Skip to main content

Is mom ready for B-Y-O-Bag?


Sometime soon, in a supermarket near you, when someone asks, “paper or plastic?” they may not be referring to the kind of bag you’re getting, but rather how you’d like to pay to carry home your groceries: Would you like to pay paper (cash) or plastic (card)?

That’s because a new wave of legislation sweeping through local communities is designed to charge shoppers for every bag they use (whether paper or plastic). It’s what legislators are calling a built-in disincentive for excessive grocery-bag consumption.

It’s what I call a Mandated Environmental Sustainability Strategy—a.k.a. a M.E.S.S.

You see, on a recent trip to Seattle I received a crash course in West Coast environmentalism when I began fishing around for a good retail story. Although Costco’s forewarning of a drop in fourth-quarter profit and Starbucks’ successive announcements of store closings and layoffs indeed made for intriguing news, nothing could outdo the decision by the Seattle City Council to require all food, drug and convenience store operators to start charging consumers 20 cents per shopping bag, whether paper or plastic.

(For a complete description of the city council’s ruling, go to:

Clearly, this new “bag tax” as it is being called by the local press, is Seattle’s way of flexing its green-minded muscle. And whether you believe in this sort of government mandate or not, you can’t deny the immediate effect it will have on the local market when it goes into effect in January. A large Seattle family, whose weekly shopping consists of roughly a dozen bags (each doubled) will be looking at a surcharge of nearly $5 per trip, just for the privilege of carrying home groceries.

The timing of these additional costs couldn’t be worse for consumers, as most pundits agree the economy will only get worse before it gets better. But even if consumer confidence perks up, the imposition of a bag tax is simply incongruous with the razor-thin margins that rule mass food retailing. We’re talking, after all, about a channel where grocers wage milk wars over mere pennies per gallon and penny-pinching consumers cut coupons for a lot less than the future cost of a Seattle grocery bag.

Where a mandate like this stands to have its greatest implications on the retail industry is when other cities with similar green-minded ambition (and there are plenty) adopt comparable laws. And don’t think it can’t happen. Remember the early days of airline experiments with converting free services into paid services? Look where that has gone. It now costs as much as $25 for a single checked bag. I know what you’re thinking: It will be years before retailing even comes close to that situation. But that’s what air travelers said, and now airplanes are no more than overcrowded, poorly run, no-frills transportation vehicles opportunistically looking for any chance to siphon dollars from passengers’ pockets.

That is not the reputation the retail industry wants (or deserves). And reputation is only the beginning. The imposition of a bag tax carries many indirect implications. Will supermarkets that use grocery-bagging as an added-value service lose this feature as a point of differentiation? Will suppliers, who have designed their packaging to fit into small plastic bags, have to rethink product configurations with a keener eye toward portability and practicality? Will retailers start to view permanent, re-usable bags as a new profit center?

Like all things, it is the fear of the unknown that drives skepticism. And there’s plenty of unknowns when it comes to the bag tax. The biggest question, upon which this whole issue hinges, is what shopper-mom thinks of the pay-per-bag policy—something that seems to have been an afterthought on the part of Seattle planners.

Local legislators can have all the best intentions, but nothing works at retail (especially grocery retail) without buy-in from mom. Then, and only then, can the acceptance of a pay-per-bag program ever be considered in the bag.

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds