Byline: David Moin

NEW YORK — Shopping bags are coming out of the closet.
They’re seldom seen on runways or in the fashion press, but in the last three years, shopping bags have emerged as a major street look and marketing ploy and popping up in store windows and cosmetic counters, as visual merchandising tools.
According to executives in the field, shopping bags are proliferating because technological advances are driving down production costs and raising the quality of images reproduced on bags, and because retailers are spending more on packaging after cutting back on it in the Eighties. The luxury boom and the recent wave of designer store openings on Madison Avenue, Rodeo Drive and other chic venues are also spurring development.
“A designer cannot open a retail store or be a designer without having a designer bag,” said Alex Lindsay, president and founder of Modern Arts, a firm here that designs bags, boxes, tissue and ribbons and is a consultant to companies on packaging. “Shopping bags have become the must-have accessory.”
Ron Basso, general manager of Continental Extrusion, a maker of mass and upscale shopping bags, characterizes shopping bags as the “walking billboards” of the Nineties for retailers and designers.
These executives say the industry is experiencing another fabulous season, propelled by continued innovations in the design and look of bags and new materials that extend longevity.
“The industry has changed 360 degrees,” said Lindsay, who noted that his company has annual volume of $10 million to $15 million. Among its clients have been Estee Lauder, Talbots, Chanel, Sulka and Louis Vuitton.
Continuing trends include grommets and rope handles, such as those used on Tommy Hilfiger bags, and translucent looks — which Gap uses — as well as texture, matte lamination, embossing and photography. Bags that you can sling over your shoulder are gaining popularity, as well.
In addition, there’s greater emphasis on functionality. Bigger bags are being built to hold more products and to stand up to several trips to the mall — as many as 12 in some cases, though the average bag makes five trips, according to Basso.
That helps reduce waste, noted Lindsay, who has made environmentally correct “E Bags” for Sony Plaza in New York and Ultimo, the designer store in Chicago. The recyclable bag is made of a soft plastic called polypropylene that resembles cloth and can be folded, easily stored and lasts longer for less waste. Lindsay said plastic manufacturing requires less energy than paper manufacturing, causing less pollution.
Another trend is the gift bag, which was sold at the Limited Stores last holiday season, among other chains. It’s an alternative to gift wrapping and waiting on those long wrap lines.
To promote Absolut Vodka, Modern Arts created a “mag bag” — a shopping bag inserted in a magazine.
Lindsay also highlighted monogrammed bags for gift-giving as a trend among the society crowd. Individuals might order a few thousand for their closest friends. “We did a bag for Madonna, but we’re not set up for small orders.” Lindsay said.
“People are really interested in details and reuse,” Lindsay said. “The trick today is to come up with a signature bag. The handle is 30 percent of the perceived image. People perceive bags not as a commodity, but as being functional, as a form of advertising, an image-making accessory. You’ve got to do something to make it uniquely yours.”
One of the most ubiquitous trends is that paper — used for bags since the Thirties, according to Basso — is being replaced by plastic. Continental operates a 150,000-square-foot-factory in Cedar Grove, N.J., that produces about a million bags a day for such clients as the Wiz, Gap, Victoria’s Secret and huge outlet malls including Potomac Mills and Sawgrass Mills, which list store names on their bags. The main product: thick, high density plastic bags with square bottoms.
The firm buys polyethylene plastic pellets from Union Carbide and runs them through an extruder, which applies tremendous pressure and temperature, transforming the pellets into rolls. The rolls go to a press printing up to 12 colors on a bag style, and then to a machine that converts the printing roll into shopping bags.
“The bags have a paper quality but with all the virtues of plastic — strength, reusability, they’re waterproof and they take color brilliantly,” Basso said. “People want photographic reproductions for an MTV kind of colorful style and excitement.”
Basso said his company has been averaging 15 percent gains for three years and is currently doing $15 million in sales annually. The company is owned by the $3.4 billion Jim Pattison Group, a Canadian conglomerate.
“Shopping bags been around a long time,” Basso observed. “Probably, brown paper bags have been widely used for at least 50 years, but originally they came in one color, with a name on it. Then bags started to be used by department stores in the Sixties. People learned how to print on them creatively. It reached a crescendo in the mid-Eighties, but when retailing went sour, shopping bags were the first thing retailers cut, since they weren’t profit centers. Now there’s a renaissance going on with upscale retailers.”

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