Forget everything you know about promotional bags. A new year is here, bringing with it new developments and trends that could reshape the way you sell. Whether it's unprecedented bag bans or increased consumer demand for fashion and function, the bag market is changing fast. Here's what you need to know to keep up.
The Bag-Ban Boom
For years, the grocery store was virtually off-limits for promotional bag sales. There was paper and there was plastic, and not much in between. Whatever reusable totes or shopping bags stores carried were often sourced directly, and even then accounted for too small a portion of stores' bag inventory to be worth chasing for sales. Even as public demand for all things eco-friendly increased and more cities enacted single-use bag bans, the market changed little for distributors. For the most part, paper and plastic still ruled.
But maybe not for long.
Californians Against Waste, an environmental advocacy organization based in Sacramento, keeps an exhaustive list of municipalities with plastic bag ordinances in place. While most of the 114 cities are located in the western U.S.—and others, like Washington D.C., impose a small fee on plastic bags rather than an outright ban—the list seems to indicate that bag bans are gaining traction on a larger scale.
In June 2013, the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance banning single-use plastic bags in large grocery stores, effective January 2014. Los Angeles became the largest U.S. city to adopt such an ordinance, joining major cities such as Seattle, San Francisco and Portland, Ore. Eight states considered or proposed statewide bans in 2013, with 10 others considering bag fees or taxes. Hawaii has banned plastic bags in four of its five counties, resulting in a de facto statewide ban (lone holdout Kalawao County covers just 5.2 square miles and has a population of 90). And while California's most recent statewide ban proposal failed by three votes, legislators are confident a new measure introduced in late January will pass.
It is this last item that is most significant for the promotional industry. Until now, bag bans were confined mostly to cities and isolated counties. If California's legislation goes into effect, single-use plastic bags will be banned in all grocery stores effective July 1, 2015, and in most small stores by 2016. "This breaks a decade-long deadlock on a statewide solution," Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, said in the L.A. Times. "This bill is going to eliminate some 20-billion single-use plastic bags that become litter."
Twenty billion. That's roughly 525 bags for every person in the state of California. If all those bags disappear, stores will have to scramble to fill the void. And that could mean major sales opportunities for promotional products distributors—though maybe not where they'd expect. "Grocery stores who are selling their own reusable bags to shoppers, for the most part, are sourcing and ordering their bags directly," said Hy Brownstein, president of Westbury, New York-based EnduraPack. "That would make this sale particularly challenging. Target the suppliers to these stores (in the case of grocery stores, target companies such as Kraft, Tyson, P&G, etc.), and suggest a co-branded grocery bag that they could supply as a promotional item to the supermarkets, who would distribute them to the shoppers at no charge."
Jason Emery, vice president of sales and marketing for Tagmaster/a division of DARD Products, Evanston, Ill., also advised against directly targeting grocery stores, citing similar direct-sourcing issues. Instead, he recommended focusing on smaller businesses that would use branded bags as a marketing tool, rather than a revenue stream. "Local businesses can easily place grocery-style totes and bags with their brand into the market," he said. "[These would] experience a high level of use and generate impressions."
It's easy to lump them in the same category as writing instruments or drinkware, but bags have more in common with apparel than they do with hard goods. As such, selling them requires a different approach. A pen has to be comfortable and hold up under frequent use; a bag needs to do both of those things and not clash horribly with its wearer's radiant-orchid chinos.
That's a big reason bag suppliers are becoming increasingly style-conscious in their product offering. Many suppliers now offer retail-inspired bags in high-end materials and Louis Vuitton-esque patterns and prints. Others, like EnduraPack and Tagmaster, offer custom bag programs. Tagmaster's Soapstone line, for example, allows buyers to customize everything from material to zipper color, and to upload patterns to be digitally printed on the bag's exterior.
"Try to think of a bag as an article of clothing or accessory," said Emery. "The intent when providing a bag as a solution is to provide the recipient with something they will use often. People want to receive something with a splash of style that will complement them. With as many options as there are in the industry, provide solutions that meet the needs not just of the buyer, but of the end-user."
If fashion is consumers' top priority in a bag, function is a close second. There are entire websites dedicated to exploring bag contents (one Flickr site boasts 28,283 members and 15,464 user-submitted pictures) and popular tech website The Verge runs a recurring feature inviting people to catalog and analyze the items in their bags. Even the Wall Street Journal has gotten in on the act, profiling everyone from entrepreneurs to fashion models to NBA referees in its "What's in Your Bag?" series.
The unifying theme? People carry a ton of stuff—laptops, smartphones, books, tablets, cameras, magazines, water bottles, chargers, cosmetics—and they need bags that can hold all of it. That means sturdy construction and lots of pockets. "Know your material and specifics regarding the construction of what you are selling," Emery explained. "There are many different qualities of bags out there, and the end result is that the bag has to hold whatever the recipient places in it. Bags made of polypropylene are price-conscious but lack the overall quality and durability that some customers might expect. Polyester materials are more durable, [as are] canvas-constructed pieces."
"Outside front pockets are very handy for separating important items, while side pouches are great for water bottles, writing instruments and other easily accessible items," added Brownstein. "We're also seeing trends towards inside zippered pockets for keys and other valuables."
The biggest takeaway from all this? Not all bags are created equal. It's a surprisingly broad category, with bags becoming increasingly specialized based on consumer needs. A standard convention tote will work for Long Beach Comic Con attendees hoarding swag, but not for Long Beach day-trippers hauling gear. Before you sell, make sure you know the target audience. "Ask questions. Then ask more questions," said Brownstein. "Know your client's ultimate objective. Where is the bag being used? Who is using it? What's the budget? Then contact a supplier whose business and focus is bags. Chances are, they'll be able to help focus you on products that will work for the promotion, and offer unique and valuable insight into packaging, products, substrates and more."