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Consumer Tips . . . (cont.)

Since the egregious manipulation of markets perpetrated by energy monopolies,[]  many of us use compact fluorescent light bulbs. But, in some locations and for some uses (especially cold locations outdoors), we still need incandescent bulbs. Medium wattage (40 – 60) bulbs used to be available for about 25¢ apiece on sale (four-pack for $1).  And so they are today. The scam? Those old bulbs (made, for the most part, in the USA) had an average "lifetime" of 1,500 hours. The new bulbs (made, for the most part in either Mexico, or, increasingly, in China) have an average "lifetime" of 750 hours. So, in effect, you are now paying 50¢ apiece for light bulbs. The inflation factor, for you, is 100%.
 


 

Small jars of cheap peanut butter used to be 18 oz. and sold for about $1. Some manufacturers reduced the overall size of the jar and others employed a large "bubble" on the bottom of the jar, reducing the weight to 15.3 – 16 oz.; and, the price has gone up to $1.29 – $2.49. At the same time, the wholesale price of peanuts and peanut products has gone down following the salmonella-contamination scandal.()
[This is pretty awful stuff, anyway, unless you have a morbid interest in food chemistry (in addition to the additives it is usually made with cheap soybean oil instead of peanut oil); but, parents who stock it for their kids should take note.]
 


 

If you watch for sales, you can still get four-pound bags of sugar for only twice the price of the old five-pound bags frowning 'smiley' face.
 


 

Joining Ben and Jerry, the folks who created Boca Burgers have sold out; and, after all the usual PR flack [“We're not going to change anything” and blah blah blah], the new, unimproved vegan burgers have been reduced from 4 ounces to 3.5 ounces each.  But, after all, someone  has to pay for all these corporate acquisitions.

Spitting in the soup
An unfortunately closely-related subject is the all-too-frequent adulteration of premium brands in the process of corporate mergers and acquisitions. We used to be willing to spend a bit more to "buy the best," especially for holidays and celebrations: we would buy Best Foods™ (Hellmanns™) mayonnaise, Grey Poupon™ mustard, or Smuckers™ jam to serve at our festal table.
But Kraft bought Best Foods™ and Grey Poupon™, and (despite the self-interested publicity designed to assure consumers) changed the formulation of both products, with the result that their new un improved products don't taste as good.(1 Leaving out the extra egg yolks undoubtedly made the mayonnaise cheaper to manufacture and adding the extra preservatives gave it a longer shelf-life, but the rich, creamy taste is gone and it's now just another run-of-the-mill product on the market mayo shelf. The newly-Krafted mustard has also undergone a noticeable downgrade: it's much too salty, presumably to cover its cheaper formulation, and no longer has the sharp bite of the old, independent brand.  And Smuckers™ — who made their reputation with the advertising mantra of ‘a cup [of fruit] to a cup [of sugar]’ — has substituted high-fructose corn syrup for sugar. Now, after the buyouts, none of these formerly-premium brands are worth the extra price.
And the (im)moral of the story is to pay attention to mergers in the corporate food market — know who actually manufactures the brands you buy — check the ingredients label, and – above all – be skeptical when you shop.  Be very  skeptical.
(1Kraft has a long and dishonorable history of manufacturing “food-like substances”  beginning with Velveeta™ "cheese food" (which is neither), and its market reputation — or, to be more precise, its good  reputation — is based solely on advertising.(2 ff.)  And the fact that Kraft has recently mounted a hostile takeover of Cadburys should trouble the sleep of chocolate-lovers around the world.
Much closer to the heart, vendors of sleazy American piss-water beers are greedily eyeing the micro-brew market, another practice that (sadly) goes back decades to Millers' purchase of a license to manufacture and sell Löwenbrau in the U.S. — with the predictable result that Löwenbrau manufactured in the States has nothing in common with the German version except the brand name.  (The Germans take their beer seriously, protecting their palates with the famous Reinheitsgebot  [Purity Law] which legally defines what goes into beer, so antisocial types who dump in sugar beets, rice husks, leftover potato skins, or anything else that happens to be cheap at the moment can be tossed in the jug — an idea the Doctor most  emphatically commends to American voters.)
 


 

Over the years, small cans of generic tuna fish have gone from 8 oz. to 6 oz. to 5 oz. (a weight reduction of almost half). As a recycling note, some years ago the cans were changed from regular steel cans to bi-metallic cans; and, whereas the steel cans are universally recyclable, few locales accept the bi-metallic ones.[]
 


 

Since packages of meat are sold by weight and the standard labelling shows the price-per-pound, you might think that the measures cannot be manipulated.  Unfortunately, you're wrong.  Inexpensive hams, once selling for 99¢/pound, still sell at (apparently) the same price; but, if you check the fine print, they now have "23% water added" (which leads to the question of where ham ends and soup begins).

In a related (but considerably less benign) marketing ploy, five-pound ‘chubs’ of hamburger are now 27% fat, which can, one supposes, be useful to those who make their own soap; but, you probably shouldn't eat  the stuff.
[There is, perhaps, a grim sort of nostalgia for the old-fashioned days when this sort of thing was more directly accomplished by butchers' resting their thumb on the scales.]
 


 

Plastic “waste-stream” cups of yogurt used to be a standard 8 ounces; however, current offerings allow you to choose between 4 ounces (twice the price) or the more generous 6 ounces (a modest one-third weight reduction).
[With thanks to R.M. in Garberville for a heads-up on this one.]

Another dairy scam involves commercial ice cream, where the package size has been reduced from 1/2 gallon (56 oz.) to 48 oz., although the packages are sold for the same price. The price increases in both repackaged yogurt and ice cream have occurred at a time when wholesale dairy prices have collapsed: in fact, the wholesale price of milk has fallen to such a low price that, nationwide, many smaller local dairies are going out of business.[]

Note: although the above applies to most of the nation, minimum prices for dairy products in California are set by law; and, the Obama Justice Department recently announced an antitrust investigation of Big Milk, so this is an issue to watch.

Other basic food commodities that have seen a sharp reduction in wholesale price are

(As of July 2009, the last three staple foods listed above – corn, rice, and wheat – were down 30% on the world market.)

Since the wholesale price of several basic commodities has dropped significantly (above), why are you paying a so much more for things in the supermarket? None of the recent retail price increases reflect a change in consumer demand: what they do  reflect is the increasing monopolistic power of a very small handful of large agribusiness corporations.[]  (Both prudent shoppers and concerned voters are advised to see the documentary film Food, Incorporated .)
 


 

As part of the waste-stream economy, many vendors have recently changed the packaging of volatile or (chemically) unstable fluids: by simply omitting air-tight seals (which significantly reduces manufacturing costs), the product has a much shorter "shelf life" — not only in the store but, after you buy it, on your  shelf as well.

Volatile fluids (things like rubbing alcohol) evaporate, and unstable fluids (things like liquid chlorine bleach) that are not tightly sealed tend to break down. In both cases, the product is slowly disappearing into thin air.

This is most often found in generic ('house brand') products; and, it has an elegantly simple solution: instead of throwing away one of your old plastic bags, you can use it to replace the missing seal. (Old ziplocks are particularly good for this.) First, wash the bag; then, cut out a piece that allows about an inch of plastic "hanging over" the open top of the container. Replace the cap and screw down firmly.  Done.

TIP: If you save some old glass jars with metal caps, you can use the same procedure for storing things like rice, beans, spices, sugar, etc.
 


 

Unless you are a great fan of reading the fine print, you should simply avoid buying homelife™ generic paper products (SoftChoice  toilet paper and Mighty  paper towels). Typical product scams include paper towels at competitive prices, but, as mentioned in the fine print, with only 48 sheets per roll instead of the (now standard) 120  80; and, toilet paper with 150 sheets per roll instead of the 170 – 185 provided by other (arguably more ethical) manufacturers.

March 2011 update:
This type of petty chiseling has now grown to an almost universal marketing technique deployed by most vendors of paper products; and, to further confuse consumers, different packages from the same manufacturer often have differing amounts of the product. For example, otherwise identical Brawny™ paper towels may be sold as 8 "regular" white rolls at one price or 6 "double-sized" rolls [not, of course, with twice as many towels per roll — that would make price/comparison shopping too easy] with colored borders at a different price.
They've also shaved a generous 1½" off the length of each individual towel; and the second ply (on the back  of the towel where potential customers can't see it through the packaging) is now thin and flimsy, much like toilet paper — all of which has led one wag to describe the new (un)improved product as “Tea-Party Towelettes.”
Similarly, rolls of toilet paper (the ultimate throw-away product) have been shrinking from a 'standard' 225 sheets per roll to 220, 185, 170, 165 and – now – 150 sheets; and, packages labelled as having the equivalent of twice the amount of a different package usually don't: 12-pack soi-disant  "double rolls" are touted as "equivalent to 24-roll packs,"  but these "double rolls" range from 396 to 300 sheets [except, curiously, for COSTCO, whose house brand actually has 450], and — in the case of homelife SoftChoice   and Charmin™ — each individual tissue in the roll is significantly smaller, too.
At this point, even if shoppers go into stores armed with a pocket calculator, it is almost impossible to tell which product is a "good deal" or even if one vendor is, in fact, offering an equivalent product at a better price. The practice has become so ubiquitous and annoying that the Doctor (who is both a notorious cheapskate careful shopper and easily annoyed) is preparing a price comparison table for paper products that will be posted at the next website update.
 


 

Some other non-food items that have been subject to similar stealth price increases are


 

Although your ability to influence macro-economic events is, realistically, limited, what you can  do is to shop wisely by refusing to simply "go along and get along" with rising prices. Instead, you should look for alternatives: raise your own chickens (legal even in many cities); make your own ice cream and yogurt (very easy; and, in the case of the ice cream, a lot of fun); look for different products and different vendors. In most cases, you will find that you can have far better quality food – and food that tastes better – for the same price. (Although not necessarily either healthy or cost-effective, you can see the Doctor's favorite recipes for some ideas.)

More . . .  hand_forwardspacer
 


 

In an effort to save money by buying larger quantities at a somewhat lower price, many people shop at Costco warehouse stores or (by mail) at Sam's Club. You have to spend at least $500 at Costco before you save enough to offset the basic membership fee; but, over time, the savings can be substantial — if  you pay attention to what you are buying.

For example, when the basic price of (romaine) lettuce went over $1.00 per head, you could still get packages of 6 "hearts of romaine" (no wasted outer leaves) for the equivalent of 41¢ each; and, when the price of onions went to $1.00/pound, you could get ten-pound bags at 29¢/pound (now up to ~39¢/pound in most locations).
You could also get cookies in 46-ounce (now) 42-ounce plastic boxes (recyclable PETE #1, to be fair) for $5.99 (now) $6.49. And, as long as your fancy desires only oatmeal-rasin cookies, you still can. If, however, your sweet tooth is demanding chocolate-chip cookies, your $5.99 (now) $6.49 will only get you 42 ounces (now) 36 ounces or – as the packages are (now) described –  24 [count] cookies. You're receiving substantially less  for your money, although the wholesale price of some constituent commodities has gone down.

Another example of Costco's "thumb on the scales" has recently blown up in their face. The following is taken from a class action settlement notice recently sent to Costco members.

“TO: all residents of Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Lousiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, The District of Columbia and Guam who purchased gasoline from Costco, between 1/1/01 and 4/22/09.

...In re Motor Fuel Temperature Sales Practices Litigation... . The complaint alleges that Costco (and others) misled consumers by marketing motor fuel at temperatures above 60 degrees Fahrenheit without adjusting for the fuel's temperature. ...If the settlement is approved, Costco will install automatic temperature correcting pumps... .”

For the benefit of those who don't quite understand the issue: gas is sold by volume (gallon); but, when the temperature goes up, the gas expands. Depending on the ambient temperature of the tank, this expansion can amount to greater than 10%; so, you may be paying for a gallon that is short by 10% or more.

Costco is certainly not alone in employing stealth price increases: supermarkets do it, too; but, you pay a yearly membership fee to shop at Costco.

There are other marketing techniques at your neighborhood Costco outlet . . .
  . . .that aren't in place to save you money:  quite the contrary.  There is, for example, the House-Brand Hustle (not, unfortunately, a dance fad).
Most major chain stores have house brands: Safeway has Town House; Fry's (Arizona) has Kroger; many of the smaller, independent stores in northern California/southern Oregon have Western Family; and, Costco has the Kirkland Signature store brand. These, in fact, are not brands at all: they are generic "type" products from various manufacturers and vendors, with different labels attached. About all they have in common is that they (almost always) provide a somewhat lower-priced alternative to major, national "name brands." (And, no wonder: they don't have to pay millions for nationwide advertising exposure.)
Except for Kirkland Signature; and, there it is a very  different story.

Olive Oil
Olive oil, both for reasons of taste and health, is one of the more popular cooking oils; and, 3-liter cans of Star brand olive oil were the least expensive. They still are — but not from Costco, where they have been replaced by Kirkland Signature olive oil (at a considerably higher price) with (in some locations) the always higher-priced cans of Bertolli as an "alternative."
A secondary marketing scam technique depends on consumer ignorance. Olive oil comes in two types: extra virgin and classico. The "extra virgin" comes from the first pressing: it is pale green, richly flavored, and significantly more expensive. Subsequent pressings produce the very pale, yellowish-green "classico" oil: this has very little flavor, and is commonly employed as a generic cooking oil. In Italian delis (e.g. Molinari's in S.F.) the classico oils are usually about 40% less than the extra virgin of the same brand. But at Costco, in common with many supermarkets, the "dumbing down" of the product results in both varieties being offered at the same price.
Spices 
19-ounce plastic (PETE #1) bottles of McCormack's black peppercorns were regularly on sale at $4.99. These have been replaced by Kirkland Signature 14-ounce bottles of Tellicherry pepper at $6.99, a bit over twice the price. (But, these are, after all, "Tellicherry peppercorns;" and, like pedigreed puppies, pedigreed peppercorns cost more.) In many locations, other commonly used bulk spices (e.g., garlic granules and cracked red pepper) have been discontinued in favor of more expensive Kirkland Signature alternatives and pre-mixed "rubs."
If, like the Doctor, you are tired of this sort of runaround, you can order high-quality spices in bulk from Penzeys Spices (1-800-741-7787). You don't have to make a long drive to Costco (and pay for the gas); you don't have to wait for Costco to open at 10:00 AM (a problem for those working 8–5 jobs, and for everyone in the heat of summer); and, once a year, you can re-stock everything you need from a catalogue which explains the differences and offers you choices: for example, you can get — in ascending order of price — Malabar, Tellicherry, or Sarawak black peppercorns; Muntok or Sarawak white peppercorns; green Indian peppercorns; or, various pepper blends.
Lasagna 
The old Michelangelo's frozen lasagna was both a treat and a bargain at $8.99 for a six-pound package: at that price, you could even afford to pay the energy costs for the (approximately) 2 hour cooking-time. But, since it was a very popular item, it was gobbled up by the profit-hungry Kirkland Signature house-branders and — along with reductions in the amount of ricotta cheese and a markedly inferior sauce — offered at the new, improved price of  $9.99  $10.99  $11.99. (At least when you make your own, you no longer have to worry about the sauce eating holes in the aluminum baking tin...)
Coffee Beans 
Costco's marketing of coffee beans seems to be a bit less openly manipulative than either olive oil or spices, apparently depending more on opportunity than calculation. For example, the San Francisco Bay Coffees are usually about 35¢/pound less expensive than the Kirkland Signature alternative (about a dollar less for the usual 3-pound bag); but, in most locations, the dark roast has a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't sort of availability, and the regular roast is not available at all in many stores.
The regional coffees from the Seattle Roasting Company follow a similar pattern: dark-roasted Sumatran beans (until the tsunami, when it was replaced by Kenyan) were less expensive than the Costco house brand; but, they were not available in all locations.
About all you can depend on is that less expensive coffee beans will usually not  be available around ‘the Holidays’ (Christmas); so, the Doctor recommends you stock up ahead of time.  (In fact, the Doctor has found that organizing your year's purchasing so you can skip "discretionary spending" from the end of October until well into February is not only financially prudent, but psychologically salubrious as well.)

And, when shopping at Costco, . . .
  . . .the only other thing you can depend on is that Kirkland Signature brand products will often be more expensive than their name-brand competition.

Time is Money: Navigating the Maze
Anyone who has shopped COSTCO for any length of time has noted (and been annoyed by) the store's “Peripatetic Merchandise Syndrome” which is, of course, a marketing technique: moving a popular item to a different location — often near item(s) that may not be selling as well — forces customers to wander around the store searching and, in the process, to go through sections of the store they might otherwise bypass and (presumably) be enticed into buying something they might not otherwise buy.
However, in addition to being cheap careful with his money, the Doctor also dislikes wasting his time, and so offers his own COSTCO Calculus™: you should already know the difference in price between the item you planned to buy and its regular (typical) price at another store and, likewise, the value of your time in dollars per hour; but, by adding the cost of your time, it may come as a bit of a surprise to find that spending ten minutes hunting for an item at COSTCO is not only wasting time but actually costing you money.

 

And  so it goes . . .

And  so your money goes with it — unless you change your purchasing habits.

Two simple, practical methods of controlling your expenditures are:
  1. Always use cash — not a credit or debit card.
    Studies have shown that you will usually spend less (because paying using a credit or debit card doesn't "feel like" spending money, which is why so many businesses encourage you to use plastic in the first place), and you will also avoid the fees many banks are now placing on debit card purchases.
     
  2. Always shop from a list — don't make "impulse" purchases.
    Marketing is a far more exact science than most people know,(1, 2)  but if you make a list of what you intend to buy — and stick to it — you will have more control over your money.
 

N. B.: Many civil service jobs, some entitlement programs (such as Social Security), and a few employment contracts (mostly union contracts) are indexed to inflation; so, each year people receive more money to cover the rise in the cost of living. For example, in the fiscal year 2004 your government determined that the rate of inflation was 2.7%.  [And by how much did your  income go up in 2004?]  But for ordinary folks, inflation represents depreciation in the value of money,

[This is not the traditional definition of " inflation," which is “annual growth in the value of goods and services expressed as a percentage of economic activity.”  However, in my opinion an unfortunate number of economic terms are used to "spin" statistics [1 ff.] (and you must admit that 'growth in value' certainly sounds more  robust than 'depreciation'), but this description is not without precedent: I stole borrowed it from the Big Banks, who used it to describe double-digit inflation during the Carter Administration.]
Unfortunately for consumers (even leaving aside completely bogus statistics like the “core rate of inflation ), the official inflation figures only measure price; and, as the above page demonstrates, you may be getting one-third or even less for the same price.

and the only hedge against it is informed, prudent shopping.
 


 

The following is a brief list of vendors who, in my opinion, deliver good quality for money spent.

As always, the Doctor strongly suggests you consider both the security and privacy of your personal information before doing business with online vendors.  Specifically,

  1. Whenever you place an order, clearly state that you do not  want your personal information ‘shared.’
    Unlike the rest of the civilized world, your personal information is not protected by Federal law: whoever collects it, owns it;  and, most vendors have a (default) policy of sharing information.

  2. Do not  accept shipments from or do business with UPS or its affiliated UPS Stores.
    UPS has been selling its delivery lists to junk-mail distributors for over thirty years; the telephone numbers they use "for tracking purposes" are sold to telemarketers; and, with most out-of-state shipments, the customer information is sold to advertisers in both  states.

  3. Wherever possible, shop  online but order  by phone or mail.
    Internet Explorer is notorious for its security vulnerabilities:()  most soi-disant  ‘secure connections’ aren't; and, even if you use a secure browser,  “…I have not yet seen any…e-commerce site that assures its users that once you send them your credit card details through encrypted sessions that they promise not to store them in an SQL database for anyone to lift in bulk — which blackhats do.”
    [Quoted from a GRC.com  newsgroup discussion]

And, to protect yourself from online fraudsters,

  1. Before you make a purchase, go to Google and type in the company name along with the word "complaint."
  2. [Tip from the New York Times]

 

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