Designers at Saks Fifth Avenue envisioned “a piece of modern art" and hired a graphic artist to create it. Their counterparts at Lord and Taylor travelled to a South Korean factory to oversee production. At Bergdorf Goodman, staff members held secret deliberations that stretched into the night for nine months.

I want: From Lululemon Athletica.

The focus of all this scurrying was not next spring’s resort collection. It was shopping bags.

Once an afterthought in retailing, the store bag is getting a makeover. From upscale labels to mid-price chains, retailers are competing to make durable, stylish bags. They are investing millions of dollars in plastic-coated paper (Macy’s and Juicy Couture) and fabric cord handles (Abercrombie and Fitch and Scoop).

Behind the bag battle is a shift in behaviour. In cities such as New York and Los Angeles, customers have begun treating shopping bags as disposable purses that can be reused for weeks.

But only the best bags make the cut. So stores, sensing an opportunity, are transforming bags. “We want people to keep it," said Terron E. Schaefer, senior vice-president for marketing at Saks, which made its bags sleeker and heftier.

After making a purchase at Lord and Taylor, Allana Cummings, 19, adopted the chain’s redesigned white bag as her second purse. “I can put in stuff I need for the day," she said, revealing books and her expensive leather handbag.

The trend of reusable shopping bags would seem at odds with the growth of high-end handbags. But some consumers are eager to walk around with a $2,000 (about Rs79,000) Coach purse on one arm and the Coach shopping bag it came in on the other.

For consumers, the emphasis on “reusability" is creating a new hierarchy. Interviews across New York City suggest that shoppers covet the heavy-duty plastic bags from Lululemon Athletica, the seller of yoga clothing, above the thin paper version provided by the luxury store Bloomingdale’s.

Chains are trying to move up the hierarchy. A year ago, employees at Lord and Taylor decided their bags were a liability. The retailer asked David Lipman, a marketing executive, to help design a new bag. They settled on a rich, white canvas-like paper and thick handles. Each large bag costs 80 cents, more than twice the industry average. But that investment has paid off, the bag is popular, upstaging the chic Bergdorf Goodman, whose lavender bags, with the image of Park Avenue ladies, are thin and frail.

Not to be outdone, Bergdorf has spent a year secretly redesigning its bags, to be introduced in fall. To ensure that the bags are fashionable, Bergdorf employees surreptitiously photographed one another across Manhattan, holding prototypes, to see what they look like on the street.

Bloomingdale’s is also under pressure to upgrade its bags, whose design dates to the 1970s. The chain says it is developing a thicker reusable bag to join its line-up of thin paper ones.

©2007/The New York Times

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