Unexpected change of behaviour in the bagging area


It’s taken me a very long time to work out the foibles of the self-service checkouts down at Sainsbury’s, and even now it’s rare for me not to require assistance from the kindly member of staff who is on hand with the job of trying to make me feel like less of a numpty when it all goes wrong.

Well, this morning, I approached the checkout determined to get it right.  We were going fine until we came across a product which to my considerable surprise didn’t seem to have a bar code.  I forensically searched the product on every surface, scanned it this way and that; just in case I had missed it somewhere, and finally resorted to standing there helpless.

The kindly soul came over and I recognised her from a previous checkout incident a week or so ago (broken yogurt carton).  She saw my plight and, without mentioning the yogurt calamity; which doubtless she would have remembered without fondness, cheerily went through exactly the same sequence of manoeuvres that I had performed.  The length of time she was with me drew the attention of a senior member of staff who stared in disbelief at the product for a while and then set off to find another pack from the chiller cabinet (having, of course, had a go at scanning it one more time!).

Being a quiet moment in the store I struck up a conversation with the checkout-angel and somehow the topic got onto carrier bags.  I asked her whether the new rule in which they have to charge 5p for a bag had made any difference to people’s behaviour.  She lit up; I was clearly touching a nerve with her.  It turns out that the 5p charge has made a massive difference.  Lots of people now brought their own bags, others in their determination to avoid the 5p charge carried off their items in precariously balanced armloads, and others filled every crevice of the bag that they had bought to avoid buying a second one.  We concluded in our brief exploration of human nature that there are three types of people: planet savers, penny pinchers and a third group who could be described as payers but moaners.  I quickly recognised myself in all three categories.  Whatever people’s attitudes, she said that they were using a lot less bags than before.  Somehow the 5p charge had made all of the difference.

And now I think about it, I have changed my own ways.  I use plastic bags with far more care than previously, and like to re-use them where I can.  The huge store of carrier bags in my “cupboard under the stairs” has been declining rather than growing.  Somehow the imposition of a 5p charge has made me “value” my bags more highly than I did before.

Not that I can’t afford to pay 5p for a plastic bag.  You can buy 50 of them for the cost of latte at Starbucks, if you think about it. So why have I changed my stance?  I think the 5p charge has somehow said that it’s a bit socially unacceptable to be part of the system that just keeps pumping out an inexhaustible supply of plastic bags, and I want to be a responsible citizen.

 It’s amazing what a small nudge in the right direction can do in changing behaviour. I wonder what other little feats of social engineering could be achieved with little incentives?


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