Have you ever pinched one? Picture: Joel Carrett/AAP
Have you ever pinched one? Picture: Joel Carrett/AAP

Plastic payback: Shoppers stealing reusable bags

ONE in five shoppers view 15-cent reusable bags as "fair game" to steal from self-service check-outs, with many treating it as payback for the plastic bag ban.

A survey of 3000 shoppers by Canstar Blue explored consumer attitudes now the "dust has settled" on the plastic bag ban that came into force in July.

It found that while 80 per cent typically remember to bring their own bags, one in five usually forget and have to pay for bags. The same number admitted to taking a reusable bag without paying.

Younger shoppers were more likely to be bag thieves, with 33 per cent of shoppers aged 18-29 admitting to swiping them, compared with just 6 per cent of those aged over 60.

"They've become fair game in the mind of a lot of shoppers who think, 'I shouldn't have to pay for this in the first place', or just take an opportunity to get something for nothing," said Canstar Blue editor Simon Downes.

"We know from previous research that when you put people in that self-service environment, people want something for nothing. Now the reusable bags are the latest target. People don't take it seriously. They think, 'It's 15 cents, I won't get in trouble for it'."

Mr Downes said it put the supermarkets in a "pretty awkward position because if they now start prosecuting customers for taking reusable bags, that's not going to go down well at all considering the backlash there's been."

Mr Downes said for the one in five shoppers who regularly forget to bring their bags - and who don't steal them - it was adding extra, unnecessary costs to their grocery bill.

"People have gone from throwing away plastic bags to throwing away money," he said. "While small, over the course of the year it adds up. The cost is not the point - it's costing us extra money when it doesn't need to."

Overall, 42 per cent of shoppers said bringing their own bags was a hassle. That jumped to 51 per cent of shoppers aged 18-29, while those aged over 60 were the least troubled on just 34 per cent.

Mr Downes said the results showed the narrative that Baby Boomers were the ones opposed to the ban was false. "The Baby Boomers were the ones who took all the flack, all the memes floating around, it's just not borne out," he said.

"The facts show older shoppers are more likely to support the ban, take their own bags and are least likely to steal. Actually it's the younger shoppers who are struggling the most to adjust to the change."

Both supermarkets conceded the plastic bag ban had hurt sales in the first few weeks of the new financial year, but Coles' successful Little Shop promotion offset the damage.

Woolworths group chief executive Brad Banducci told analysts in August the supermarket had been caught off guard by the reaction to the plastic bag ban and would have done things differently "a second time around".

A Canstar survey in June this year found 16 per cent of shoppers were still scamming self-service check-outs, suggesting efforts to crack down on the $1 billion-a-year problem have been unsuccessful.

Neither Coles nor Woolworths provide figures for self-service check-out theft, but the retail industry rule of thumb is theft accounts for about 3 per cent of revenue.

Roughly half of Woolworths' $36.4 billion and Coles' $29.7 billion annual food sales go through self-service, which means their losses could be in the area of $546 million and $445 million, respectively.

Robotics firm Black.ai is currently trialling a "hush, hush" new technology that could eliminate self-service theft altogether by tracking the customer from the moment they take a product off the shelf.

Coles and Woolworths declined to say whether they would prosecute shoppers caught stealing reusable bags.

"Coles has been delighted to see the overwhelming majority of our customers bring their reusable bags from home," a spokeswoman said.

"For those that forget, Coles sells reusable Community Bags which help to raise funds for SecondBite, Little Athletics Australia, Guide Dogs Australia and Clean Up Australia."

Coles said since June, it had raised enough funds to provide more than 800,000 meals through SecondBite, 100 grants for Little Athletics centres to purchase sports equipment, 100,000 pairs of kids gloves for Clean Up Australia and support to raise a litter of five Guide Dogs puppies.

A Woolworths spokesman said since removing plastic bags in June, the supermarket had seen "more and more customers form new habits, with the majority of shoppers now bringing their own bags".

"We also find the vast majority of our customers do the right thing and scan all items through our self-service checkouts," he said. "We always have team members on hand to assist customers in our self-service areas if needed."