Retailer fears on ‘holding the bag’


Tribune Business Editor

Bahamian retailers fear losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in plastic bags they cannot sell when the full ban takes effect on June 30, with one admitting: “I miscalculated, and I’m sure others did.”

Rupert Roberts, Super Value’s principal, told Tribune Business the supermarket chain’s forecast that it would generate $750,000 per month from selling plastic bags during the six-month transition period had proven wildly optimistic.

He revealed that the company’s flagship Cable Beach store had generated just $268 from such sales during the first week of 2020, adding that this - coupled with evidence from its 12 other stores - suggested that the government’s initiative was succeeding beyond expectations.

Disclosing that he backed the effort to ban the designated products “100 percent” given the need to protect The Bahamas’ environment, Mr Roberts said merchants “deserve an answer” to the question of what will happen to the plastic bag inventories they will be left holding come June 30 - especially over how they will be disposed of.

He added that Super Value had “become an entertainment company” from January 1 due to the quality of the “floor shows” put on by disgruntled consumers taken unawares by the legally-mandated charge of between 25 cents to $1 per plastic bag used (Mr Roberts’ company is charging 28 cents).

“It’s been two weeks now and I would say Super Value’s stores haven’t sold $2,000 worth of bags,” he told this newspaper. “That’s like zero sales of plastic bags. No, they’re not selling, and all merchants are going to be left with six months’ supply of plastic bags that we’ve purchased. My buyer is calculating it now. It’s $350,000. We’re going to be left with them.”

However, not all Bahamian merchants have been left ‘holding the bag’. Gavin Watchorn, president and chief executive of BISX-listed AML Foods, told Tribune Business that his group had decided “early on in the game” that they would not provide single-use plastic bags from January 1 onwards to avoid having to charge consumers.

“We made the decision some time ago not to charge people for the bags,” he explained. “Our last order for the bags was in October last year. We had very little inventory if any left, and had scheduled to be out of bags a few days either side of the ban. We had expected to be out as of January 1.

“We had made the decision we did not want to be charging customers for them, and took that early on in the game. We acted on the basis that we would run out as close to December 31 as we could.”

Prior to the passage of the banning legislation, Mr Roberts said Super Value typically spent $3m per year on plastic bags and the foam containers used to hold food at its salad and deli bars. Disclosing that the bulk of that sum went on plastic bags, he estimated that the supermarket chain had previously ordered around 40 million per year or 20 million for a half year.

While it had ordered less than the latter figure for the 2020 first half, expecting there to a drop-off in their usage as consumers transitioned ahead of the full ban, Mr Roberts said the switch appeared to have occurred far more rapidly than most merchants had anticipated.

“We could not offer the country groceries in-hand,” Mr Roberts said. “We had to take care of the consumer..... We can’t run them [plastic bags] down. They’re just not moving. A store like Cable Beach, one of our big flag ship stores, in the first week only sold $268 worth of plastic bags.

“I estimated we were going to sell $750,000 a month of plastic bags, but that one store only sold $268. I miscalculated, and I’m sure other merchants did too. I’m sure government had no idea this was going to happen, too. We’re behind what they’re trying to do, but we’ve helped them so much we’ve hurt ourselves. All merchants are concerned as to what the Government will advise us to do with the leftovers.

“We’re behind the Government 100 percent, but don’t want to get stuck helping them. That question deserves an answer: What happens to the leftovers?” Mr Roberts then reiterated his previous call for the Government to repeal the plastic bag fee “rethink it, and let us go on with the show” to eliminate remaining inventories, but the Prime Minister ruled this out yesterday (see article on Page 3B).

He revealed that a meeting between Bahamian retailers and the Ministry of the Environment and Housing had been scheduled for January 9 to discuss the matter, but the latter had postponed it.

“Up until January 1 we were in the food business trying to feed the nation,” Mr Roberts told Tribune Business, “but after January 1 we became an entertainment company. The floor shows the public put on down there because we were trying to charge them for these bags were unreal.

“We have had some real floor shows. Some people have really spilled their minds thinking it us charging them, but Nassau has finally realised it’s the Government.”

But, while plastic bag sales may have stalled, Mr Roberts said Super Value’s branded reusable bags have sold out forcing the supermarket chain to order more. “We ordered 75,000 reusable bags and didn’t think there was any way in the world we could sell 75,000 reusable bags,” he added.

“We said we were protecting the country and working with the Government, but they’re gone. We’ve ordered another 75,000. This programme went far beyond the way the Government thought it was going to work. It’s going to take 60-90 days to get them back in.”

However, Mr Roberts argued that plastic bags were just “the tip of the iceberg” when it came to the total amount of plastic waste generated by The Bahamas annually. He pointed out that one-third of Super Value’s merchandise was sold in cans, another third was sold in paper mostly “wrapped in plastic” and the final third was sold via plastic containers.

“I know the stuff we sell and import,” the Super Value chief said. “Unless we get into recycling we’re going to sink this little island down. I suppose we can recycle some plastic, but some of the stuff we will have to export to recycle. It’s a mammoth task that the Ministry of the Environment has. They have the scientific knowledge but I don’t think they know the country’s volumes the way we do.”