Isn’t that Odd?: Plastic Bag Entrepreneurs
China has long been a country of entrepreneurs, from its urine merchants, to the indigents who walk around recycling plastic bottles and aluminum (they are ubiquitous, despite some efforts to remove them, both high and low tech [The former is an electronic recycling machine; the latter, a poignant transcript of a UK special on a “clean up” of homeless who make a living collecting plastic bottles]), to the proprietors of hundreds of mom and pop shops.
What follows is an amusing prediction for this week’s Isn’t That Odd. If you’re in China and you see this happening, please post here- I’m asking my contacts to look out for this.
I predict that China’s new plastic bag policy is going to create a new wave of self-employment for their urban poor. Why? Well, first, let’s examine the policy:
1.) A National Policy Designed to Reduce Plastic Bag Waste
The policy of charging for plastic bags (at .2-.6 yuan), and phasing out the ultra-thin bags will hopefully decrease waste as people begin toting canvass and bamboo bags to the stores. However, some problems have been realized due to this policy, as a recent Xinhua article examined; ranging from vendors who are still utilizing the ultra-thin bags, to others who are not charging for bag usage. “At a small grocery near the Carrefour, the shopkeeper still offered customers free plastic bags. As he said: “I sold vegetables worth 0.7 yuan. How can I charge 0.5 yuan for a bag?”
Other problems include:
It is more difficult to tote canvass bags everywhere when one goes outside. Penny-pinching people have to plan before going shopping, instead of previously being able to use free store-supplied plastic bags or to purchase new canvas bags at the grocery.
Also, at markets, fish-sellers now wrap fish in newspapers instead of inside plastic bags. This causes newsprint to leak onto the fish, which makes the food untasty and unsanitary. And places where the plastic bags are still used have suffered problems of people grabbing extra bags to use for private purposes- creating a shortage at some stores, as the Xinhua article goes on to explain.
Consequences: Depending on how much of a price these plastic bags might be oversold at, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some Chinese entrepreneurs standing outside stores, selling and undercutting the stores’ prices for plastic bags. They might grab a few extra bags when they are in the stores, they might repurpose previously-used bags, or they might (if they have some capital) go to a manufacturer and purchase bags in bulk.
If you’ve ever read Carl Crow’s venerable 400 Million Customers, you know how hardscrabble the Chinese can be in seeking out entrepreneurial opportunities.
My favorite tale of Mr. Crow’s (he wrote in the 1930s but his words are still relevant and amusing today- and inspired another informative book- James McGregor’s One Billion Customers.) is how Crow organized an ad promotion with a US manufacturer who wanted to introduce a better brand of soap (I think-I read the book a few years ago so my memory is slightly hazy) in Chinese stores. The manufacturer gave stores free soap samples to hand to their customers.
A month later, the manufacturer was quite upset, because brand awareness hadn’t increased. So Crow went to investigate. He found the stores and discovered several problems.
1.) Many stores were selling the “free” samples; because they figured it didn’t matter if one brand of soap was more popular than another; because they weren’t in the business of selling soap, consumers could buy their soap anywhere so giving soap for free would do nothing for their store! (They didn’t believe they could build store-brand loyalty with customers by giving something away for free- see point 2). And by selling the soap (cheaper than other brands), they could gain extra money that their neighbor stores wouldn’t get and could still win a little customer loyalty since customers would be glad that store A offered better prices!
2.) If something was free, many customers figured, it must be lower quality, or spoiled. So they didn’t want to take free samples. Only the poorest of the poor took the free samples, and they couldn’t afford to purchase this expensive soap anyway, so the marketing tactic fell flat!
Oh, China- such an Odd and wonderful Capitalistic place.