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The Decline of the Swag Bag

6 Apr, 2015

By: Tracey Schelmetic
Road Race Participants React to Changing Trends in Give-Aways

The Western African black rhino. The carrier pigeon. The swag bag at races?

Times were, goodie bags were a staple at 5Ks, fun runs and other road racing events. Now, they tend to be an endangered species -- if not downright extinct (like the carrier pigeon, etc.)

As registration fees continue to climb, the use of the bags are on their way down – and even out.  Once filled with free items including granola bars, sweat bands, hats, fridge magnets, ear buds and other gimmes, the bags are now more likely to be stuffed with ads, pamphlets, coupons for local stores and restaurants – much of which winds up in the garbage almost immediately. (The actual gifts that are still in the bag tend to be of questionable use; think of a postage-stamp-sized piece of fabric marketed as a way to clean fingerprints from a smartphone screen.)

Some runners lament the loss of the stuffed-full goody bag, while others are relieved at the lack of what they believe to be largely junk. Many serious racers actively seek out events with low entrance fees and zero-to-no giveaways. In fact, some races offer a reduction in registration fees in exchange for a no-bag experience.

The no-frills race with a reduced fee allows organizers to spend only on what they need, such as race bibs, for example, and to avoid unnecessary expenditures.

“These pocket money events are treasures of the running world,” blogged Hannah McQuarrie for the UK newspaper The Guardian. “They offer time trial opportunities or the chance to bag a PB [personal best] without an obscene entry fee and commitment to raise sponsorship. They are almost always organized by local running clubs and made possible by volunteers, with any profits ploughed back into the club and the local sporting community.”

In some cases, the so-called ‘virtual race packet’ has replaced the traditional model. Upon registration for an event such as a 5K, participants are sent a link they can click on; this allows them to scroll through printable coupons, ads, information on how to access apps for the event and more. In addition, maps, race day information and other logistical materials are included. (A few events give out thumb drives loaded with this information instead; however, this method is dying out, since the clickable link creates less of a per-racer investment). The virtual race packet, like any other coupon, has a shelf life; ultimately, the link becomes inactive after a specific time. The idea is to create a paperless event.

This idea is spreading to trade shows and other events as well. Particularly at a time when participants will fly to attend an event, the virtual packet is a way of avoiding baggage fees that result from having to fly home with several pounds of unnecessary souvenirs.

Of course, some souvenir items are evergreens: T-shirts are one example. Obviously, the desirability of race t-shirts varies; while first-time runners of a marathon, for example, treasure the souvenir, participants who race consistently may find the shirt for the local turkey trot to be less of a value.

Many racers, armpit-deep in race t-shirts, donate them to homeless shelters. Some channel their inner Martha Stewart and turn race t-shirts into quilts. (Many people on Pinterest have come up with unique and silly uses for leftover race t-shirts, medals and bibs.)

Other racers, particularly novices participating in theme races (think The Night of the Living Dead 5k) may base their participation on the quality of the race giveaways offered. For race directors, it needs to be about understanding the target audience.

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