By Lorrie Baumann
Does asking your customers to bring reusable shopping bags with them to your store change their shopping behaviors in other ways? It turns out that it does, especially if customers have the choice about whether they do that or not.
The question was the subject of a recent study by Harvard Business School consumer behavior researcher Uma Karmakar and Bryan Bollinger, a researcher from Duke Fuqua School of Business. They used loyalty card data from a single California location of a major grocery chain and a set of their own experiments to demonstrate that shoppers who bring their own shopping bags to the grocery store are more likely to buy organic products as well as those considered indulgences, which includes products like candy, ice cream and snack chips. “Asking customers to bring their own bags introduces a new element. You’re asking customers to change their routine for a good reason. We were curious about whether asking people to add something new to something that they’re very familiar with could create a ripple effects, or changes in their decisions,” Karmarkar said.
The researchers began their study by speculating that the act of bringing reusable bags along to the grocery store might prime shoppers to behave virtuously, and they might express that by taking other positive environmental actions, such as choosing organic produce over nonorganics. They also speculated that, if customers took an action they considered virtuous – bringing their own bags to the store – they might then feel that they had earned themselves a little treat, and that might make them more likely to toss a candy bar or a carton of ice cream into their baskets. “The psychological effect is called licensing. If you do something virtuous in one area of your life, you might feel licensed to do something indulgent in another area of your life,” Karmarkar said. That led them to another question: Does it make a difference if the customers bring their own bags of their own volition or because store policy requires them to do so?
The researches found that customers who bring along their own bags are more likely to buy organic products if they’re available and if the price difference between organic and nonorganic products is not large. “The higher the prices, the less likely it is that bringing your bags will result in a different purchase,” Karmarkar said. “People aren’t suddenly going to run out and purchase a huge box of expensive truffles merely because they brought their bags. They’re still sensitive to prices.”
Customers who bring their own bags are also more likely to buy indulgent products like candy and snack chips, but only if they brought bags because they chose to do so rather than as a result of a store policy requiring them to do so. Karmarkar and Bollinger suggest that that’s because there may be a different psychology involved in the decision to buy the candy bar than in the decision to buy the organic apples. “In the case of organic items, our proposed psychology is that bringing the bag primes the customers with the reminder to take green actions. That might not change if the supermarket makes the rules,” Karmarkar said. “For indulgences, if consumers know that they’re bringing a bag because of the requirements of the store, we don’t see the same effect.”
The takeaway from the study for grocery retailers is that changes in store policies can have unexpected ripple effects, and that’s something to think about while planning the change, according to Karmarkar. “It’s useful to know that applying this kind of policies can have broader effects across the store. When a store enacts a policy, depending on the way they enact it, there can be downstream effects,” she said. “There are some interesting questions about environmental promotions – the store might consider enforcing that in a positive way. If your consumers are bringing their own bags, you might highlight the organic and environmental offerings in messaging and promotions. Because these effects for indulgences are conditional on the way the policies are implemented, the takeaway is that there may be different patterns in the way that consumers address impulse items or desserts in the store.”