THOUGHTS FROM THE HEART Edge-u-cation THE HUMBLE CARRY BAG – Its Misuse & Exploitation

THE HUMBLE CARRY BAG – Its Misuse & Exploitation


“The best marketing doesn’t feel like marketing”-Tom Fishburne.

Google research found that people are more loyal to their needs in the moment than they are to any particular brand. While customers are every brand’s top priority, most brands haven’t figured out how to engage with their customers in a way that’s palatable or effective. Research firm Gartner says 89% of companies compete based predominantly on customer experience, yet many get it wrong by overcomplicating the customer journey – doing too much with too little focus and very little connection between the basics. Simply put, brands are leveraging a variety of channels to deliver marketing and sales messages. While it might seem that using every possible outlet will increase the chance that people will engage with a particular brand, the reality is that focusing on quantity most likely will lead to lines getting crossed and communication appearing disjointed.

Businesses houses realize the power of having a physical presence in the real world. In this regard, physical promotional items have an important role to play and, of these, branded carrier bags are understood by marketing experts to be an exceedingly effective marketing tool. Building these into a marketing strategy is a cheaper option than advertisement campaigns, celebrity endorsements and the like, while the fact that people simply cannot live without bags attests to their reusability, ensuring that the brand’s marketing campaign has a long reach. Everyone needs cheap bags to carry shopping and the like to and from town. However, with the current concerns over the amount of damage we are doing to the environment, plastic bags are either being phased out or consumers are charged for them, in order to gently persuade them to use alternatives.

However, in the last six months, the humble carry bag has been at the center of an intense legal battle between consumers and retailers over the fundamental question of whether retailers can charge for carry bags that are basically a medium of advertisement for the brand. A very recent example is that of Bata which has been fined rupees 9000 by Chandigarh consumer forum for forcing a customer to pay rupees 3 for a paper bag. The regulator also censured the company over the harassment of customers and deficiency in its services. Bata India has rebutted the allegations of deficiency in its services but the Chandigarh consumer forum refused to give it any breather and said that forcing a consumer to pay for a paper bag was undoubtedly a glitch in Bata’s services. Not only Bata, this has now become a trend with almost all the big brands who in the name of providing utility service, endorses its brand on carry bags which is not at all justified. The Consumer Disputes Redressal Forum, Ernakulam, has directed three leading retail stores to provide consumers with carry bags not displaying advertisements for sale and issue legible and durable bills in quality ink and paper. The order (dated October 22) was issued on a complaint filed by D.B. Binu, RTI activist and lawyer, in which he said that the retail store had charged from him towards the value of carry bags displaying their advertisements after purchasing grocery. The complainant contended that carry bags displaying advertisements at his cost amounted to unfair trade practice.

Ironically, the root of this practice lies in the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2011, brought out by the union ministry of environment and Forests, to provide for a regulatory frame work for management of plastic waste generated in the country. While mandating shop keepers to provide only those plastic bags that were in conformity with the prescribed standards, the Rules said “No carry bags shall be made available free of cost by retailers to consumers”. This was meant to induce retailers to shift to the new standards for plastic, discourage consumers from using plastic bags, encourage them to bring their own bags and also finance plastic waste management of civic bodies. However, there were two pre-conditions for such sale of carry bags. One was that it should be a plastic bag, because the rules clearly defined ‘Carry bags’ as bags made of plastic. Yet, retailers began to exploit the rules and charge even for paper and cloth bags, not mandated under the Rules.

The other pre-condition was that the civic body concerned had to first determine the minimum price of the carry bags, taking into consideration the material cost and the cost of waste management and issue a notification to that effect. It is not known how many local bodies complied, but when the union ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change replaced in 2016, the 2011 Rules, it observed that the municipal authorities had not fixed the cost of carry bags and the rules were silent on the mode of transfer of money collected by retailers ( from consumers) to the municipal authority. So it made some changes to the rules to facilitate this — it asked retailers using plastic bags to pay a certain amount as plastic waste management fee at the time of registration and also put up notices at prominent places in the retail outlets, indicating that (plastic) bags would be provided only on payment. And the local body, the rules said, shall utilize the amount paid by customers for the carry bag exclusively for the sustainability of the waste management system.

Obviously even this did not work because when the government notified certain amendments to the 2016 Rules in March 2018, it dropped the rule on consumers having to pay for the carry bag. So those retailers who shifted to non-plastic carry bags had no legal basis for asking consumers to pay for them. And even those who sold plastic bags could not do so, unless mandated by a notification from the civic authority. And after March 2018, they had absolutely no case for selling even the plastic bags. Yet, many large retailers even today charge consumers for their carry bags that boldly advertise their brand, thereby making purchasers pay for their brand promotion.

However, in the last six months, consumers have begun to question this practice and very rightly so. Engagement and conversion rates should be a part of marketing strategy, but they don’t address levels of customer satisfaction, and ultimately, happy and loyal customers drive success. Brands can take comfort in knowing that an efficient, simplified customer engagement approach is possible. By shifting the focus to quality over quantity to deliver an exceptional customer experience, customers will keep coming back. This is precisely the reason why we don’t see Lamborghini or other expensive exotic cars’ TV commercials because the people who can afford them don’t sit all day watching TV. As has been very aptly said by Walter Landor, “Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind.”

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