The NSW government is facing renewed pressure to ban single-use plastic bags after Coles buckled under pressure from recalcitrant shoppers and backflipped on plans to charge customers for reusable bags.
Coles came under attack on social media on Wednesday after deciding to continue giving away reusable plastic bags for an “indefinite period”.
Australia’s second-largest retailer stopped supplying free single-use plastic bags in Queensland, NSW, Victoria and Western Australia on July 1 – two weeks after a similar move by Woolworths and six months after Harris Farm Markets – but agreed to hand out free reusable bags until August 1 to help customers through the “transition period”.
A Coles spokesman said on Wednesday that customers were becoming more accustomed to bringing reusable bags from home and relying less on complimentary bags at the checkout, but some were still finding themselves a bag or two short and others needed more time to adjust.
“Complimentary bags are intended to be an interim measure to help customers make the transition to reusable bags,” the spokesman said.
Either Coles’ customers have been slower to adjust to the bag ban than those at Woolworths, Harris Farm and Aldi (which has been charging for reusable bags for many years) or Coles, which is soon to be demerged from parent Wesfarmers, is more sensitive about the impact on sales.
Retail expert Gary Mortimer, a senior lecturer at QUT Business School, said Coles’ customers were no different to Woolworths’ and the retailer faced reputational damage by continuing to hand out free plastic bags while claiming to be reducing plastics.
“It’s been a PR disaster for them today,” Dr Mortimer told The Australian Financial Review.
“While there is consumer frustration during this period of transition, this backflip flies in the face of their initial claim to be committed to reducing plastics in the environment.
“Giving away free plastic bags extends that period of transition.”
‘”People respect an organisation that steps up and stands by its claims in the face of some backlash and criticism.”
Woolworths, which stopped handing out free reusable bags on July 8, is sticking to its guns. Rather, the retailer is offering bonus rewards points and door-tag reminders to encourage shoppers to bring their own bags.
“We’ve found the majority of our customers across Australia have embraced the move to a more sustainable way of shopping,” a Woolworths spokesman said.
Ban ‘poorly managed’
A survey of 12,500 customers in May as part of Woolworths’ Voice of the Customer program indicated that 74.7 per cent of shoppers supported the removal of single-use plastic bags and 14.8 per cent were against.
“Our focus is on continuing to help all our customers form new and sustainable habits. That’s why we continue to reward customers who remember to bring their own bags with Woolworths Rewards points,” he said.
Coles and Woolworths have declined to say whether the bag ban has crimped September-quarter sales growth.
In a report last month, Citigroup analyst Bryan Raymond said the single-use bag ban had been poorly managed by both retailers and had hurt sales, based on anecdotal feedback from suppliers.
“Woolworths and Coles are experiencing sales weakness following the elimination of single-use shopping bags, a significant change which has not been well executed by either retailer,” Mr Raymond said.
Harris Farm removed all plastic bags from checkouts in January, replacing them with free reusable paper bags and cardboard boxes, and estimates it has saved about 15 million single-use plastic bags from landfill and waterways.
Co-chief executive Angus Harris urged Coles to reconsider its position and renewed calls on the NSW government to ban single-use bags, which are still in use by Metcash’s IGA stores and myriad independent food and grocery retailers.
Dr Mortimer also urged the NSW and Victorian governments to follow the lead of other states and ban single-use plastic bags as soon as possible. Victoria plans to ban them by the end of 2019.
“Retailers need to step up and hold firm, shoppers need to step up and state governments just need to pass legislation and that way there’s consistency in experience,” he said. “It needs a uniform approach.”