Plastic Bags, Referenda and Retail Prices

I’ve just come off the radio after doing a short piece on the John Beattie Radio Scotland show about the introduction of carrier bag charging in Scotland. Some three and a bit years after I wrote about this, the Scottish Government have finally got round to doing it. From listening to the comments on the show, you might think the end of the world was nigh, but all the evidence from Wales and Ireland shows the enormous impact this simple charge can have.

There is however another dimension to this, and that is the variability with the UK on the issue.  England is now the hold out on single use bag charging. And this difference between the nations is one that has been in our minds in recent months.

I pretty much kept quiet during the referendum campaign about the subject of independence or not and its effect on retailing. This was mainly because I could not see any way to contribute much that was useful. And in the last days before the vote I was out of the country so away from the 24-hour rolling discussions.

I was aware however, at a distance, of the intervention by some retail bosses about the effect of independence on prices in Scotland. I was also aware of Robert Peston’s dismissal of the “fuss and furore” around this as “bonkers” and fully concurred with his insightful analysis on this occasion.

My only intervention in the long run-up was to state the obvious; retailers don’t like uncertainty and they don’t like variation. Both are bad for profits. So if independence came, then the uncertainty it would bring in the short-term was concerning and the potential for added (or different – and this was not really mentioned, which is perhaps telling) costs would have them thinking. Variations between Scotland and the Former UK would have caused them some added costs.

But would this have settled down in due course; well yes. And isn’t this exactly where we have been with the ‘health levy’ on large stores? Quite why this equates with the intervention we saw is a little curious.

Would retailers have pulled out of Scotland? Well I suppose it is possible they would have abandoned a market of 5+ million who speak the same language and have broadly similar tastes and is on their doorstep. Possible, but unlikely. They could have tried to recoup extra costs by pricing up their products in Scotland, but I do wonder how successful this would have been for individual retailers if not all had joined in.

I very much doubt people made a decision on how to vote based on the unquantified risk of some higher prices in some stores, whether, true, likely or not. I certainly hope not. Much more important would be people making decisions on the basis of food banks and other similar issues – and much more likely.

The referendum has been a fascinating journey and it is clear it is not over yet, in Scotland but also elsewhere in the United Kingdom. I look forward to M&S, Asda, JLP etc. focusing their fight against devolution to England and English regions on the basis of the possible uncertainties and potential variations and added costs that will confront their business. Perhaps they’ll even have to pull out of London and the South-East on the basis of the  extra costs they will incur in rates, rent, labour, congestion etc. Now the shires having to do without JLP/Waitrose and M&S would promote a constitutional crisis.

The approach of retailers to the European referendum that we seem potentially likely to see in due course will also be fascinating. In the meantime perhaps England can catch up and join the Rest of the UK in its approach to single use carrier bags?

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students.
This entry was posted in Campaigns, Government, John Lewis Partnership, London, Plastic Bags, Pricing, Retailers, Waitrose and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Plastic Bags, Referenda and Retail Prices

  1. John Orchard says:

    I generally agree with yours, and Robert Peston’s analysis about the impact of Independence on Scottish shoppers, although whether the longer term potential differences in fiscal and monetary policies would have made a difference is an imponderable. The bulk of Scottish shoppers are not in remote places, but then has anyone ever done any real research on the real cost of servicing those that are? Within the UK the Scottish remote populations are far and away the most remote!

    I guess the Royal Mail debate is one which will impact on those remote communities too. If the Royal Mail continues to have its critical urban deliveries eroded by competition not obliged to ensure a universal delivery at a fixed cost, then the cost of a great many things will rise disproportionately to those remote places. Interestingly, the mail never seemed to come up in the Independence debate, nor the BBC or many other daily use services, which puzzled me throughout.

    None of those things were, however, the point of my note. I wanted just to challenge the apparent comparison between the Scottish Independence debate and referendum and the discussions around English regional devolution. Perhaps I am mistaking your meaning, as there can be no comparison. Devolution in the English regions is no difference from devolution to the non-English regions of the UK, other than perhaps less of an appetite for it amongst the general population than elsewhere.

    Scotland has a devolved parliament, Wales the devolved assembly, the same for Northern Ireland, all of which regions of the UK are in relative population size, much smaller than the mean of the English regions. It would be absurd not to have the debate, which will at times doubtless be heated, but the outcome, whatever it is, or they are, the product(s) shall still be within the United Kingdom.

  2. Leigh Sparks says:


    Thanks for comments. My point, probably inelegantly put, was that the same issues put in the Scottish referendum by retailers would also apply to devolution to English regions, and that they would therefore logically be against this, for fear of the uncertainty and variability it could cause (though accepting this would depend on powers). The issue raised about cost base of servicing much of Scotland already applies I feel to London and the south-east.

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