Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Real Men Carry Plastic Bags? Observations from the retail front line.

I’ve been working in a convenience store for the past couple of months. It’s one of those familiar, country wide franchises; bigger than a newsagents but smaller than a supermarket, located in a suburban residential area with a mixed clientele in terms of age, gender and social background. A few weeks ago I was listening to Frank Mitchel on the radio talking about the proposed bag tax that is in the pipe line here in NI that follows in the wake of similar schemes in Wales and ROI. It was a very one sided feature, with a representative from a retail association talking about the unfairness of such a tax, the extra admin it would require and speculation about the possible charge (15p some say). What struck me was that the focus from the retail rep was not the alternatives that such a tax would probably offer such as bags for life, cardboard boxes etc, but that he was working on the assumption that everyone would be robbed blind by having no other alternative than to buy a bag or two every time they visit a shop. Thankfully there was some counter balance provided by one or two callers who praised their own bags for life, and I’m pleased to say that there are more than a few customers that already do so in my work.

However (and these are just observations rather than official study I hasten to add), I’ve noticed some definite trends when it comes to plastic bag usage. 

  • Women are far more likely to bring their own bag for shopping than men. Either using their hand bag for odd items or having a shopping bag of their own. I’d say roughly about ten times more women do this than men. Though women are more likely to ask for things like detergent to be double bagged or bagged separately to the rest of their shopping.
  • Men are more likely to ask for a bag, with men aged between 35-65 almost twice as likely than any other customer demographic, to ask for a bag for small, easily carried items such as a can of coke, newspapers and packets of crisps.
  • Younger customers, under the age of 35, are less likely to take a smaller plastic bag for loose fruit and veg.
  • By far the most likely to refuse a bag, and even pre-emptively state that they do not need a bag, are school children, aged from 10-18. They’ll either stuff their purchases into already bulging school bags or carry it with them.
  • Bag usage for easily carried items increases if it is raining, even if these items are unlikely to be damaged in the rain.
  • People on the whole are far more likely to consider their shopping, and ultimately refuse a bag, if you ask ‘Do you need a bag?’ rather than ‘Would you like a bag?’. 

So what have I gathered from this far from scientific study? Well first up, kudos to the kids, clearly environmental education in schools is making an impact. Secondly, there needs to be a drive to increase the number of men using their own shopping bags, particularly in the older age groups. Perhaps the image of a shopping bag is still that of a somewhat effeminate accessory (admittedly, the vast majority of designs are tailored towards traditional female patterns and colours), or perhaps women are still the principal shoppers in most families and as a result are better prepared? As to why men between 35-65 are more to likely ask for a bag for easily carried items, well that one stumps me and I'm resisting the urge to brand then lazy feckers. As this tends to happen more in an older age group, it might have something to do with a tradition of expecting a bag - 'shops have always provided them, so why shouldn't I take one?' and the associated resistance to change that comes with that attitude.

Probably what I've gathered most from my retail experience though, is that for reduction to be the key factor in how NI deals with the plastic bag levy (something that seems to be largely ignored in the endless debates about revenue and admin costs), there needs to be an effort to make people openly question whether they need or want a bag, and this has to be directed at the people who have enjoyed the luxury of an endless supply of plastic bags for the majority of their lives.

The observations noted cover the customer base in our shop; people who both walk and drive to the shop, all ages and from outward appearance appear to have no physical disability that would mean that they can't carry single or light items. 

Image: winnond /


  1. I've noticed the same as yourself, but a lot of it is that men generally are impulse or emergency buyers (and therefore spur of the moment) whereas womens are planned and therefore can include bags in their thinking!

  2. This is where a bag that you can keep with you at all times comes in handy, we sell these at our place

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