retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

It was a crushing revelation in the checkout lane. The iconic “Stew’s bag” – a brightly-colored plastic shopping bag from Stew Leonard’s flagship store – was no more. Done. A victim of time and a plastic bag ban enacted by the city of Norwalk, Connecticut.

For the record, I completely support the national movement to eliminate single-use plastic bags in order to protect the environment. I know these proven polluters threaten oceans, waterways, fish and wildlife, and overwhelm landfills. I dutifully keep reusable bags in my car at all times.

But, I have to tell you, the Stew’s bag was different. It was just that much thicker, and sturdier, than any other grocery bag. You could trust it. Always. You felt confident the picnic watermelon would not burst a seam and splatter all over the parking lot. Ditto your Thanksgiving turkey or a few half-gallons of milk.

I’ve spoken with many fellow inveterate Stew’s shoppers who share my dismay and are quick to note that we saved and recycled those bags long before “recycle and reuse” was a thing. Said one: “I always hoarded my Stew’s bags and stashed them where my family couldn’t find them. I even traveled with them.”

To say Stew’s bags went everywhere is an understatement. Back in 1974, customer Colleen Blanchard had her photo taken in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow brandishing her Stew’s bag with the bold yellow, orange and green - and admittedly hokey - graphic of a boy milking his cow. Since then, some “hundreds of thousands of customers,” according to the company, have sent in comparable photos from every corner of the globe, including the Great Wall of China (from a personal friend of mine), Stonehenge and a nude beach in the Caribbean.

My personal lamentations aside, this story points to the importance of brand engagement and adapting to the changing retail environment.

Stew Leonard’s, a family-owned specialty grocer which bills itself as the “World’s Largest Dairy Store,” has an identity that permeates its Disney-like atmosphere, private label products and yes, packaging. Shopping there is an experience, and you can’t help but be engaged (or perhaps prompted to cut and run) when personally greeted by Clover the Cow.

One could argue that father-son brand-builders Stew Leonard Sr. and his son Stew Jr. invested in experiential marketing long before most retailers knew the term. Since the first store opened 50 years ago, they have made shopping at Stew’s unlike any place else, replete with a seasonal petting zoo, the “Farm Fresh Five” animatronic singers, and the best free sample stations around. When customers posed for photos with their Stew bags in Florence and in Florida and mailed them in, it reflected just how much they felt Stew’s was their store. (And they received a gift certificate in return).

The chain is adapting – like retailers everywhere – to the myriad laws and policies designed to reduce the prevalence of plastic bags. Eight states have banned single-use plastic bags, while other states and municipalities are imposing fees or recycling programs to curtail use and change consumer behavior.

Stew’s sells its sturdy, re-usable bags for 99-cents each, and the signature font and graphics remain unchanged. In a nod to changing times, the grocer now posts its “Bags Around the World” promotion on Instagram, as well as the framed photos lining the wall in the Norwalk store.

Not surprisingly, before the Norwalk ban took place some customers inquired if they could buy whole cases of Stew’s bags for their own stockpile. If my travels take me near any of the other six Stew Leonard’s stores where the ban has not yet taken place, with a seventh store opening next week in Paramus, NJ, I may just have to stop and stock up on a few Stew’s bags for posterity. I wouldn’t trust a watermelon or Thanksgiving turkey to a lesser bag.

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