I live above a supermarket and I constantly forget to take bags,” said Mr Norman, who runs plastic bag manufacturer Churchill & Coombes in the Sydney suburb of Silverwater.

He has sympathy for shoppers who are struggling to adjust to the ban on single-use plastic bags – “we’re creatures of habit … it’s an emotional issue for people”, he said.

But Mr Norman believes Coles’ decision to hand out free reusable plastic bags for almost two months after banning single-use bags on July 1 is less about soothing angry shoppers and more.

The retailer is on track to post the strongest sales growth in more than two years, with Morgan Stanley analysts forecasting same-store sales growth to reach 2.5 per cent in the September quarter compared with 0.3 per cent growth in the same period a year ago.

Analysts believe Coles’ decision to cave in to shoppers incapable of bringing any/enough reusable bags and simultaneously launch its Little Shop collectibles promotion – where customers receive free miniature plastic versions of popular grocery brands when they spend $30 – will help Coles regain the lead over Woolworths for the first time in years.

Faster rate

Woolworths’ same-store supermarket sales have grown at a faster rate than Coles’ for seven consecutive quarters. But Woolworths same-store sales growth slowed to 1.3 per cent in July and August compared with 4.9 per cent in the first quarter 2018, even though a recent customer survey showed 75 per cent of Woolworths customers supported the bag ban.

Woolworths chief executive Brad Banducci admitted the ban on single-use bags had been more “painful” than expected, with Australians taking longer to adjust than in countries and states where they were removed years ago.

“It was and has been a more painful adjustment than we thought, and out of line with what we’ve seen in South Australia, Tasmania, UK, France, South Africa,” Mr Banducci said.

Customers put fewer items in their baskets if they forgot to bring a reusable bag and packing reusable bags in various shapes and sizes took longer than expected, creating delays at the checkout and forcing Woolworths to deploy more staff.

“So it has been quite painful. Our experience in our pilot stores is that it does take somewhere around eight to 10 weeks for customers to adjust to the new world, and we’re starting to see that happen,” Mr Banducci said.

Outgoing Coles managing director John Durkan said the supermarket chain experienced similar problems, prompting Coles’ decision to extend the offer of free reusable plastic bags from mid-July to August 29.

“It takes some customers longer to get used to bringing in their own bags,” Mr Durkan told investors.