Recently my young son had to come up with an idea for a school project about some aspect of climate change. Being a kid he has a fascination with rubbish tips and, following our latest “tip run”, wanted to know why there was so many plastic bags there. So he decided that for his project he would like to find out how many people used plastic shopping bags versus re-usable canvas bags at the local supermarket. He asked me to help him. So we sat behind the check-out at the nearby Safeway’s and counted the type of bags 500 customers used.

Despite all the focus on reducing land fill only 40% of the people counted used re-usable canvas bags. These results astonished me and I did two subsequent counts on my own (500 each time) to determine whether the initial results were an aberration.  They weren’t. Both were within 5% of the first count.

No doubt if I had bothered to ask people why they didn’t use re-usable bags I would have been told that they usually do but forgot this one time. Sure you did! If I had then asked them if they ever leave home without their mobile phone or wallet no doubt I would have got a different answer…

Switching to re-usable canvas shopping bags is a relatively easy behavioural change to make. You buy a few recyclable bags ($1 each) and you bring them along with you when you shop. What’s so difficult? Then why did approximately 900 of the 1,500 people surveyed not do it?

The answer is simple. It was voluntary and there were no penalties if you didn’t do it. Nobody was going to fine you or deduct de-merit points. Compare this to the laws pertaining to the compulsory wearing of seat belts; talking on your mobile phone while driving or even the recent mandatory water restrictions on households. All carried financial penalties and all consequently produced high levels of compliance. It seems that the “stick” is a more effective inducement than the “carrot” in situations like these…

The shopping bag example provides an interesting insight into human behaviour which businesses can learn from. At the heart of it is the “what’s in it for me?” question.  It seems that reducing land fill (and carbon emissions) was not a big enough reason for the majority of supermarket shoppers to make a simple behavioural change to canvas shopping bags. Why? Because there was no immediate tangible benefit to them. Nor was there a penalty if they didn’t do it. So they chose to remain with the status quo (i.e. plastic shopping bags). It’s a classic study in cause and effect.

Businesses that walk in the customers shoes and constantly develop and refine their offers to enhance the “what’s in it for me” equation for them are on the right track. Customers are smart and they can smell a compelling offer a mile off. They will change their behaviour if you make it worth their while to do so. They won’t if you don’t. It’s that simple…