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Suffolk bag fee leads some to go bagless, others to buy reusables

A 7-Eleven franchise owner says some customers try to carry too many items, resulting in shattered glass bottles, but most retailers report a smooth transition.

Cashier Lorna Horton packs a customer's reusable bags

Cashier Lorna Horton packs a customer's reusable bags at Stew Leonard's in Farmingdale, Jan. 5, 2018. Photo Credit: Johnny Milano

Some 7-Eleven customers in East Patchogue are avoiding a new county-mandated 5-cent bag fee by taking things into their own hands, the franchise owner said.

Rather than pay up, they carry their purchases out of the store without a bag, sometimes resulting in glass containers shattering on the floor before they make it out of the doors, store franchise owner Frank Bathija said.

“I would say 50/50 just walk away with their stuff and in the process, I have seen a lot of breakage of glass bottles because they have too much stuff in their hand,” he said.

Still, Bathija is among several store managers and owners who report little backlash thus far to Suffolk County’s bag law, which went into effect Jan. 1. Customers are charged 5 cents for each single-use plastic or paper bag. The law is intended to increase the use of reusable bags and reduce the number of single-use plastic bags polluting waterways.

The legislation appears to be having the intended effect as it relates to reusable bags, according to several businesses.

Stew Leonard’s in East Farmingdale sold more than 500 of its reusable bags Jan. 1, compared with the typical 20 or so per day before the law, said Dan Arthur, president of the chain’s two Long Island stores.

“It’s kind of a feel-good thing. I think it makes the customers feel that they’re doing the right thing,” he said.

The store is selling its reusable bags for the cost it pays for them, 99 cents, Arthur said.

Also, many customers who would have asked for free plastic bags to hold a few items are now just requesting that “paid” stickers be placed on the merchandise, which they carry out without any bags, Arthur said.

King Kullen Grocery Co. Inc., which has 19 King Kullen locations and four Wild by Nature stores in Suffolk County, cut the cost of its reusable bags by about 30 percent so that customers could buy them at close to cost, said Joe Brown, senior vice president and chief merchandising officer.

The chain has seen an approximately 300 percent increase in reusable bag purchases since Jan. 1, he said.

“Actually, it’s been a smooth transition, smoother than expected,” he said.

Suffolk County does not receive any portion of the bag fee, which the retailers keep.

The fee shouldn’t be seen as a windfall for retailers, since other business costs, such as minimum wage, are increasing, Brown said. On Jan. 1, minimum wage on Long Island rose from $10 to $11 an hour.

At least one retailer is trying to soften any blowback that might come from customers.

Looney Tunes, a music store in West Babylon, has been giving 5-cent discounts to customers who pay the bag fee, company President Karl Groeger said. The retailer also will give 25-cent discounts to customers who bring their own bags.

Groeger said he doesn’t believe the 5-cent discount is discouraging people from recycling.

“I understand the law and I think the people that made the law . . . had the most wonderful and best intentions,” he said, but the fee might be an added annoyance for customers of small businesses that have enough challenges trying to compete with Amazon and big-box retailers online.

Suffolk County is the first county in New York state to enact a bag fee, but according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, more than 100 cities and towns in the United States have adopted bag laws. In 2014, California became the first state to enact a statewide ban on single-use bags at large stores.

Suffolk County’s Department of Health Services will enforce its law. Stores will be penalized $500 for each violation but no fines will be issued through the six-month period ending June 18, as the county works to educate retailers on the law, officials said.

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