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 .
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.
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.
|(1) Kraft 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
Some other non-food items that have been subject to similar stealth price increases are
bars of bath soap, which have suffered package-weight reductions from 4.5 oz. to 4 oz. to 3.5 oz., and — from Ivory — to 3.1 oz.;
toothpaste, where the amount you get has diminished from 8 oz. to 6.4 oz. to 6 oz. although the boxes are still the same size;
(Carefully rendered in true color from a 6-ounce box of Aim® toothpaste: )
on sizes up to 4.6 oz.
socks specifically KMart/SuperK BASIC EDITIONS Athletic Socks (i.e., generic white rib-socks) which develop holes after the third or fourth wash;
|Although the 12-packs are relatively inexpensive, the fabric appears to be made of a sort of flimsy cheesecloth with embedded lint, so even those old enough to remember how to darn socks can't turn the trick. Since the ribbed portion appears to be the only part made of normal cloth, these should only go on the shopping list for athletes who walk on their shins.|
and (dry cell) batteries that now have a much shorter life which, in addition to costing you more, raises toxic-waste disposal issues.
|The numbers are hard to come by, but the fact that at least one battery manufacturer has changed the product is unmistakable. In addition to a significant price increase on the sizes most commonly employed (D, C, A, AA, and 9-volt), Duracell batteries have suffered a reduction in their useful life (amp-hours) by at least 30%.
That this is definitely caused by a change in battery construction is indicated by the behavior of 9-volt batteries employed in smoke detectors: in addition to the fact that there are (obviously) no changes in load/usage, the batteries showed a completely different "mode of failure." Whereas previously the batteries ran from 16 to 20 months followed by a slow drop in voltage (when the detector would begin to "chirp," first every few days then over a period of a few weeks with gradually increasing frequency), after about 14 months the detector began to chirp at intervals ranging from one to two hours; and, (for detectors only using batteries as backups) if the battery wasn't changed promptly it would short, ruputuring its casing with a loud BANG.(The Doctor would welcome an exact measurement: if you have concrete numerical data, please send it to Emerald Technologies and it will be incorporated in the next website update. Be sure to indicate how you want credit for your information to be displayed.)
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 . . .
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
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.
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.
“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... .”
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 . . .
And, when shopping at Costco, . . .
Time is Money: Navigating the Maze
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:
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 |
|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.†
Lehman's Hardware (1-877-438-5346): Located in Kidron, Ohio and serving the Amish/Mennonite community there, the Lehman's Non-Electric Catalog is essential for anyone living off-grid, and a boon for those who want practical, durable/old-fashioned hardware and household utensils. Examples include stainless-steel buckets, ice-cream freezers (various sizes, hand-cranked and with motors), yogurt incubators, popcorn pans [one of my essentials], kitchen utensils and cookware, water filters, major appliances (wood/gas stoves for heating or cooking; Servel propane/kerosene refrigerators; and, Sun Frost refrigerators that use 85% less electricity than any other brand); and — for those increasing grid outages — kerosene lamps that provide enough light for reading. If you're tired of throw-away garbage from Ace or just want to try making your own cider, this one's for you.
Penzeys Spices (1-800-741-7787): The Penzeys catalog features informative descriptions of a wide selection of whole and ground fresh spices, including regional varieties (pepper, cinnamon, ginger), blended/prepared spices (adobo seasoning, chili powders, and curries), house specialties (Pasta Sprinkle, Chili 3000), regional blends (Cajun, Thai, Bavarian, Polish, Turkish, and Russian style seasonings), and hard-to-find items (including a great selection of dried chili peppers). If you don't want to pay exorbitant supermarket prices for stale herbs or packages of overdried chilis-with-weevils, give these folks a try.
* Synergistic tip: you can buy a popcorn popper from Lehman's Hardware and use the Chili 3000 spice mixture from Penzeys Spices to top your home-made popcorn.
Cabela's (1-800-237-4444): Billing themselves as “The World's Foremost Outfitter,” Cabela's has an enormous selection of hunting, fishing, and camping accessories (over 160,000 items); and, for slugs like myself, a large assortment of practical, high-quality clothing, shoes and accessories (hats, belts, wallets, etc.) at affordable prices. They offer specialty catalogs (Marine, Fly Fishing, Automotive & ATV, Shooting, Saltwater, Camping) in addition to their massive Master Catalogs in Spring and Fall; and, online shoppers should check out the Bargain Cave for great savings on post-season/discontinued clothing lines. If you don't demand high fashion, can't afford high prices, or just hate the frenzied atmosphere of shopping malls, Cabela's may be your answer.
The Vermont Country Store (toll applies: 1-802-362-8440): Family owned and operated, their catalog tag line — “Purveyors of the practical and hard-to-find” — describes an idiomatic selection of 40's– and 50's–style merchandise. Boomers will find a number of items and brands they thought were gone forever; and, younger folks will discover why the boomers miss [some of] them. Examples include lever-action aluminum ice trays, inexpensive wind-up (analog) watches, drying racks and folding umbrella clothes lines, natural-bristle hairbrushes, old-fashioned candies (give the German brandy-filled chocolates a try), re-webbing kits for patio furniture, blackout drapes (a boon for nocturnal types and great window insulation), clothing, sleepwear, bed-and-bath accessories, and canned food specialties (the pickled green tomatoes are a personal favorite). I can do without the OTC patent medicines, but I like the general catalog mix of practical, day-to-day things with some off-the-beaten-path luxuries.
As always, the Doctor strongly suggests you consider both the security and privacy of your personal information before doing business with online vendors. Specifically,
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.
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.
And, to protect yourself from online fraudsters,