Visual Arts

The Joy of Sacks

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"What's inside, of course, might be a cold hamburger and some laundry," says Boyle, "but you can't tell that by looking at the outside."

In fact, those who are one with the Power of the Bag contend that the less you know about what's inside a sack, the better. After all, a little mystery never hurt the imagination. And a little imagination and a pinch of yearning never hurt business.

"I've had retailers tell me many times that the bag was more important to their image than the merchandise in their store," says Jacobson. "Simply because the bag is what is seen out on the street; it is what gives customers their first impression of the store."

That's the mercantile dream behind all of the bags in this show: to brand a fine first impression about a merchant or product on the dark cerebral lobe that controls the human credit-card reflex.

Take the triangular Takashimaya bag. This is a case where the owners of the business consciously sought an eye-catching fusion of packaging and perception.

"When that bag was made, about seven years ago," Jacobson recalls, "it was the first triangle-shaped bag on the market." The bag was designed to hold a triangular box. Jacobson can't quite recall what went into the box, but does that really matter?

What the brains behind shopping bags hope you'll see in them is your own image as a shopper, so when you glance at the Takashimaya sack, or the painted faces of youngsters on the Benetton bag, the eye-dazzling image on the Heard Museum's bag, or the three-dimensional route of the words around the bag from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the elegant graphic expression of the one from Felissimo, you can find something distinctive, something worth remembering and identifying with.

Sackophiles will tell you that almost everyone--excluding petroleum executives--wants to identify with paper, not plastic. And, as the bags in this show indicate, people prefer bags with handles.

Despite Andy Warhol's claim "that's not fake anything, it's real plastic," plastics are associated with cheap, says Upchurch. "Although you can store plastic bags easier," she adds, "they don't hold their form."

"They're too floppy and flexible," says Boyle, "and because the plastic is so thin, they can't take such elaborate designs as paper."

Dick Green, with Longview Fiber, which manufactures bags for JC Penney, among others, says that plastics are also seen by many to be a disposal problem.

"In market research that Eddie Bauer and JC Penney shared with us," he says, "they found that the customer had a perception that the paper bag was far less environmentally invasive. It was more friendly. It was recyclable."

This, despite that many of the coatings that add vibrancy to the colors and surfaces of paper bags render them unrecyclable.

Researchers are finding, says Green, that customers are even more specific about their handles: They want a handle that will slide up above their wrist, so their hands can be free to pick up more merchandise--and hopefully to pay for it. Shopping bags persist in being seen by the security forces at malls and stores as shoplifting bags.

No one really knows what these marketing gestures to memory and usefulness are worth to business. But it's safe to say that the impulse buying they're intended to trigger far exceeds the estimated $1 billion American businesses spend annually on paper shopping bags.

That figure covers everything from the specialty bags exhibited at ASU, and taco and hamburger pouches, to the always-versatile brown paper bag--known in the industry as the self-opening sack. However, it doesn't include the considerable sums that go into the design of bags and packaging.

And, says Jacobson, "the market keeps changing. The resale or specialty bag has cut into the greeting-card market, and it's also cut into the gift-wrapping market."

The one sure thing is that the types of bags in this show are a growing chunk of the business. In fact, it's probably the one area of the paper-packaging industry where there's actually something new, says David Stuck, a spokesman for the American Forest and Paper Association, an industry group. An unexpected boom, considering that 30 or so years ago, bag people feared that the American passion for automobiles would make the need to schlep a shopping bag obsolete. Like most threats of obsolescence, this one apparently sparked a boom in variety and invention. It led to a search for more opportunities and places where the old urge to buy and the need to carry could renew the meaning of bags.

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow