Penetrating the Packaging Fine Print

August 10, 2009 by  
Filed under Spending

This past week our gas-powered string trimmer gave its final surrender to six years of hard use. I had vowed to replace my veteran lawn mower with a lawn service when it died, but the mower is still going strong at age 13. A new string trimmer can be had for $75 (the cost of 1.5 lawn service fees) so I decided to enlist a replacement.

Who knew that a shopping trip for a lawn care accessory would reinforce the importance of really studying what you are buying, including the packaging fine print?

My first step was to search our local Lowe’s and Home Depot stores online. I found a trimmer at Home Depot which was the same brand and appeared to have features and a price point similar to what had given me solid service. Off to Home Depot I went to make the purchase. I found the model on display and at least six of them boxed up on the shelf. However, I noticed that some of them were in different packages. The model numbers and SKU tags were identical and the general descriptions on the packages were the same. But something bothered me – why would Home Depot have the same model with different packaging on display?

My concern was that the packaging had been updated to correspond to a recent “updating” of the product itself, by adding a feature or subtracting a feature. I obviously wanted the version – if there was one – that had the best features.

I called over a nearby sales person, pointed out the different packaging, and asked him if there was something different about the products inside. He quickly looked at the boxes and SKU tags then assured me that the products were identical. He clearly did not share my level of curiosity about the issue. Before shrugging my shoulders and walking off with a randomly selected box, I decided to take one last look at the packaging fine print.

Then I found the big clue.

The weight of the product in one box was listed at 8.2 pounds. In the slightly different box, the weight was listed as 7.9 pounds. This trimmer was advertised by Home Depot as being the lightest gas-powered trimmer on the market. Thus, I knew that the product weight was an important product specification. The engineer in me was telling me that there had to be something different about the products inside to account for the differences in weight.

I was about to ask the sales person if I could remove the trimmers from the boxes to look at them, when I noticed something else on the package. Each box had an image of a trimmer. Near the trim head were very faint images of the string-ends that do the cutting. What was that, I thought? Did the image on one box show two strings while the image on the other had only one? It was hard to tell.

If you have ever used a string trimmer, you would know that having single vs. dual cutting strings is an important feature.

Back to the fine print. I found some text that referred to the cutting head. There were some cute marketing phrases used but in the smaller print, one box used the word “dual.” The other did not. Guess which box that was? The box that stated a lower weight.

Now I knew. The manufacturer had apparently either lowered its cost on this model by downscaling to a single-string cutting head or had decided to improve its marketability by adding a dual-string cutting head. I didn’t know which because the boxes were not dated. All I knew is that the manufacturer and Home Depot were trying to sell them as the same product, which from a performance and feature aspect, they clearly were not. I looked for the sales person to give him a little free education about his product but he was nowhere to be found.

What I experienced at Home Depot is analogous to what goes on at grocery stores constantly. The packages look the same but the weight of the food inside is slightly reduced in a way that the sellers hope the buyers won’t notice. Ice cream, cereal, canned tuna, you name it – it’s an epidemic of food sellers seeing what they can get away with.

Now I am wondering how often this happens in other selling environments, like the big box retailers. Do we need to scrutinize the packaging on everything we purchase, assuming that somebody is trying to slip something by us?

Have any of you had an experience like mine?

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3 Responses to “Penetrating the Packaging Fine Print”
  1. Snowy Heron says:

    That was a good catch. Personally, I would have just assumed that the manufacturer had simply changed the packaging for marketing reasons. Your observation will make me think twice about that in the future. One thing that has really bothered me is the way the ice cream containers have been downsized, but not the prices. That was really sneaky! However, the last time I was at Target I noticed that they still sold the half gallon containers.

  2. Rick Beagle says:

    Absolutely. I worked at Sears in the tool department while going to school. Not only do your claims have merit, this type of thing is not “new”. Another trick of the trade is to take another company’s product, modify it slightly and sell it under your own brand name for a higher price.

    I did want to ask though, did you happen to look at the rechargeable trimmers? I am on my second one in a decade and pfft, best purchase I ever made next to my rechargeable lawn mower. And before everyone starts bashing me for trying to push eco-friendly products, I purchased it for a very different reason – like many men my age, my hearing isn’t what it used to be. Due to a bout with childhood mumps, I am already deaf in my left ear (not completely, but close enough). Rechargeables are easy to start (easy is an understatement), relatively quiet, and for the electric fans out there, no cords to run over.

    Rick Beagle

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