Inside the Walmart, Target and CVS reusable bag pilots

“It’s easy to design aspirationally,” IDEO Director Chris Krohn told me under the fluorescent lights of a Walmart store in Mountain View, California. We hovered over a teal and black kiosk about the size of a trash can, positioned proudly in “action alley,” the thoroughfare that runs along the front of the store, separating the ends of aisles and beginnings of checkout lanes.

In the pilot phase of the Beyond the Bag program, Krohn, his team and other members of Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag — including the startups, retail partners and Closed Loop Partners — have spent the past 4.5 weeks observing, interviewing, testing and adjusting every aspect of where, when and how a customer could interact with this kiosk — a GOATOTE reusable bag rental station — in an effort to encourage shoppers to opt for reuse over defaulting to single-use. 

Focused on addressing the plastic waste problem in retail, the Beyond the Bag initiative aims to identify, test and implement innovative single-use alternatives that make sense for stores, customers and the environment. Led by Closed Loop Partners, the project is a multi-year collaboration between founding retail partners Walmart, Target and CVS Health, design firm IDEO and a growing list of additional supporters

“It’s easy to design for the most ideal experience we could possibly think of that aligns with circular economy or reusability theory,” Krohn said as he motioned to the steady stream of customers flowing around us like water circumventing a protruding river rock. “But ultimately, if we’re not factoring in the operational constraints — the reality of the conditions that we’ll be bringing our solutions into — we’re going to fail.” 

Understanding and designing around these “operational constraints” are exactly why the team of experts in design, retail and reuse as well as behavior and systems change have been interviewing shoppers and tweaking the approach at every step of the customer journey, iterating in real time throughout the pilot, set to conclude after six weeks. The aim is to align the technical feasibility of a new model with the customer experience and existing store operations.

If we’re not factoring in the operational constraints — the reality of the conditions that we’ll be bringing our solutions into — we’re going to fail.

The pilots are a culmination of an open innovation challenge that selected nine startups to fund and bring through an accelerator program. Now, three solutions — GOATOTE’s kiosk to rent reusable bags, Fill it Forward’s gamified app that incentivizes bringing your own bag and a collaboration between ChicoBag and 99Bridges that lends reusable bags at the point of sale — are being piloted across nine Walmart, Target and CVS locations in Northern California. 

Now that these single-use alternatives had finally made their way from the C-suite strategy into customer reality, I was curious to hear about the learnings that emerged from translating theory into practice, and to experience the pilot for myself. And with just a week and a half left in the pilot, the team has already learned a lot. 

Location, location, location

At the GOATOTE pilot that I visited in the Mountain View Walmart, the location of the rental kiosk, signage and bag return bin had been adjusted countless times over the previous weeks. 

GOATOTE kiosk in Walmart store

“It’s such a new experience for a customer. We’ve learned that people need to have some time to engage with the kiosk and not feel like they’re in the way at a busy store,” Chad Lundahl, co-founder of GOATOTE, explained to me. “It’s been a valuable learning experience for us to work with the retailers, understand how each store flows and choose a safe environment for customers to stop, understand what they’re looking at, download the app and engage with the system.” 

The kiosks were designed to be fully autonomous — on their own power system and easily movable — in order to test for the right moment within the customer retail journey to have a bag available to borrow. Unlike the ChicoBag and 99Bridges pilot that is testing rental at the point of sale, the GOATOTE kiosk is designed to test what it looks like for a customer to have a physical interaction, building a new customer behavior and adding intentionality to the currently mindless relationship that most shoppers have with their bags. 

Messaging matters

The initial feedback suggests that customers prefer the phrase “borrow this bag” over “reusable bag.” The idea of a “well-loved bag” has also resonated, eliciting an emotional experience and creating a story. Regardless of the message, another early learning was the importance of multilingual signage and resources.

“Knowing the customer base and the audiences that we have in different stores and environments allows us to tailor the messages to match, whether that’s in language or tone or selected verbiage,” Krohn told me. 

The IDEO team uses the term “breadcrumbs” to describe the strategically distributed messages they use to engage shoppers throughout the shopping experience and subtly draw them into the program. “People are on a mission when they walk into a store and they are bombarded with a lot of different messages for different things,” Krohn continued. “We have to repeat the reminders for folks as they go through the journey, and we’ve started to codify when those breadcrumb moments need to exist.”

One intervention they’ve tested is an opt-in geofence reminder that sends a push notification to a consumer when they get to the parking lot, reminding them about the program.

Long-term success hinges on employee engagement

Store employees can make or break the success of a program. I spoke with Walmart store manager Renardo Page, who has been with the company for three years. “Our associates are our internal customers, so we have to make sure that they’re engaged and know what’s going on when they see a kiosk dropped in the middle of the store,” he told me. 

Page’s team did appear to be engaged. I watched the store greeter answer a customer’s question about the return kiosk near the entrance, and point her to the rental kiosk around the corner. 

Everyone I spoke with underscored the importance of training store associates to be ambassadors of the program. Page enthusiastically told me, “The most important thing is for a store manager to be excited themself, and to engage with the customers as well as their employees.”

Interoperability reinforces engagement 

Krohn, Lundahl and Page each shared a similar anecdote about customers choosing to rent a bag at the Walmart after they had seen the signage and kiosk at the adjacent Target or CVS store. Like anything new, visibility can increase comfort and eventually invite interaction.

No one solution will be perfect for every store in every location. But the learnings we capture here can be applied to reuse of different products in different contexts.

A core value proposition of the Beyond the Bag program is the interoperability of systems and the user experience, rather than a bespoke and branded bag-borrowing scheme at every shop you might visit. And it worked. I was able to seamlessly rent a bag from the GOATOTE kiosk at the nearby Target, and easily return it to Walmart, nearly immediately receiving a confirmation of my return.

New business models are exciting, theoretically. For many companies, the reality check comes when ideas are translated into a physical, and infinitely more complex environment than a corporate office. 

In the end, it’s about far more than the bag itself. 

“This type of pilot is critical for scaling reuse solutions,” Kate Daly, managing director at the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners, told me over the phone. “No one solution will be perfect for every store in every location. But the learnings we capture here can be applied to reuse of different products in different contexts. The whole goal of the consortium approach is to demystify the innovation process and share learnings across the ecosystem so other retailers don’t need to feel limited by the challenges of reuse.”

[Interested in more on the Circular Economy? Subscribe to our Circularity Weekly newsletter, sent Fridays.]

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