Spring 2012
Carried Away By Caletha Crawford

Fashionable, functional designs coupled with a slew of eco-friendly laws have made reusable shoppers the new darlings of the bag industry.

Look around. The new “it” bags aren’t from Gucci or Prada. Once a boring, utilitarian item relegated to schlepping peas and carrots, a new crop of stylish market totes have become constant companions as we move throughout our day. As consumers’ infatuation with reusables continues, retailers who stock the right mix of aesthetics and practical features can expect to romance more dollars out of the category.

“It’s fashionable to have reusable bags,” confirms Aubrey Lenyard, owner of the Atlanta-based bag company Fashionable Notes, which offers slogan bags like “Eco-Diva” and “I Carry Hermes, Kors, and Vuitton But Never Paper or Plastic.” “When you go to the grocery store, from parking lot to front door, everyone has their bags under their arms. It’s major now.”

Flirting with fashion

While the bags demonstrate shoppers’ commitment to doing good, vendors and retailers are finding that consumers want to look good as well. “Great prints are definitely a trend,” says Michal Albanese, senior account executive at New York’s Accessories The Show trade event, adding brands are looking for a way to differentiate themselves. “Style became important around 2010 once there was more competition in the market.”

It was around that same time that Ann O’Shields spotted the fun, new direction these bags were taking and decided to add BB Begonia and RuMe styles to The Nest Egg, her Fairfax, VA-based home furnishing store. “Customers are drawn to the bags that are in keeping with seasonal fashion colors,” she says.

Following fashion is exactly how Saky Sacks of Redmond, WA, is able to court trendy gift shops, according to owner Rupa Wickrama. “In my market research, I noticed the number of women using the traditional supermarket bags for everything except groceries, so I wanted my bags to be more like a fashion accessory” she says. Wickrama, who spent 20 years in the clothing industry, offers intricate zigzag, swirl and floral prints to woo stylish consumers.

At the Preppy Princess, an online shop with headquarters in Okemos, MI, a carefully curated selection of colors and prints ensures market bags are consistent sellers. “It’s the patterns,” proclaims owner Susan Kelley. “I did a lot of hunting for bags that were different than the ones consumers were used to. Our pink and green styles and nautical motifs speak to customers, who want something fun and whimsical.”

Looking beyond the traditional core demographic for these products has led vendors to pursue a new target customer: men. It was an article in the Chicago Tribune that got Lenyard of Fashionable Notes thinking. According to the article, 31 percent of men nationwide were the primary household grocery shoppers in 2011, up from 14 percent in 1985. It was then that Lenyard realized he only used two of his own designs: one that reads “Market Bag” and another that says “Hunter Gatherer.” After an initial test of masculine styles sold out at Christmas, Lenyard decided to focus on men for 2012.

Liz Long, co-founder of Jersey City, NJ-based Bag the Habit, says the demand for this type of product will grow. “With the legislation that’s happening all over the country [that bans or places fees on single-use bags], men need the bags. It’s not a choice anymore,” she says, explaining why males are on the company’s radar. “There are no cool guy options.”

Courting convenience

Lisa Foster, owner of Inglewood, CA-based 1 Bag at a Time, which launched its wholesale business in 2006, is also looking for new ways to engage customers. She commissioned a study to determine how to put the spark back into this category. What Foster learned led her to believe that fashion wedded to function would rekindle consumer interest. In response, Foster developed SnapSac, a division of 1 Bag at a Time that draws inspiration from beloved handbag lines such as Coach and Louis Vuitton. “Our goal was not how can we change the grocery bag, but how can we offer more than a tote bag,” she says.

The SnapSac collection, which soft launched last fall, is offered in three sizes, each in two colorways, which were selected after working with color trend forecasters. Through improved design, Foster hopes to court the 46 percent of the population who her survey found don’t already carry reusables.

To satisfy the functional desire, SnapSac folds up into a clutch. Kelley of Preppy Princess confirms that customers are especially fond of compactable styles like these. The demand has vendors offering a slew of new ways to make the bags collapsible. For example, Run Run Run bags fold into a clutch, EnV Bags come with a zipper pouch and Envirosax roll up and snap closed.

Flip & vTumble of El Cerrito, CA launched in 2007 after co-founders Hetal Jariwala and Eva Bauer realized many shoppers were like them: They owned reusables but never remembered to bring them to the store. “We decided the key value was developing a bag compact enough to keep with you all the time,” Jariwala says. “We looked at other compactable bags but found it was often difficult to get the bag back in its compact state.” Flip & Tumble bags scrunch down into a stretchy pouch—no folding or rolling necessary.

Marrying art and commerce

And because these bags are constantly on display as consumers travel from office to gym to the store and beyond, retailers have become devoted to their marketing power. “If you put an ad in the paper, it’s there for a day and you hope that someone sees it,” explains Sylvia Feldzamen, owner of Envi Reusable Bags of Quebec. “If you have 100,000 bags at a supermarket, people are picking them up constantly. They’re billboards.”

Feldzamen has been in the reusable bag market for 17 years. With Envi Reusable Bags, she works with grocery, apparel and department stores to design custom shoppers that attract new consumers. The challenge is to develop a product that works with retailers’ needs and consumers’ tastes.

Feldzamen says retailers can entice consumers with reusables but they need to adopt a different mindset. “Retailers are starting to understand better what the bag is and how to use them to create an image for their store,” she says. “They develop a concept [instead of merely] slapping a logo on a bag.”

Seducing sales

Helping shoppers envision what the bags look like open and the many ways they might use them is key to boosting sales, according to Lenyard. He, along with other vendors, encourages stores to create a display with items spilling out of the bag.

And while the cash register is an obvious place to scoop up add-on sales like this, vendors say it’s not the only choice. Jariwala of Flip & Tumble suggests shop owners “curate a selection of green items. When shoppers see a variety of green items it sets the tone for a green lifestyle,” she says, adding showcasing the full rainbow of color options in the line also helps.

Caletha Crawford is a children’s apparel expert, who consults with businesses in the industry on branding, launch strategies and marketing. Through her role as part-time faculty at Parsons, she continues her commitment to aiding emerging designers. She writes for a variety of publications and has a fashionable reusable bag for every occasion.

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Caletha Crawford

Caletha Crawford is a children's apparel expert, who consults with businesses in the industry on branding, launch strategies and marketing. Through her role as part-time faculty at Parsons, she continues her commitment to aiding emerging designers. She writes for a variety of publications and is addicted to playing Scrabble on her iPad.

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