Friday, April 18, 2008

Green Retailing Memo: New Issues Emerging From Growing Consumer Use of Reusable Bags: Worker Injuries, Shoplifting Claims, 'Double-Bagging'

In Australia, the shop assistants' union which represents supermarket clerks, is claiming the growing use of reusable shopping bags, especially those of the canvas and cotton variety, is causing injuries to store clerks because the reusable bags can hold up to 40% more weight in groceries than single-use plastic carrier bags or paper grocery sacks. As a result, all the lifting and toting of the heavier-when-filled reusable bags are causing injuries to the store workers, according to the union.

As a result, the shop assistants' union is proposing laws that would protect the store workers from injuries caused by the heavier-when-filled reusable shopping bags.

The Aussie store clerks' union says it has statistics which show about 11.3% of the nation's supermarket clerks have been injured lifting the reusable shopping bags after packing them with a customer's grocery purchases.

The issue is beginning to gain steam in Australia because the country's government is expected to pass a law banning the use of single-use plastic carrier bags next year.

The union is just beginning to formulate a series of laws it says are designed to protect the store clerks from back and other injuries they say are increasingly being sustained because the canvas and cotton reusable shopping bags can hold many more items than a single-use plastic carrier bag, thus becoming much heavier to lift off checkout stand counters, put into shopping carts and carry out to customers' cars at supermarkets which offer that service.

In a piece earlier this week in which we mentioned that one unintended consequence (although it should have been expected) of the single-use plastic carrier bag ban for supermarkets over 10,000 square feet the city of San Francisco, California enacted last year, is that the use of paper grocery sacks in the stores has increased dramatically. The allow still allows the store to offer paper grocery sacks for free to shoppers.

Our point isn't to suggest the plastic bags should not have been banned. That's the choice of people and governments in democratic societies.

Rather, we're just pointing up that there often are unintended consequences when laws like bag bans are enacted.

It appears the supermarket clerk health and safety issue being brought up by the Australia shop assistant's union is one of those unintended consequences; in this case of the growing popularity of consumers doing the right and "green" thing by bringing their own reusable shopping bags to the grocery store rather than having the store use single-use plastic carrier bags or paper grocery sacks to pack their purchases.

The issue isn't isolated to Australia

The heavier reusable shopping bag issue and store worker injury or potential injury issue isn't unique to Australia. We've noticed it personally in stores in the USA. The eyes of supermarket clerks sometimes glaze over when they see a shopper present three or four canvas or cotton reusable shopping bags for their grocery order to be packed in.

We've asked a store clerk or two about that "look," and they told us the only problem with the reusable bags is that when full they are so much heavier than plastic bags--and even paper grocery sacks when filled. They've added that after an eight hour day--especially one in which lots of shoppers brought their own reusable grocery totes--of packing and lifting the heavier bags, their backs and shoulders get rather sore.

Others have noticed this phenomenon in supermarkets as well.

For example, below is a post a consumer wrote on the Yahoo Answers website regarding a discussion of just this issue involving reusable shopping bags at supermarkets:

When the cashier started scanning my merchandise I told her I brought my own bags. She just looked at me confused as hell and then said she couldn't use them. I was a little baffled because why couldn't she? I come to realize it was mostly due to pure laziness in wanting to pack with my bags. She told me I had 2 options 1. let her bag them in which she'd use the plastic bags or 2. I bag them and use my own bags.

A bit later on Yahoo Answers, a number of posters mentioned the reusable shopping bag being heavier than plastic grocery bags when full issue regarding this poster's reusable bag experience at her supermarket, as the likely culprit to that store clerk's attitude and behavior.

We doubt if such flat out refusal's are the norm--or even a 5% of the time issue. However, other consumers say they've experienced similar (though not refusals like the shopper quoted above) situations regarding supermarket clerks and reusable bags.

Below is an experience one consumer posted on a website called Daily Green:

2008 @ 2:18PMBigGUM said...Only once did a grocery clerk not want to use my bags. I suppose I could have thrown a fuss, but I opted to bag my own stuff instead. Usually my grocery store doesn't blink an eye and recently they've even started selling their own bags. Now just the other night at Target the cashier first attempted to scan my bags, then just went ahead and bagged my bags (!) in a plastic Target bag. When she finally understood what they were for she was flummoxed. Didn't I *like* the Target bag? Oh, I must be one of those save-the-environment people, right? No joke!

Other emerging issues regarding reusable shopping bags

This consumer's post points up another issue (other than the store clerk health and safety one) we've been recently told about regarding reuseable shopping bags in stores.

That issue is that in some cases store workers either tend to think shoppers are buying the bags at the store--and thus try to scan them like the consumer quoted above experienced--or even worse, we've been told by a number of consumers that store personal thought the shopper might be shoplifting with the reusable bags.

For example, below is a quote posted on Daily Green regarding the potential shoplifting issue:

-2008 @ 7:54PMAshleyThe Amazon said...I have literally been chased down by Wal Mart greeters when I enter a store with my own reusable bags, usually on a regular basis. One greeter claimed it was a theft issue and she needed to put a pink sticker on it to differentiate from their merchandise. These were bags emblazoned with "IKEA" and "Whole Foods" on them!! So obviously not theirs! I usually get dirty looks from the cashiers as well. They don't understand why I try to cram all of my items in the bags I brought. I have had these issues at 3, count them, 3 different stores. I wonder if its really a big company issue. Kinda makes me less likely to wanna go there.

Lastly, it seems many supermarket clerks are used to a certain routine which all shoppers are aware of. That routine has been company policy at supermarkets for years, primarily for perceptual rather than real reasons, but flies in the face of the reusable bag culture.

Here is an example: Clerks will put fresh meat, poultry or seafood for example into a separate plastic carrier bag so as to not let the package come into contact with other grocery products. They often do the same with fresh produce and other perishable or frozen items. In the latter case to keep the items frozen or cold. The concept is that in the separate bag there will be no "contamination."

Many shoppers who religiously bring their own bags to the store say this practice still happens to them when the supermarket clerk is bagging their grocery order.

The clerk, following store and company policy will "bag" fresh meat, poultry and seafood items for example in separate single-use plastic carrier bags, then put those bags along with all the other groceries into the customer's reusable shopping bags.

Of course, such practices defeat the source-reduction purpose the consumer intended by bringing his or her own bag to the supermarket. The shoppers then say they have to ask the clerk to please remove the items from the single-use plastic bags; which the clerks always do in the cases we've been told about or read about.

For example, here is what a poster on Daily Green had to say about the situation:

1-10-2008 @ 11:37AMBrigid Keely said...When I shop at grocery stores other than Whole Foods, I get confused looks when I say I brought my own bags. Sometimes the bagger bags everything in plastic bags (double bagged, t'boot) and then drops them in the bags I brought.One cashier teased me for having bags emblazoned with logos from stores other than his, but it was very friendly, and he made sure the bagger bagged our stuff correctly (ie, not in plastic).


Like all behavior and policy change, the growing use of reusable shopping bags isn't without its problems, as our examples point out. And since the goal is to grow this behavior and practice further, the unintended consequences are likely to grow and multiply.

However, we believe the in-store related behaviors can be fixed with effort by management, consumer patience, cooperation by the store clerks, and time.

The supermarket clerk injury situation currently being brought to attention by the Australian retail clerks union though could just be a bigger and less easily solved issue.

With the consumer use of reusable bags growing, more governments banning single-use plastic carrier bags completely, with others passing bag-fee laws and even retailers like Whole Foods Market self-banning the plastic bags in its stores beginning on April 22, we think the health and safety issue regarding the reusable shopping bags and potential and real store worker injuries is in its infancy. In other words, as the use of reusable shopping bags increases, so will the intensity of the issue, and not just in Australia.

We expect the issue to begin to emerge in the United States and Europe soon, as it is presently in Australia. As such, it promises to add another layer to the already multi-layer issue of paper, plastic--or reuseable bags.

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