Coles banned single-use plastic bags from its stores from 1 July this year, following a similar move by competitor Woolworths, in a move applauded by environmentalists.
In a bid to help customers cope with the transition, Coles offered to provide free reusable plastic bags for the first month, before implanting a 15 cent charge per bag.
But with the free offer due to expire, reports emerged that Coles would extend the offer indefinitely, meaning customers would not have to pay for plastic bags.
Environmentalists were reportedly furious, claiming that reusable plastic bags are almost as bad for the environment as single-use ones, and as such the whole point of the exercise has been lost.
Meanwhile, the director of a PR firm has said the backflip also has ramifications for Coles’ credibility and brand perception.
“The continued backflips are shaving away at brand credibility. There’s a difference between an organisation listening and responding to consumer feedback, which can have a positive brand effect, to what we are seeing by the supermarkets, which is more reactionary,” Nicole Reaney, director of InsideOut Public Relations, told My Business.
“It projects an impression that the supermarket was ill-prepared in undertaking this massive shift in consumer mindset and behaviour.”
Ms Reaney suggested that any business engaged in public backflips on policy, product or service provision needs to “stop, re-examine the change management strategy and rebuild consumer connection”.
“Any massive change typically brings an emotional reaction and defiance – people need to understand the ‘why’, and then the ‘how’ – these pieces were absent in communications. Missing information results in negativity, backlash and misinformation. Companies start to lose control of consumer reactions and message,” she said.
According to Ms Reaney, change management requires careful impact assessment on customers, an examination of stakeholders’ readiness to rollout a change and an effective communications strategy so that everyone involved in, or affected by, the change knows the what, when, where and, crucially, the why.
This process, at least on face value, appears to have failed for Coles in this instance.
“[The bag ban] was announced midway of last year, and a lot could have been undertaken to support consumers through the transition,” Ms Reaney said.
“In the lead up, there was minimal education to consumer on the positives surrounding the change, as well as what the change will mean – it was really unclear as to what would exist in store to what happens in online delivery.”
She added: “Each shopper demographic, from the main grocery buyer to the elderly to millennials, needed to be approached with specific messages to support them in the change. It really was an opportunity missed – and an opportunity for the supermarket to emotionally connect with its shoppers.”