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Rebates Fail to Move Reusable Bags

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bag.jpgSupermarkets and their customers love the idea of shopping with reusable bags. The reality, however, is a bit messy. People buy a bag and never use it, or they’re always forgetting to bring one when they shop (that’s me). Many are still put off after last year’s lead contamination scare, which found high levels in bags sold by several leading retailers.

Still, supermarkets are pushing the bags because they save money and boost their environmental image. The trick is figuring out the best ways to do so.

Which leads to the latest finding: Financial incentives don’t work. That’s according to this story from the Associated Press, which found that mainstream grocers like Kroger, Meijer and Safeway have stopped offering rebates of 3 to 5 cents whenever customers use their canvas bags. The thinking, originally, was that small savings, especially in frugal times, would entice consumers into buying and using canvas bags. But representatives said there wasn’t any difference in usage between stores that offered the rebates and those that didn’t.

The payback probably seems negligible to most consumers. And those who are committed to reusable bags aren’t doing it for the money anyway. They’re doing it to help the environment.

Retailers are getting the message, and they’re focusing their efforts instead on reminding shoppers and making the experience more convenient. Kroger has signs in its parking lots asking consumers “Are your reusable bags still in the car?”, and ones in stores that read “Less Plastic? Fantastic.” The Cincinnati-based chain is also training its employees better bagging techniques to load up reusable bags.

The overall outlook looks promising, if not exactly sensational. According to the Food Marketing Institute, half of all consumers in 2010 said they try to bring reusable bags with them when they shop — up 10% from the previous year.

Clever marketing can go a long way to boosting adoption. Judging by the comments in the AP, supermarkets should also reassure customers about the safety of their reusable bags. Thinking bags are “bacteria factories” and “loaded with lead” are never good to carry into a store.

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