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Holiday Sack-raments

A great gift idea isn't just in the bag ... it is the bag

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In the past year, it seems every major retailer has rolled out its own version of the "reusable" shopping bag. And why not? It's win-win-win-win.

Stores make a profit on the bags, which cost pennies to produce. Customers then carry around a bag blazing a store logo. Even the most environmentally challenged big-boxers get to trumpet their commitment to being green. And, if customers really do use them, stores save on plastic bags. Plus, it's a national obligation to express commitment to a new trend by buying something.

But long before it was trendy, travelers hauled back thousands of re-usable shopping bags, each designed to make a personal statement about the carrier: Harrods (I've been to London); The Strand (I'm bookish); Little Brown Bag (I've been to Bloomingdale's); and FT-2000 Backup Systems (I rock the swag at tech conventions).

This holiday season is the perfect time to jump on the bandwagon, by using a colorful shopping bag as eco-happy gift wrap. The polypropylene shopping bags generally sell for a mere 99 cents, which is likely less than what you'd spend on gift-wrapping paper. And after the "reveal," your gift recipient is left with a useful item -- a bonus second present! -- rather than a pile of paper trash.

Such cheap bags await you at many stores: Greens and browns are popular colors, as are "natural" motifs such as leaves, trees and the ever-spinning recycling arrows.

Holds two six-packs - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL

Many men consider shopping bags -- particularly ones emblazoned with flowers -- a feminine accessory. But what shame could there be in the muy macho bag I found at Dick's: black, gold, Steelers and even NFL-sanctioned (which may account for the extra buck in the $1.99 price).

And if you find yourself giving a "fallback" gift -- cash, check or gift card -- your expression of love needn't rattle around in a huge empty bag. Check out this adorable bag from Target that folds up and seals with Velcro. It's no bigger than a wallet -- and it's the perfect vehicle for stashing a crisp $20.

Check enclosed - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL

Target also scores high in discreet design: Neither the name of the store nor blather about being green appears on the bag. There's simply an illustration of a tree, the fruit of which is the retailer's distinctive red-and-white target logo.

Sure, a re-usable bag from an area grocery store is useful, but there are opportunities to make your gift bag zing with its own statement, one that reflects well on both you and the giftee. Consider the humble brown bag I recently purchased at Portland, Ore.'s famed zillion-volume bookstore, Powell's City of Books. What Pittsburgh book-lover wouldn't delight to receive a volume or two tucked inside this bag -- a tote that simply shrieks: "I love reading and independent bookstores and recycling"?

Fill with books - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL

And by the way, nobody else at Giant Eagle has one like it.

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