Become a savvy shopper by getting to know your product information: Internet Scambusters #537
Sometimes, what we think of as product information is really disinformation.
Intentionally or not, retailers, manufacturers, distributors and food suppliers mislead us about their products or, at the very least, try to conceal aspects we might not be happy about.
In this week's issue, we explain some of the tricks they use and give you a heads-up on how to spot and avoid them.
Let's check out today's...
How Packaging and Product Information Trick Consumers
Although deception is at the core of any fraud, sometimes it's also used inside the law to mislead people and disguise what's really happening, especially when it comes to packaging and product information.
We encounter it every day when we open a carton or package to find out it's only half full, or we get that uneasy feeling that the candy bar or ice cream tub isn't quite as big as it used to be.
Most often we are right in our instincts that the volume is down but the price isn't.
If you take the time, you can often discover what food and other product manufacturers are up to because:
A) They have to declare the size or weight of the product on the packaging, and
B) They often try cunning marketing tricks with labeling phrases like: "Great new look -- same great product." Often that means "...but not the same great amount."
We understand the psychology of what they're trying to do: Avoid raising the price.
If they want to make more profit or cope with higher raw material or labor costs, the only way to do that is to reduce the quantity.
Other times, vague or inaccurate labeling conceals the true content or source of a product -- a typical example being the rather loose definition of what "Made in the USA" or terms like "natural" and "pure" really mean.
Then, of course, there are the true frauds surrounding olive oil, wine and organic food, which we addressed in a couple of earlier issues.
Monitoring Consumer Reports magazine during the past few months has highlighted a whole host of tricks and concealments including:
* A coffee company said it was using less plastic by downsizing its packaging, but it also cut the amount of coffee while maintaining the price. In fact, it was actually using more plastic per ounce of coffee.
* A 2-½ inch cookie inside a 4-½ inch wrapper.
* Claims by a shave gel producer that consumers actually preferred getting less gel in the same size can for the same price because it encouraged them to use less.
* Empty compartments in "blister packs" of over-the-counter medications. One company said they did this in case they wanted to use them for special promotions.
* A cereal package that proclaimed the product now tasted better, while the ingredients label showed it contained more calories and sugar than its predecessor.
A research project by Consumers Report also showed that, on average, the actual food product in canned goods represented only 57% of the total "net weight." The rest was water.
As the magazine pointed out, "net weight" refers to the weight of the contents of a can or other package, which means producers are allowed to include the weight of the water.
This is just the tip of an iceberg of packaging and product information that, intentionally or not, fools us into thinking what we're buying is better or different than it really is. So...
* Overseas manufacturers put an American flag on their labels to make them look home-produced.
* Packaging manufacturers put a dome on the bottom of a container so it looks bigger and fuller.
* "Calories per serving" are made to look miniscule by reducing the supposed serving size to something that wouldn't feed a hamster.
* "Lifetime guarantee" statements blaring out on a label are qualified by so much small print that they're worthless.
* Food producers put images on containers that bear no resemblance to the contents.
Sometimes they get around this by putting (in small print) "serving suggestion" on the package.
Other times they use images that suggest the flavor rather than the contents -- like wholesome fruits, or the yogurt-style snack that shows a mouth-watering slice of Black Forest gateau on it.
* Marketing slogans claim products are now "50-percent stronger," "twice as effective," or whatever, without saying how they measure it or what they're comparing it against.
And so on.
The fact is that although consumer laws and food quality are overseen by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) respectively, many rules and regulations are open to interpretation and manipulation.
So when producers, marketers and distributors see the opportunity to exaggerate their product without breaking the law, they often will.
The consumer, as usual, is the loser.
So, what can you do about it?
Well, you can't totally avoid being hoodwinked but you can make yourself a savvier shopper by following these 7 tips:
1. Start reading the labels and ingredient details on everything you buy, so you'll be more likely to notice when the quantity or contents change.
Do it while you're in line at the checkout.
Include in this checking any store shelf labeling which shows "cost per unit" for packages that contain multiple items.
If the cost per unit goes up significantly but the package price doesn't, then that means the manufacturer has reduced the count.
2. Check the label small print for qualifications and restrictions. Particularly look for asterisks against the "headline" features of a product -- they're usually a clear signal of a get-out clause.
3. When you pick up a carton or container, check the shape of the package for clues that it's a lot smaller on the inside than the outside.
4. If it's appropriate, give it a shake too, and see how much the contents shift about inside.
5. If you have the choice, consider vacuum packed items over their canned equivalent. They're less likely to contain water, or at least a high volume of it.
6. Research products online, especially big-ticket items. Very often, manufacturers change the specifications -- for instance substituting plastic for tougher metal components.
They're unlikely to tell you but other shoppers using social networks may already have posted information on this.
If you use Twitter for instance, do a search on a product name and see what people are "tweeting" about it.
7. If you think the labeling or packaging unfairly represents the contents, complain, either to the store or the manufacturer.
If you're really unhappy, ask for your money back.
But, of course, in most cases, they're not breaking the law; it's the law that's inadequate.
Is this kind of behavior a scam or an acceptable marketing device? You decide.
But keep your eyes peeled for misleading product information -- especially when the package yells "Great new look!"
That's all for today -- we'll see you next week.