No paper is an interesting choice

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The management of the Farm Fresh supermarket that opened in Franklin Wednesday morning to much bally-hoo and considerable first-day crowds is attempting a bold strategic move that needs a good public examination.

Farm Fresh, a Virginia Beach-based subsidiary of a larger grocery chain, now has 46 stores in the Tidewater and Northeast North Carolina markets. Franklin is the newest store, and this is the first attempt by the company to not offer plastic bags for customers to carry their groceries to their cars.

It is either a bold commitment to the environment, an obvious attempt to woo a segment of consumers or a little of both. Or it could prove to be a huge failure that invites the wrath of the paying public accustomed to hastily grabbing the straps of the plastic bag and loading their cars.

Plastic bags are cheap, grocers have been saying for the 20 or so years they’ve become a staple. The very Farm Fresh executives who have been quite visible in the opening ceremonies of their Franklin effort even said so in public meetings in recent weeks.

The plastic bags hold up against bad weather in the parking lot, can be put to many other household uses and have just plain become familiar.

Shoppers like familiar.

But they are lightweight and blow around easily in the wind.

And so, there have been mounting concerns in this cotton-rich region that bags littering the fields get stuck in harvesting machinery, and, thus, get ground into cotton bales. Since plastic does not absorb dyes that cotton does, the grade of the cotton is diminished when it goes to market, and the price to the farmer falls.

This winter, those cries reached the ears of some state lawmakers who tried to bring up the issue of banning plastic grocery bags, but it was of little use. There was little political support for the idea in this year’s General Assembly.

The Chinese, however, banned the bag earlier this year because of concerns involving pollution and wasting natural resources — namely oil — used to produce them.

This case in Franklin, however, is considerably different. It has little, if anything, to do with pollution, and the materials drain for their production has not been mentioned.

Farm Fresh offers two methods for carrying groceries out of the store: paper bags and their own reusable bag consumers must purchase, a bag, ironically, that is made from plastic.

Another irony is that Farm Fresh President and COO Ron Dennis told the huge crowd assembled for the opening day Wednesday the company will sell greeting cards made from products manufactured at the nearby

International Paper plant.

When the wind blows in a certain direction (and that’s the meteorological wind, not a political wind) shoppers no doubt can tell they’re in close proximity to a behemoth paper mill.

Whether consumers accept the change in their buying habits will be determined in time. That’s one of the beauties of supply-and-demand economics: The consumer will ultimately decide what they like, what they’ll pay for and what they will not pay for.

But it’s a plucky decision by Farm Fresh to not offer plastic bags and one worth watching.