Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Paper or Plastic: a novella

I"m thinking about bags.

I work in a store. (I sell books.) When you work in a store, bags are part of your daily life. In order to "brand" your store (wait just a moment while I finish throwing up due to having used business jargon), you want to have an attractive bag with your logo on it. The colors of the bag ought to contrast wittily or prettily; the logo ought to be large enough so that the bag serves as a baby billboard; the bag ought to serve as, in other words, a lagniappe for the customer, a little extra that goes along with the purchase.

I have seen people carrying our large shopping bags as good-looking if impermanent totes--around campus, around town--and felt proud. They're yellow with our logo in a handsome navy.


First of all, I sell books. I sell books to people who mostly have backpacks. Or who are going back to their offices, a few steps away. Or who have the currently chic, large-capacity purses. It's not like if they put the book in their purse it's going to leak anything. It's not as if it'll break in there.

Second. There are enough bags in the world already. More and more, we carry our reusable bags to the grocery store. Yes, a trend like this starts with the liberal-educated-intentional-talky types, but it'll spread. Australia, after all, outlawed plastic bags. The Bull's Head (my store) sells dozens of permanent totes including the ever popular "Read or Die" tote and the "I Usually Leave This Bag in the Car" bag. We all know why we ought not to use bags and more and more, we make it a part of our lives to do without them and even if we're totally disorganized like I am and almost ALWAYS leave them in the car, we can learn, right? We can change.

Some years ago, I decided that I would do everything I could to not give my customers bags. To hell with the advertising. I don't care if the store police-types can't figure out whether a customer bought a book or not as they watch them through the security cameras. (The point being, that if the customer's book was in a bag, it would be obvious that yes, they'd paid for it.) (I work at a college bookstore. Often, kids take the "Steal this book" message literally.) But I don't care. I know it saves the store money when I help people decide not to take bags. I don't really care about that either. All I know is this; I'm doing my small part to save the world. This is what I'm doing. I have to use the air-conditioning to make palmetto bugs stay away; I ride my bike to work a lot but I fly in airplanes a bunch; I take long showers--in other words, I overuse the environment just as much as any other American but at least I, in my long years as merchant, have kept a bunch of bags (that would otherwise be there) out of the landfill.

Now: (Isn't this unbelievable? Can you believe how much I've thought about this? ) Now: here's where it gets delicate. How do you advise a customer (who are you to be advising, after all) that they don't want a bag?

If you say, "do you want a bag," they automatically say, "yes." Almost all the time. That's because they're thinking about what to have for dinner and they hear the question and know it's not really important so they just answer yes because yes is easier than no.

If you say, "do you need a bag," then they maaaybe will hear the "need" in there but the whole thing sounds a lot like "do you want a bag" so you get the same reaction. Plus there's the same "no" problem; "yes" is more polite, more socially acceptable, especially if you're not really thinking about the question and it doesn't seem important.

If you say, "do you require a bag," you get funny looks. I don't mind this because I'm older than many of my clientele and when they look at me in alarm, they realized that I've said it sharply but with love. People my own age seem to react similarly. The problem is this: some people can take it the wrong way and also, there's the having-to-say-no problem.

Here's the perfect way to do it:

Are you good without a bag?

It's perfect and here's why.

a. They get to say "yes" which makes them (unconsciously) happy because it's nice to be agreeable.
b. I sound cool even though I'm old because of the slight grammatical foible, that being, "are you good." This reminds me to write about the time that Elizabeth Edwards corrected my grammar. I'll write about that later.
c. It requires attention because it's without the "have a nice day" roteness of "do you want a bag."

I could go on. Seriously, I could truly go on. Like, at length. It's not really an obsession, I don't think; it's more of an expertise. It's pretty much my only one, though, so you'll forgive me.