If you sell tens of millions of your product, shaving just a penny or two off the cost of each one can make a huge difference on your bottom line. So while we’d like to think the free market is all about selling good quality at a good price, the difference between profit and bankruptcy can in fact lie in the seller’s ability to screw you an ounce or a nickel at a time. Their little tricks are everywhere, and they add up. Here are 5 ways you are getting screwed at the grocery store.
5. Tricking You Into Wasting Laundry Detergent
Before we get to the kitchen, let’s start in the laundry room. You’re about to put you’re a load of clothes in the washing machine, but as you measure out the laundry detergent, it spills over, drenching your hand, the machine and your granny’s finest silk teddy in gel-like soap. Hate it, right? With today’s low textile prices, why wash clothing at all?
After a few dozen mishaps like that, you’ll find yourself with nothing but a smidgen of detergent left, and since you have no plans for washing teeny-tiny baby socks, you throw the whole jug out. Congratulations, you just played right into the detergent manufacturers’ hands.
The Rip-off: Even though detergent companies provide a line for consumers to use as a guide as they measure out their soap, that line is practically invisible. It’s often on the interior of the cup itself, as if you’d be able to see it once you began pouring the liquid. And for another, the line is usually just a raised ridge that’s the same color as the cup, so your depth perception has to be eagle-sharp for you to spot it.
And because we can’t see that line, we tend to overpour our detergent, because who doesn’t want extra-clean clothes, right? And detergent makers know that. They also know that the smell and feel of freshly laundered towels is only slightly less addictive than fresh cooked pie.
Even if your favorite brand of detergent has a clearly marked measuring cup, there’s an excellent chance you’re still using way too much detergent. One appliance repairman even suggests that by using the recommended doses, you’re actually damaging your clothes and your washing machine with too much soap. He suggests that depending on the hardness of their water, most people could get away with using one-eighth to one-half of what the label says to use. Otherwise, you’re just gumming up the works and ruining your favorite shirt.
Now the big thing is 2X concentrated detergents, which cost twice as much as the old detergent but come with the claim that you need to use only half as much (it’s good for the environment). Hey, did you notice that the fill caps are the same size as before? There’s a new, lower fill line telling you to only fill the cup a third of the way or so. Consumers tend to instead use the amount they’ve been using their whole lives, thus doubling your waste, along with the manufacturer’s profit.
4. Charging More For Something It Cost the Same to Make
An easy way to boost profits off of schmucks like us is to charge more for products that don’t cost more (or maybe even cost less) to make. For example, even people who spend 95 percent of their time on the Internet need to get outside to buy a taco every now and then. And when they do, you’d better believe sunscreen is a must for their fragile skin. (After all, they read on the internet that the sun will give you cancer in 5 minutes.)
Let’s say you’re going on a big outdoor adventure, maybe urban Rollerblading or what have you, so you go shopping for some sun protection. The first thing you notice is that the SPF protection ranges from 5 to 70. Naturally, you want to buy the 70 so you can tell the sun to bug off today.
Chances are that 70 SPF sunscreen costs more than the other, but that’s OK, because it’s protecting you more, right? You take it to the register, hand over your money and slap that lotion on your skin, feeling superior knowing you just bested a star.
The Rip-off: Lotion is lotion and it all costs the same to make, no matter what level of protection it offers you. But sellers assume that once a consumer sees the bigger number on the SPF protection, he’ll be willing to shell out more. And they’re right. In this case, we’re talking about a few dollars that could add up big time in the long run. Because some consumers might not buy the better protection for their kids in the interest of saving a dollar, and those kids could be vulnerable to malignant melanoma later in life, which is why one British retailer announced it would no longer charge more for the higher-SPF lotions. BURN! (The British go through nearly four bottles of sunscreen every year.)
It’s the same thing with dairy products that have been whipped for fluffiness, such as yogurt and cream cheese. You think you’re paying more for a decadent, creamy treat, but you’re actually getting less of the product than you would if you just bought the regular version, on account of the fact that the extra creaminess is due to the addition of a whole bunch of decadent, creamy air.
Speaking of which …
3. Bags Half Full of Air –
As everyone knows, Americans are super in love with potato chips. We’re so in love with them, in fact, that in 2009 we spent $2 billion more on chips than the federal government’s entire budget for researching and developing new sources of energy. Which is probably OK, since any new sources of energy would have probably just been spent driving our fat selves back to the store for more chips.
The point is we can safely assume that just about everyone reading this article has opened a bag of chips and discovered that the greasy bag of salty goodness was just as full of air as it was with food. And if there’s anything we hate more than paying for water, it’s paying for air.
The Rip-off: In the food industry, the practice of halfway-filling containers with actual food is called “slack fill.” Chip-makers want a cushion of air around their products as protection – nothing sucks more than getting a bag full of minuscule chip bits, except maybe getting a bag full of empty, which is what it seems like.
The problem is that even though the FDA allows for some air space as food protection, sneaky manufacturers have been more than willing to abuse the system by halfway filling comically large bags with their products. So you think you’re getting a big ole’ bag of goodness when you’re really getting… a half-bag of chips.
In fact, the problem is so bad that several groups have appealed to the FDA to crack down on the chronic over-slack fillers — not just because consumers are getting cheated, but because all that extra packaging is killing a lot of trees to basically package nothing.
2. Deceptive Expiration Dates
– It’s breakfast time! You decide to go easy today. You pop a couple of slices of bread in the toaster, and fill a bowl with your favorite cartoon characters (some people call it cereal). Over to the fridge you go, and pull out a stick of butter for the toast, and, you grab some milk. And that’s when you notice that the milk is expired, according to the “use by” date on the jug. Even though the milk looks OK, smells OK, maybe even tastes OK, you throw it out. Because who wants curdled milk clods sloshing around in their stomach?
The Rip-off: Unless your senses tell you the milk has soured, it’s probably just fine. When we said, “expiration dates,” you probably thought we were going to warn you against grocery stores selling you expired food as fresh. But once we get it home, it’s the opposite problem — throwing away perfectly good food after we bought it, because an arbitrary date says it has “expired.” This is a big reason why Americans throw away more than 96 billion pounds of food at different points across the supply chain — part of which is perfectly fine. But which part?
Obviously, we’re not telling you to eat spoiled anything. But in many cases, the only thing that goes downhill after the date stamped on the package is taste and texture. So if it tastes fine, it is fine. Has your sour cream separated with that gross layer of liquid on top? Try stirring it thoroughly first.
What you should say when you see a “sell by” date is, “Says who?” Because unless you’re buying yourself baby food, the federal government has nothing to do with that expiration date. Neither does any other regulatory body, which is why it’s 100 percent legal for crafty grocers to re-label things as they please. And why the USDA actually advises us to use some actual common sense when it comes to throwing out perfectly good grub rather than going by anything we see stamped on the label.
What most people don’t know is that “use by” dates aren’t so much an indication of when the food is officially toxic, just when it’s starting to lose that not-so-fresh feeling. And stores know that if consumers knew exactly how long food lasted, they would simply stock up on it and not buy any more for months. Sell-by dates mean customers will fall into a pattern of buying goods, meaning the store is able to predict when customers will buy a certain product and adjust stock accordingly. The obvious message? “You are cattle to us.”
NOTE: This does NOT apply to medication — expired medicine should go in the trash. But expired Fruity Pebbles? It’s probably just fine.
1. Charging You for Added Water
– Let’s say you’re on a health kick and you decide it’s time to buy some fruits and vegetables. For the sake of this entry, let’s say you’re not a fan of fresh things and opt for the canned variety. Maybe you’re stocking up your bomb/zombie apocalypse shelter — who are we to judge? So you load your cart with canned peas, carrots and green beans, pay your cashier, head home and get started on the nastiest casserole of all time. Throw some sardines up in there. You know you want to.
What you probably didn’t realize was that the 14 ounces of green beans in that can weren’t actually 14 ounces (0.53 kg) of green beans, but probably nine ounces of beans and five ounces of water and that the FDA lets manufacturers lump those numbers together into one. Which is a plus — if you’re in the market for green bean-flavored water. Oh, and if you’re buying meat? Same thing. Only more disturbing.
Everything above has been dead for weeks.
The Rip-off: When food manufacturers put their food in a can, they often put a little something else in there to protect it. Sometimes it’s brine and sometimes it’s syrup, but most of the time it’s just plain old water. The tricky part is that when they label the can, they’re only required to include the net quantity, which is the combined weight of the food and the water, rather than the drained weight of the food alone. A certain percentage of the net quantity is supposed to be the actual food, but until cans start coming in “clear,” most consumers have no idea how much of their food is actually food until they get home.
But let’s say you’re wise to this canned trickery, and you go for fresh food instead. Good for you. But you’re still not home free in the “paying for secret water” department, especially if you eat something we like to call “meat.”
*Contains less than 20 percent beef. *
There is a practice in food production known as plumping, which basically means injecting meat with saltwater. Food manufacturers say the water adds flavor and juiciness to the animal flesh, which may be true. But remember that unlike canned foods, which are usually sold at fixed prices, meat is sold by its weight. And when 15 percent of the chicken you paid for is actually saltwater, you are most definitely getting ripped off. Replace the water with oil, fat and breading, and suddenly you’ve got a national treasure.