Bags of woe
Has the English high street retail sector developed a death wish? I don’t normally do much in the way of physical shopping – I find for all the difficulties associated with delivery – that the internet suits most of my retail needs. But now that I have a bit more time on my hands I have been wandering along the high streets. And what a depressing experience it has been.
The first problem is finding a shop at all. What were once the main shopping areas are now full of charity shops, hairdressers, estate agents, money lenders and vacant premises that it is almost a shock to find somewhere that sells stuff, let alone stuff you may actually want. You make your purchase, queue to pay and then the you hear the dread question, “Do you want a bag?” An answer in the affirmative triggers the response, “That will be 5 pence then”.
You see in England from October 5th shops belonging to groups employing over 250 people have been required to charge 5p for each plastic bag. Apparently it is our contribution to reducing global plastic pollution. In some ways it is a less than subtle example of Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge theory in action. Inevitably some supermarkets have reported an increase in the number of baskets and trolleys stolen since the introduction of the tax.
The tax is highly discriminatory and penalises the occasional and spontaneous shopper aka the male of the species. Wild horses wouldn’t normally drag us into a shop but if they do, the last thing we want to do is to pay an extra 5p for the privilege. Of course, males are infamous for wearing garments with capacious pockets so the odd purchase can be stored away but you don’t really want to spend the rest of the day with some sharp-edged or squidgy object in your pockets.
Having been caught a few times here are a few options that can be adopted to show your displeasure at the tax. The first is what might be called the shaming approach. When you get to the checkout ostentatiously unfurl a bag bearing the logo of the shop’s most direct competitor. Seeing you load your goods into a Tesco bag is enough to melt the hardest of checkout operator’s hearts in Asda or Sainsbury.
Another approach is to adopt the reductio ad absurdum approach. This is to use the largest bag you can find – one of those black refuse sacks is perfect – and pop the smallest of items into it. Slinging it over your shoulder as you leave the premises adds to the effect.
For the more militant amongst us – and this works particularly well with frozen goods and perishables – you take them to the checkout, let the operator scan them all and then ask the dread question. This should prompt the retort, “You know what, I’ll just leave it” and then you walk away, leaving the operator to have to cancel the purchases and someone else to replace them on the shelves. A moment’s satisfaction for sure but if you really needed them, you’ve got to start all over again somewhere else.
I can’t help thinking that the stores should be doing more to help their customers than just becoming an extended arm of Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise. What is wrong with paper bags as an alternative? Not as durable for sure but that is the point – plastic bags are virtually indestructible – but strong enough, other than in monsoon conditions, to convey your goods from A to B. Is it too much to expect our money-grabbing shops to follow the continental custom of wrapping your goods up into exquisite parcels. Now, I’d even pay 5p for that!