I recently saw pictures of a house that had been vacant for almost forty years, left exactly as it stood when its owners died, right down to dirty dishes in the sink and laundry in the washer. The place was a mess and wildlife had taken its toll on the old structure, but what caught my eye was the pantry. Some of the products there were easily recognizable because they look exactly like the ones in my pantry right now.
Let’s try an experiment from that picture. Name a brand of baking soda. … Did you say Arm & Hammer and picture a yellow box? Does anyone else even MAKE baking soda? How about salt? Baking powder? Vegetable shortening? Morton, Clabber Girl, and Crisco, right?
We know these brands because those companies have been around for over 150 years, and their products have always looked basically the same. The canister is plastic instead of tin now, but the Maxwell House coffee your newlywed grandmother made each morning looks remarkably similar to the Maxwell House coffee your newlywed daughter will make, too.
Notice I said ‘similar,’ not ‘the same.’ When I was in college and spending my own money for the first time, a particular brand of feminine products switched their package count from 40 to 32. This wouldn’t be a big deal except they charged the same price for the box of 32 as they did for the box of 40. From the front, the box was identical in size, shape, and decoration, but they had removed an entire row of product from the back, hoping we wouldn’t notice.
As I stood in the grocery store yesterday looking at the dozens of brands of cereal, I wondered why two identical boxes of Cheerios had different prices. When I picked them both up to compare the fine print, I realized one box was a full half-inch thicker than the other. One box was 8.9 ounces and costs $2.58; the other was 14 ounces and cost $3.16. If I’m a bargain shopper in a hurry (and who isn’t?), I’m probably going to grab the cheaper box, not realizing it’s smaller than the one next to it. What’s the harm in that?
Club stores like Costo and Sam’s Club are able to provide great prices because all their products come in large quantities. A company that puts 60 ounces of shampoo in one bottle instead of three is going to save money by not using the other two bottles. They pass that savings to the consumer. Everyone knows that if you buy in larger quantities, you pay less per unit. The smaller Cheerios box cost $.29 per ounce, and the larger one cost $.23 per ounce. I would have gotten the better deal with the bigger box, but I may have taken the smaller one, based on price alone.
Brand names aren’t the only ones who play tricks like this on us. Great Value, Wal-Mart’s house brand, packages sugar in both 4- and 5-pound bags. These two bags do not look like each other and at first glance, you might think they are different brands. The smaller one costs 3 cents more per pound than the larger bag, but the larger one resembles a brand name, which you expect to be more expensive. You choose the smaller, cheaper-brand bag and move on.
Great Value water bottles are available in twenty-eight 20-ounce bottles, which costs .6 cents per ounce of water, or twenty-four 16.9-ounce bottles, which cost .7 cents per ounce. The 20-oz bottles are the better deal. But if the per-bottle price is more important to you than the total amount of water, choose the 16.9-ounce size. Those are $.10 each; the 20-ounce versions are $.12 each.
This is only a theory, but I’m convinced that the price difference between some products is the package itself. The bag of store brand shredded cheese almost never opens so you can still use the zipper; a national brand might. The pattern holds with any box that is supposed to close by poking that little flap into a slit. And if you think the “pull here” triangle on store brand canned biscuits is actually going to unwrap the biscuits the first time you pull it, you’re wrong.
Iconic products like Hershey bars and Coca Cola rarely change the look of their packaging because they are icons. You may not realize baby food jars are 4 oz. while the disposable container varieties are only 2.5 oz. and cost more, but Gerber could take their name off the label, and you would still recognize the brand by the image of the Gerber Baby.
We all want to get out of the supermarket as quickly as possible, but if we don’t take a minute to do the math, marketers can pull one over on us. Watch the prices, watch the packaging, and don’t assume the package is the same just because the picture on it is.