More Adventures as a Shopping Skeptic

September 8, 2009 by  
Filed under Spending

I had two interesting experiences this past week-end as a skeptical shopper. One surprised me. The other did not.

Self-Awareness at Super Walmart

The first experience began with my mission to get an oil change for our youngest son’s car. He was home from college for the long weekend but became ill and could not finish his planned errands. So the old man stepped in.

The instant oil change place was closed for the holiday. This caused me to drive to a local Super Walmart. These stores now feature a “Tire and Lube Express” area that tries to compete with the instant oil change businesses. They aren’t there yet (much slower) but it’s faster than doing it yourself.

I walked into the store to kill time while waiting. I probably would not have done that at a regular Walmart store. I find them to be a depressing shopping environment. A Super Walmart is somewhat better, with more stuff displayed and wider aisles.

The first department I walked through was automotive accessories. I like that stuff. As soon as I saw so much of it, I felt a little adrenaline hit. Something internal was pushing me into shopping mode. It’s the same feeling I get at Home Depot or Best Buy. It surprised me. It made me realize how some people can get physiologically attached to the shopping experience. I was glad I was not carrying a shopping basket or pushing a cart. As I wondered the store, something might have found its way into it.

Note to self (and others): If you go into a store to buy one thing (or nothing), don’t push a cart. It could save you from some frivolous spending.

Manipulation on the Popcorn Aisle

My second experience was at the grocery store. On my list was microwave popcorn, a mundane purchase for sure. The shelves were loaded with different brands, varieties, and packaging. This made me think of recent discoveries of how manufactures of ice cream and canned tuna were quietly shrinking weights or volumes in their product offerings. This popcorn display was a prime candidate for similar shenanigans.

Sure enough, upon close inspection, I found that the long-time standard 3.5 ounce bag of microwave popcorn had become a dinosaur. Most packages were now 3.1 oz, 3.0 oz, 2.9 oz, etc. Hardly a 3.5 oz. product to be found.

The store manager happened to be nearby, saw me studying the packages, and nicely asked if he could help me.

I said that he could – by telling these popcorn-makers to stop trying to sneak smaller packages in on unsuspecting consumers. He nodded in agreement, saying that manufacturing costs were increasing but the makers were reluctant to raise prices. So they shrink the size instead. He reminded me that the store provided per-ounce pricing, to help us.

I said thanks but no thanks. First, most consumers are going to assume that what is packaged inside the box is the same as its been for years. After all, the size of the outside package had not changed. Second, many microwaves are pre-programmed to pop 3.5 oz bags. With less popcorn in the bag, the popping outcome could be unpleasant.

I suggested to the manager that he could offer a public service to consumers. All he had to do was post a small sign on the popcorn display, advising consumers that popcorn makers were downsizing what they had been selling for years and that not all of the packages on the shelves were the same weight. At least give us a heads-up. We can take it from there.

I don’t think I will be seeing that sign. Instead, I will just increase my alert level as a skeptical shopper.

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6 Responses to “More Adventures as a Shopping Skeptic”
  1. interesting about the popcorn. Of course you see products shrinking everywhere, but rarely is there one like popcorn that millions of products are pre-programmed to cook.

    On the other hand, the further you move away from overly processed and overpackaged foods, the less this stuff will affect you. We’ve been making our popcorn from raw kernels and coconut oil in our Whirley Pop for a couple years now, and we’ll never go back.

  2. doctor S says:

    Popcorn is one thing I have not bought from the store in ages, although every time I go to my microwave, I do notice the 3.5 oz popcorn button. I have to agree with Mr Not the Jet Set, I have noticed over the last few years that less and less of the preproccessed packaged food item are being purchased in my household, the ones that are purchased I notice the shrinkage (cue George Costanza).

    I have noticed the size of items in vending machines DRASTICALLY decreasing and the prices of the items DRASTICALLY increasing. Especially, when it comes to chips. A tiny bag that used to be considered a trial size is now in the vending machine for $1.00 while at the local convenience store, a size 3 times bigger is going for $0.99.

    Its a sign of the times and we will continue move in this direction.

  3. Andrea says:

    I bought microwave popcorn for the first time in ages last week – I prefer the old fashioned popped taste, but my nephew was going off to college and I had some double coupons to pair up with loss leader sales so I figured I’d throw some in a care package.

    Maybe because I haven’t actually bought any in a while, the difference in size actually jumped out at me quite a bit. I also noticed more “snack size” options. So nice of the manufacturers to look out for our waistlines.

    I think the lesson here is that it’s really in your best interest to go back to basics as much as possible. The easiest stuff to scam you on in the grocery store is going to be packaged, processed stuff where the manufacturer controls the size and shape of the container. If you stick to the outside of the store, I think you’ll find it easier to keep tabs on your grocery dollar. You’ll notice when apple prices go up, but at least you won’t have to worry about the apple being empty under all that peel. Although, now that I think about it, I did also notice the other day that a clam shell of baby spinach at the usual price was MUCH shallower than it used to be in one of my local stores.

    Buyer beware. :)

  4. Andrea – You’re right, there is a constant effort by manufacturers to reduce the amount of product that your money buys. And they totally control the size and shape of the container. But for us, it was what was in the container that first turned us away.

    Note my choice of words – manufacturer, not producer. As our society becomes more and more detached from the food journey, the more and more latitude manufacturers have to meddle with the food product itself. It’s amazing the garbage they try to pass off as food. Chocolate that contains no cocoa. Eggs, milk and meat so pumped full of hormones and low quality feed to the animals that the product has little to no nutritional value. Bottled water no better than, or worse than tap water.

    So maybe it’s better that they give us less of it….. we are very skeptical shoppers.

  5. Andrea says:

    I did notice that, Jet, and I agree. I was actually planning on trying out the coconut oil tomorrow with some popcorn. Alas, my Whirly Pop died last week so I have to just use a pot and shake it, but I’m still going to try it.

  6. cjbr549 says:

    I think the Wal Mart TLE (That’s insider logo for the Tire & Lube Express) experience can vary widely from store to store. I worked at one for 2 years between my degrees, and the one I was at was top notch. Oil changes were as fast on our one lane as I believe any competitor could match (although most dedicated oil places have 2 or 3) and our tire business was the highest volume in the region. I have had varying experience with other TLE’s.

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