Have you ever had the feeling that you're being ripped off? You can feel it in your bones, gnawing at you, but unfortunately you just can't tell how, or where, it's happening.
There always seems to be something new, just around the corner, waiting to pull the wool over our eyes, and nowhere is this shameful chicanery more prevalent than in our local grocery stores.
From shrinkflation to deceptive marketing to alleged discounts, the consumer has been fed the short end of the stick for years now, and very few among us have even noticed.
One almost gets the sense that Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) manufacturers think we’re all idiots. Restaurants believe us to be morons. Brands see us as sheep, walking ATM’s to be manipulated into buying, buying, buying.
Not only is most of what we consume these days incredibly bad for us, but we usually don’t get what we pay for, in anyway.
Have you ever defrosted something and weighed it afterwards to find that you’ve suddenly lost half the weight? How about butchers injecting their meat with water? What looked like a beautiful 1kg T-Bone steak suddenly turns into a 500g on the grill, evoking a deep sense of shame, and now you’re the laughing stock of the braai.
That’s right, we judge small steaks around here, and so will your friends.
Don’t even get us started on your favourite pack of crisps. Thanks for the bag of air, am I right? We know you've noticed.
So, what’s going on here, and how are they tricking us?
We’re all aware of a certain level of injustice whenever we pay for something. Sometimes you’re paying for the convenience, sometimes for the brand name and sometimes for scarcity. It all depends on the product.
We reason that some of this is fair, that it makes sense, and then, in other instances, we know deep down that we’re being savagely wronged.
For instance, there can be no arguing about the convenience and necessity of bottled water – especially in drought-stricken areas. But what about the exorbitant price tag? And what about the bottled water companies that are willing to extort a drought situation by hiking their prices up?
What about paying a 400% mark-up on a bottle of wine in a restaurant? K-Way (soda fountain) soft drinks commonly cost a restaurant just around 20c per glass. You’re paying upwards of R20.00.
Ready-marinated meat, pre-chopped veg or pre-packed salads, these things we can (arguably) justify forking out a little more money for, since you’re paying for the convenience.
Really, who wants to peel and chop up their own butternut?
And then, of course, we get to products and services that, at first glace, seem a brazen cheat. Razor blades which last for three shaves. Electronic cables which stop working two weeks later. Funerals, tens of thousands of rands to dig a hole, say a prayer and drive a hearse. Ink cartridges which cost more to refill than the price of a new printer. Gym memberships which never let you cancel. Branded medication which does the exact same job as cheaper generics. College textbooks which become more expensive every year. Anything at a movie theatre. Croutons – which are nothing but blocks of toast with delusions of grandeur. Why do we put up with this?
Indolence. Guilt. Modesty. Recklessness.
While there are usually many good reasons for the existence of all of the above, and likewise many well-thought-out explanations, many people still can't help but feel deepy, personally burned.
To change the situation, we need to change our own buying behaviour first.
Every year, the South African Customer Satisfaction Index (SAcsi) reveals the latest annual ratings of our local supermarkets, based on surveys conducted by research company, Consulta, which measure the customer expectations, perceived quality and perceived value of top brands such as Woolworths, Shoprite, Checkers, Pick n Pay and Spar.
Research has shown that consumers, as a whole, are generally satisfied with the major retail shopping experience, but while satisfaction may be high, customer loyalty has declined across the board.
Due to our tough economy, it’s no surprise that our loyalty wavers the way it does. Customers now hunt for the best possible price. This proves a bit of a double-edged sword for supermarkets, though, because price-loyalty, in it's very nature, is fleeting, and retail supermarkets would be making a huge mistake if they were to stop their focus on creating a positive shopping experience.
Who recalls the Woolworths incident that occured a while ago, stirring social media up into a fine frenzy, in which a customer had weighed a 700g loaf of bread in-store and found that the product weighed far less than stated on the packaging?
Woolworths, often rated as the most consistantly satisfying brand among South African shoppers, came under close scrutiny for their illogical response at the time, comically claiming that the scale used for weighing the loaf of bread was meant to weigh vegetables.
Because, which weighs more, 700g of bread or 700g of potatoes?
So, even those at the top will make a few mistakes.
Pretty much everything Woolworths stocks is a brand item, though, so should complaints arise, they would have nobody to blame but themselves. With the exception of house brands, such as Pick N Pay’s No Name, supermarket retailers have little control over what other manufacturers decide to do with the products.
Is it the supermarket’s responsibility if Coca Cola decides to sneakily drop the 500ml volume bottled drink to 440ml, and still keep the price the same?
Are supermarkets profiting from this, or the manufacturer?
Food manufacturers have a number of tricks up their sleeves to make their products seem more appealing to the consumer.
In many instances, things just aren’t exactly as they seem, and what you’re buying isn’t technically what's been advertised. For instance, manfucturers love to plaster their packaging with specific key words, designed to trigger an emotional response.
You already know what these are. Organic. Naturally-sweetened. Gluten-free. Cruelty-free. Free-range. You can fill in the rest, because the list is endless, and in many unfortunate and terrifying cases, turn out to be a complete or partial fabrication.
Perhaps the biggest con of all, a perilous pitfall none among us have been able to avoid, and fewer still have even noticed, is the (sometimes called borderline-fraudulent) act of shrinkflation.
So, what is shrinkflation, exactly, and why are people so angry about it?
Simply put, shrinkflation is when, instead of hiking the price of an existing product, manufacturers re-package that product in a slightly smaller pack without alerting the public.
And then they hope and pray that we won’t notice.
How do they get away with this? Well, they’re not exactly lying about the product, in that most of them make sure to state the new volume on the packaging. But, this is where we find clever trickery.
See, manufacturers know that the average consumer doesn’t look at package volume. We look at the price tag. We notice that the price hasn’t gone up, and so we don’t kick up any fuss. This is exactly what happened with the aforementioned Coca Cola situation a while back. Except, in this instance, Coca Cola fumbled their new packaging and consumers immediately noticed a difference. The company then made some comment about trying to save us from ourselves by limiting our sugar intake.
Somehow, trying to disingenuously tell us what to do with our bodies stings even more than trying to rob us.
Shrinkflation is nothing new. They’ve been doing it with our peanut butter for years by adding dimples into the bottom of jars. Kellogg’s has been making our cereal boxes thinner, but keeping the width and height the same so that we wouldn’t notice.
We trust our eyes, and then our eyes betray us.
Chocolate bars, such as the very noticeable Toblerone, have also been shrunk. So has baby formula, soap, toilet paper and ice cream.
According to the UK’s Telegraph, over 2500 products have seen shrinkflation occur in the last 5 years. There’s no conspiracy here, and it’s not illegal at all, but it is considered bad practice. See, if companies put their prices up, we would have the choice whether or not to buy the products. Now, they’re doing it with the hopes that we just won’t notice.
But, we do. We see you, you deceptively delicious Toblerone you.
We see you.
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