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Down to Business: Unit price sticker tells the real story

Thursday, November 18, 2010
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I got snookered at the supermarket. Not in a way that made me red-in-the-face mad but that reminded me of the shopper’s creed of caveat emptor, or buyer beware.

I was in the toilet paper aisle, searching for my usual 12-roll bundle of the store’s private label, when I came upon a similar package from Scott, the national brand, at an unbelievable $5.99. Eureka!

Rest assured I’m happy with my generic bath tissue. I go for basic one-ply and 1,000 sheets, rather than seeking out “double” or “mega” rolls, or “extra soft” or “ultra strong” — whatever any of that means. But on occasion when a Scott 12-roll is on sale — and cheaper than the store generic — I’ll buy it.

Back home, though, I realized immediately that something was amiss. When I loaded a Scott roll into the toilet paper holder, it wobbled on the spindle, petite in the allotted space. And, sure enough, when I set a Scott roll on the vanity next to the generic, the latter stood taller. A check of the packaging showed why: Each sheet in the Scott roll measured 4.1 inches by 3.7 inches, vs. the generic’s 4.5 by 3.7.

The half-inch difference meant that over the course of the 12 pack, I’d have 129.4 square feet less of the Scott product available for use — or about a roll’s worth of toilet paper.

Such sleight of hand by manufacturers is not new. A box of kids’ breakfast cereal that used to contain 19.7 ounces is now 17 ounces; a half-gallon carton of ice cream really holds 1.5 quarts, not two; a pump bottle of hand soap is down to 9.375 fluid ounces from 11.25. And absent a side-by-side comparison of the products, we wouldn’t see any difference because the packaging is so similar.

Sanjay Putrevu, an associate professor of marketing at the University at Albany, says many consumer products are offered at what is known as “customary pricing” — price points that manufacturers seek to keep constant, believing shoppers would be reluctant to pay more.

So if costs rise, manufacturers will subtract product rather than increase price. The tactic will continue until it reaches a “just noticeable difference,” Putrevu says, at which consumers will balk at getting less. Then, manufacturers will go back to the original size and hike the price to a new “customary” level.

Should manufacturers tell consumers when products shrink? “In an ideal world, yes,” he says, because it’s the ethical thing to do. PepsiCo did so earlier this year when it dropped a half-gallon container of Tropicana orange juice to 59 ounces following a Florida freeze, rather than hiking the price. But Putrevu points out that even when producers follow the law by listing volume on a package, they’re “not calling attention” to reductions. “New Smaller Size!” isn’t a label that’s slapped on products.

And busy consumers often “just pick it up,” he says of the goods we regularly buy. So small changes made to volume can go undetected when the packaging remains essentially the same.

That’s where unit pricing can serve consumers well, Putrevu says, telling them the cost of a common volume of like product whether it’s a brand or store label: pickles per quart, coffee per pound, eggs per dozen.

Had I looked at the unit price shelf sticker in the toilet paper aisle, I would have seen that the Scott 12-roll — even at $5.99 — was still more expensive per 100 square feet than the generic. And I wouldn’t be shaking my head now at having been suckered.

 
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comments

November 18, 2010
3:52 p.m.
biwemple says...

How is it that weights and measures don't have to be applied exactly to how a package is sold with some of these goods? With the example above, if a 1/2 gallon carton of ice cream, that is labeled as a 1/2 gallon, does not contain a 1/2 gallon by weight (not volume), then to me this is simple fraud, not just deceptive packaging or marketing. If it was labeled and sold as 1.5 quarts, and contained 1.5 quarts by weight, then so be it, but don't sell it as a 1/2 gallon. Is my logic incorrect here? I don't get it.

November 21, 2010
5:56 a.m.
MN says...

The ice cream cartons I have seen are not labeled "half gallons." They're just referred to that way in conversation.
They're labeled according to their contents.
No fraud.

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