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How Banning Plastic Shopping Bags Can Lead to Higher Sales

A recent article in the Journal of Marketing looked at the impact of bringing your own bags while doing the grocery shopping. They found that people who did so spent more on environmentally friendly goods and on indulgent snacks and treats.

Plastic bags have a huge environmental cost both in the manufacturing process and in their disposal. They are also cost money to provide and increasingly are legislated against by many states and municipalities. This has taken a number forms – typically either making customers pay for the bags or having bag free days.

The experimenters looked at 2 years’ worth of data from a single store in California (part of a large chain). The data came from the store’s loyalty card and was cleansed to focus on regular weekly shoppers.

There were two ideas behind the experiment. The first was that if you turn up at the store with a reusable bag you’ll already be primed to be buying environmentally friendly goods. You’ll have to have remembered to bring the bag and will have the right mind-set. It’s a way to end plastic addiction.

The second idea is called licensing. That is if you’ve been good you’ll often do something naughty because the good action has given you a license. It’s the same idea as ‘work hard all week, party at the weekend.’

So when you turn up at the grocery store with your own bag you’ll have already done something for the environment and therefore you’ll be able to be a little bit indulgent and treat yourself.

Now once they crunched the numbers the researchers found that both effects were true. Customers were primed and they did buy more organic goods at an average of 14.8% more expensive than the less environmentally friends products.

At the same time they found that the sale of indulgent goods (including cookies and chocolates) went up showing that virtue did indeed need vice as a reward.

These findings suggest banning plastic shopping bags has far wider implications than just customer behavior in a supermarket. These apply to all sorts of sales processes – including online.

For grocery retailers the key takeaways is that finding low cost ways to nudge customers into bringing their own bags and rewarding them when they do, would have an impact on the bottom line. Staff could specifically thank customers who brought their own bags and give them some sort of social validation. Possibly this would work best in a store like Trader Joe’s which has much more of a small town feel.

While the research focused on the grocery environment, partly because the large data sets available it would be interesting to see how the idea could be applied in other retail concepts where the purchase value is higher.

If a clothing store had an environmentally friendly branding that emotionally rewarded customers for using their own bags, could this translate into increased sales of higher margin items at the checkout.

If you think about large retailers one likely candidate who is taking advantage of the effect is IKEA. You can buy a large reusable bag and use it every time you go. And when you do your virtuous feelings no doubt translate to greater sales of all those small items which seem so necessary at the time!