THOUGHT PIECE: How Will the Introduction of the 5p Charge on Carrier Bags Affect Shopper Habits?

From 5th October 2015, we see the introduction of a law which requires large shops in England to charge 5p for all single-use plastic carrier bags to encourage people to re-use bags or use ‘bags for life’.  So, what impact will this have on the English retail sector and our English shoppers?



Firstly, being part of the Green Team at Marketing Sciences Unlimited, I am delighted to see that the Government has introduced this measure (albeit under EU directives).  Some are saying that carrier bags only account for 1% of household waste, but carrier bag usage has an impact in many ways: such as the carbon impact of producing the carrier bags, unsightly litter and the environmental impact they have on wildlife.  In 2014 alone, a staggering 7.6 billion single-use plastic bags were given to customers by major supermarkets in England, an average of 140 bags per person (Source:  So something needs to be done about this.

Some retailers, such as Aldi, Lidl, Marks and Spencer, WH Smith, have already been charging for carrier bags.  Originally, Aldi and Lidl more because of their ‘no frills’ policy, being supermarkets who don’t provide added extras for free.  Marks and Spencer and WH Smith have focused more on waste reduction and donating the carrier bag proceeds to environment groups.  However, as of July 2015, Aldi started donating their proceeds from the carrier bags to charity (which the Government are encouraging all retailers to do).



Carrier bag charges have been in place in the other UK countries between 2011 (Wales), 2013 (NI) and October 2014 (Scotland).  Since the levies were introduced, use of new bags has dropped by around 80% in these regions.  These reductions have been mostly in food stores, rather than non-food stores.  Once shoppers got used to the charges, they changed their shopping habits accordingly, remembering to take reusable bags with them to avoid having to pay for bags and to help the environment.  Shoppers in England are expected to follow suit.

In England, the 5p plastic bag charge can be criticised for being confusing as smaller retailers with under 250 employees do not have to impose the 5p charge.  Many convenience chains are lobbying for a retail-wide ban to avoid this confusion and many will be imposing the charge anyway.  There is also no charge for paper bags, like there is in Scotland.

Another factor shoppers may find confusing are the exemptions on certain items being purchased, as outlined below:

Exempt from bag charges picture DEFRA 5p



I think the main message for retailers is to be clear about the charges and to make it as easy for consumers to understand when they will be charged for what.  Retailers also need to have good alternatives to single use plastic carrier bags (SUPCB) such as strong, practical, attractive bags for life that consumers will want to use again (and not throw away in landfill which will have more of a detrimental effect on the environment than the SUPCBs).  Shoppers should be made aware that a bag for life will be replaced free of charge by the retailer, which is often not so widely known.



From previous research we have conducted, something as little as a carrier bag can impact on the shopper journey and make what was otherwise a successful shopping trip turn sour.  Retailers should eliminate the embarrassment of shoppers having to reach for carriers bags located in awkward places, but no longer automatically hand out bags without making customers aware of charges.  Retailers should train staff on the implications of the new levy and ensure that cashiers make the process as stress free and easy as possible and ensure the bags are fit for purpose.



English retailers are expected to donate the proceeds of the scheme to good causes, which could amount to tens of millions of pounds each year.  I am sure retailers will be shouting about the environmental benefits of this new levy and will be telling everyone about the contributions they will be making to local and environmental initiatives.  While many retailers have not yet announced how they be re-investing the money from the bag levy, Tesco have reported that they will be investing between £8,000 to £12,000 in c.2,500 different local projects across England, meaning donations could total between £20-£31 million after just one year!  Other supermarkets are bound to do something similar.

This new levy will affect all shoppers in England – it is something that will make shoppers actually take notice of what retailers are doing, because it will affect the shopper’s pockets.  Hopefully consumers will see the positive impact on the community and environment and will be encouraged to help the environment a little more, like it has in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.



This new measure may also lead to consumers and businesses being more inventive in the way they transport their shopping.  There will definitely be an uplift in ‘bags for life’ and reusable cloth bags.  I will be investing in shares in ‘granny trollies’ as I predict this to be the next big trend!


Justine Boston is an Associate Director in the Retail Team at Marketing Sciences.

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Justine Boston
01962 842211
Article date - 01/10/2015
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