be sized accordingly. Instead, these warehouse-type stores usually make discarded product boxes available at the store exit. Somehow I always feel better if my purchases are in a box when I leave the store rather than rolling around in the shopping cart.

The choice between paper and plastic is more complicated than it would appear. I go through a mental checklist within the split second it takes to make the decision. Paper is more biodegradable, but plastic bags have handles and are, therefore, easier to carry. Paper bags are useful for packaging up newspapers destined for the local recycling center, so we try to keep a small supply on hand.

The move toward voluntary use of reusable bags has been going on for some time now across the country. Many supermarkets sell or give away reusable bags bearing their logo. One Washington, D.C., grocery store manager who was dismayed to see shoppers carrying bags with a competitor’s logo into his store started offering to trade bags with his company’s logo for the competing bags.

Whether a shopping bag is technically disposable or not is almost irrelevant if it’s worth saving and reusing. Bags that are well-made, durable and attractive will be reused, and if your logo is on the outside, you’ll be getting free advertising every time the customer carries it around.

Apple-picking bags can fit that bill. I personally have kept them because of the convenient handle, durability and the fact that they will usually stand up on their own. I’ve seen coworkers use the smaller sizes to carry their lunch.

The Washington, D.C., bag tax only brought to light what retailers and customers already knew intuitively: shopping bags are more than just bags. They have dimensions that can be environmental or political; are a customer convenience and can be a marketing and advertising tool. Are bags part of your marketing plan?

The author, a freelance writer, is public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Mass. Dept. of Food & Agriculture. Comment or question? Visit and join in the discussions.