Wegmans, the Rochester, New York-based supermarket chain heralded for its focus on customer service, removed plastic bags from its 46 New York stores on January 27, 2020, several weeks before the state’s anticipated March 1 ban. That lead time has provided a period of adjustment for its customers and employees.
Although enforcement of the March 1 ban has been delayed at least until April 1 due to a temporary restraining order won by a plastic bag manufacturer and New York City bodega owners on Friday, February 28, Wegmans instituted its own ban months ago.
Sales of reusable bags spiked in January as customers prepared for the change, which was on top of the rising year-over-year sales growth Wegmans was already witnessing.
While many retailers will open their doors on March 1 with a totally new bag policy—some have gone bagless, making customers responsible for packing their purchases up and transporting them out of the store, while others have made reusable bags available for sale—Wegmans began preparing for this back in 2019.
The 2019 Pilot Program
“We started with a two-store pilot to understand the true impact, how we could make the transition out of plastic bags seamless for our employees and customers, and how we could help our customers make the shift to reusable bags,” says Jason Wadsworth, Wegmans’ packaging and sustainability manager. The pilot program, which kicked off July 29, 2019 in the Corning and Ithaca, New York Wegmans stores, was deemed successful and is likely why Wegmans moved ahead with early implementation of its own ban across all of its New York state locations.
“Because eliminating plastic grocery bags isn’t as simple as just removing them from our stores, we knew early on we couldn’t wait until the March 1, 2020 deadline,” Wadsworth says.
With many reminders throughout its store in advance of the January 27 elimination of plastic bags, the result was little disruption. “Very quickly, we’re seeing our customers adapt to reusable bags, or opting for no bag at all,” says Wadsworth. “On average, paper bags are used for 20%-25% of the transactions; the remaining 75%-80% are using reusable bags, or no bag at all.” That’s a quick flip from old habits. “Prior to eliminating bags in New York, on average, reusable bags were used for 20% of transactions across all Wegmans stores,” Wadsworth continues.
Eliminating plastic bags in its New York stores will prevent more than 250 million single-use plastic bags from going into circulation each year. New York State consumers use an estimated 23 billion bags a year, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation, 85% of which end up a landfill after an average of 12 minutes of use.
Wegmans customers who prefer paper bags, will be charged five cents per bag. That money is then donated to the local Feeding America food bank serving each region, explains Wadsworth. However, that charge also helps encourage the use of reusable bags. According to Wadsworth, “We’ve learned from our pilot that when a small fee is charged, reusable bag usage goes up dramatically.”
Advice For Other Retailers
Given Wegmans’ six-month head start in testing the elimination of plastic bags, since the start of its pilot program, the company has the advantage of hindsight. Wadsworth offers three recommendations to other retailers now grappling with the impending ban:
- Don’t underestimate the impact eliminating plastic bags will have on the business.“It’s not as simple as no longer offering plastic bags,” Wadsworth says.
“Making this change directly impacts front-end employees because it changes the way they do their jobs. It also creates a sizable ripple effect that impacts multiple business areas, including transportation, costs, and front-end processes and operations, to name a few.”
Providing a more sustainable alternative to customers requires advance procurement and storage.
- Focus on helping customers and employees through the transition.The elimination of plastic bags at checkout and the need to remember to bring reusable bags was an adjustment for customers, says Wadsworth.
Through a customer survey, Wegmans learned that 95% of its customers already owned at least one reusable bag and 87% owned three or more. Clearly, they were prepared. But the reason that some reverted to plastic bags was that they would forget their reusable bags at home or in the car. So Wegmans “created new, eye-catching reusable bag reminder signs and strategically placed them throughout our parking lots and store entrances,” says Wadsworth.
Retailers looking for ways to encourage reusable bag use by their customers could print their own and strategically place them near the checkout for purchase.
- Invest in employee training.“Getting your employees onboard with the change is the best way to help your customers through the transition,” according to Wadsworth, who recommends spending 20 minutes with employees in small groups to give them the tools and the information they need to best serve customers. “Our cashiers are using this change as an opportunity to interact with customers,” he says, “and in the process, building stronger relationships.”
Now that New York retailers have at least another month to shift away from using plastic bags, they have an opportunity to help customers develop more sustainable shopping habits.