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Larry Leach Headshot

Lost Art of Shopping Bag Marketing

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Shopping bags were invented in 1912 by Walter H. Deubner, in order to help sell more goods and add to store sales, when he discovered that shoppers would limit their purchases to what they could carry. Ironically the first shopping bags sold for 5 cents, the very price many "wholesale outlets" charge today.

Going back to the 1970's, marketers discovered the power of printing their logo on a shopping bag, especially during the era of indoor shopping malls. Shoppers would walk from store to store, proudly displaying the logo of the retailer they just purchased from. During that time, the market accepted advertising on the bags and bags were free and convenient everywhere. During the 80's, 90's and early 2000's, the bag was viewed as a symbol of class. If you paid less for your goods at a "wholesale outlet," you paid for a bag, but at a large multinational retailer, you paid more for goods, but your bags were free. At some more elite retailers, the quality of the bag, complete with string handle, took on a symbol all its own. Also during this time, some retailers introduced a heavy cloth reusable bag with a charge of $1-$5, but did not gain acceptance. In my own view at the time, as I'm sure many others, "I'm not going to pay to advertise your company."

It took many years, until the late 2000's, that the market's view on bags changed. Fast-forwarding to 2010, the view on bags is one of "environmental damage" and putting less plastic into our landfills. Now the corporate trend has reversed on bags. Once thought of as a marketing tool and a means to sell more goods, it's now a tool to add to the bottom line and show you are environmentally conscious. MANY retailers are now charging 5 cents for a plastic bag and have cloth environmental bags on sale for $1 and up. Again, it's not the $1 that makes a customer shy away from it, it's the fact you are advertising the company and paying for the pleasure. I found myself walking out of a Shoppers Drug Mart last week with all that I could carry, having forgotten my cloth bag in the car. The very thing Walter H. Deubner invented it to prevent.

In my neighborhood, the local block watch purchased cloth bags and delivered them door to door in the community about 2 years ago. Thanks to Crossroads Block Watch, my community is more apt to take their cloth bag to the store, save the environment and promote Block Watch. I see the bags on a daily basis; they work, although it took us all awhile to get in the habit of bringing our bags to the store. But why did it take the vision of our Block Watch organizers to come up with this; why not a brilliant marketer? I also have yet to see a retailer place a reminder sign on their entrance, "Did you remember your reusable bag?" Now that would show shoppers they care for the environment, especially if they GAVE you a reusable bag with their logo on it.

So as a small business, what can you do? Whether or not you have a retail outlet, look into the cost of making a reusable cloth bag and deliver it in your neighborhood or at least have them available for customers free of charge. Make sure the color is classy but stands out. Whether or not you see the bags around your community, the initial thought by the consumer will be one of your business caring for the environment. Another thing is DON'T consider charging 5 cents for a plastic bag. It just tends to tick off the customer who is not environmental or the customer who simply forgot his bag in the car. Why not turn it into a positive and give a discount for those who bring bags? And remember the reminder signs at your front entrance, which shows your business cares for the environment. A business with a social conscience can win the good will of a lot of people.