The Tote-al Package
Bag more sales by carrying totes, a product category that’s only expanding.
In places like Seattle and San Francisco, you’ll see nary a plastic bag around — they’ve been banned—and that only means other bags are big. In these cities and all across the country, it’s tote bags that are showing up on the shoulders of those who need a convenient way to carry goods, whether groceries, beach blankets, gym gear, or work files.
With plastic bag bans and environmental awareness on the rise, it makes sense that people want to carry a bag that can be reused over and over again. Plus, busy lifestyles make the ease of throwing everything you need for the day into one bag an attractive solution for schlepping items to and fro.
In response, manufacturers have stepped up their offerings, designing bags that are at home in the produce aisle but also appropriate for high-end stores. In other words, these are bags you tote-ally want to carry.
Substance and style
When Rupa Wickrama was looking for reusable bags, she was disappointed to find that there were virtually no higher-end options. “I saw a niche for a stylish bag to take into a nice shopping mall or use as a travel bag or weekend bag — something that was more multipurpose and multifunctional,” she says.
That led Wickrama, who has a background in men’s and women’s apparel, to start Redmond, WA–based Saky Sacks, which produces patterned totes that have been spotted carried by the likes of singer Sarah McLachlan and actress Connie Britton. About a dozen prints are offered at any given time, and they’re all exclusive to Saky Sacks and designed to be universal. The material is Tyvek, which can be recycled and repurposed into things like park benches and playground equipment.
For those who want to carry groceries, the fact that they’re washable is a big plus. “Many of those bags you bring back from the grocery stores are not,” Wickrama says. “They can serve as a breeding ground for foodborne bacteria if you carry packages of meat or fruits and vegetables. Unless you can wash it out or rinse it out, you’re bringing home more than just your groceries.”
People can also add on Sakcessories, zippered pouches in two sizes that are good for storing things like grocery loyalty cards, cell phones, keys, and cosmetics.
“When you’ve got a cute bag or a nice one, you’re more apt to use it more often,” Wickrama says.
Talitha Aban, owner of Marinus Home in Poulsbo, WA, agrees. Her store stocks vintage, repurposed, and locally made items, and on the tote bag front, she offers sailcloth and canvas bags. “If it looks cute enough, they can wear it throughout the day, no matter what they’re doing,” she says.
The green thing
A chic bag selection is important — the aesthetic value is what’s initially going to draw most customers in to take a closer look — but many people are also concerned about the environmental impact of the products they buy. After all, carrying your own reusable bag instead of grabbing plastic and paper bags at the store is already an eco-friendly choice.
“Everyone wants to be environmentally conscious,” Wickrama says. “When you look at the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills and all the garbage in the ocean, most people want to reduce their consumption of plastic.”
Enter Ella Vickers Recycled Sailcloth Collection, a line of bags in Wilmington, N.C., that not only helps reduce plastic use but is also crafted from repurposed materials. “We’re made in the USA and we’re made from recycled material—that’s something we hang our hat on,” says CEO Tony Pascone. “For us to go overseas would be so easy to do, but the fact that we’re making the products here in the USA and employ 30 full-time seamstresses lets us be flexible.”
Namesake Ella Vickers was working on a yacht when a captain asked her to throw out an old set of sails — no longer suitable for competitive racing but still in fine shape. Before she chucked them, Vickers got the idea to make a couple of bags out of the material. The next day at the dock, someone offered her $40 to buy her bag on the spot. She soon realized she was on to a viable business idea.
The bags have a lifetime warranty and include marine-grade components. “If this material can help a sailboat go around the world, surely it can carry your kid’s diapers around town,” Pascone says. Each bag also has a story, and some even include flyers about where the sail has been in its life. “It’s nice we get to retire the sail into something useful instead of a dumpster,” adds Pascone.
Acting like a kid
When Anna Musgrove’s son was in kindergarten, his teacher challenged the class not to use paper or plastic bags for Earth Week. Musgrove found herself at Whole Foods without bags, and after her son loudly pointed out that fact in line, she purchased five totes to take the groceries home in. What she didn’t like was carrying around logo-laden bags.
“Why doesn’t somebody come out with something super cute that’s collapsible, affordable, and I can just pull it out whenever I need to?” she wondered.
That evolved into EnV Bags, which was designed to be a hobby only. Musgrove started in 2007 with five patterns and four colors. Within two hours at her first show, she was swamped and already in 50 stores. “We just didn’t expect the kind of response that we’d gotten. We came in at the right time and in the right location where plastic has been banned,” says Musgrove, who’s based in Campbell, CA.
The 3-ounce bags are made from heavy-duty polyester that’s about three times stronger than most materials used for reusable bags. At the end of the life cycle, the bags can be recycled, and the company has a partner that takes a lot of the scrap material and uses it to stuff emergency mattresses and car seats. Popular designs include an anchor, the Eiffel Tower, and an Asian-inspired koi series.
Here, there, and everywhere
Because totes are so versatile, you’re likely to see them in all kinds of situations in addition to grocery shopping. At Ella Vickers Sailcloth Collection, bags have been used as beach bags, bridesmaid gifts, pet bags, diaper bags, and more. Tina Miller, the gift manager and buyer at West Grange Pharmacy in Trenton, MI, says the Stephanie Dawn line of quilted totes her store carries are used for traveling, for keeping knitting supplies all together, and for people like teachers to carry what they need back and forth to work. BAGGU, a line of bright bags founded in 2007, teamed up with Brooklyn neighbor Pilgrim Surf + Supply to create a bag for toting damp wetsuits home and another that makes it easier to carry surfboards (or other items like cardboard boxes and beach chairs).
With so many options for use, tote bags fit into a variety of stores. Whatever type of bag you’re carrying, be sure to show shoppers how they can fit it into their lives. At West Grange Pharmacy, they stuff the bags full of paper. “They’re full and look like how they’d be used if they had items in them,” Miller says. If you’re carrying the kind of totes that can fold down into a super-small size, show them both condensed and larger so customers can see just how much they can really fit into the bag when it’s unfolded.
With any luck, they’ll buy some great items in your store, then carry them out in their brand-new tote bag.