As this is Mother’s Day I would like to pay a small tribute to my grandmother for a valuable lesson I learned from her.
Grandma was the textbook definition of the “comparative shopper”. If she needed to purchase an item, such as baking soda, she would examine the small and large versions and determine which would cost her less per ounce. Normally, the larger quantity was less expensive on this basis.
She always took advantage of “twofers” – a common pricing strategy at grocery stores – where one can cost $.15 but you could buy two for $.29. It may seem trivial to us today, saving that penny, but five of those purchases was enough to buy a Hershey bar which today costs nearly a dollar – and the candy bar was significantly bigger than the ones that are now for sale.
Of course, grandma had to do the math in her head as this was an era before we all walked around with cell phones that had calculator features. It was also before the grocery stores were required to have little tags on the shelves which did the math for us. I may be mistaken but I think that came about as the Federal Government made the announcement in the mid-1970’s that the U. S. was going to go “metric” – something that has never really happened.
Frankly, while metric is a much more logical system, I shuddered when I first heard the announcement. I had spent way too much time in grammar school learning how to convert pints into quarts into gallons; inches into yards and ounces into pounds. Well, the full conversion to metric never happened and the only vestiges are that products are still sold using the old avoirdupois system with the metric equivalent showing up next to it in parenthesis.
Having been raised in this tradition of trying to stretch my shopping dollar as far as it could go I followed grandma’s example and added to it by clipping coupons – something which really didn’t exist when she went out for groceries. But, of course, I also still compare prices between different quantities of the same item. I don’t rely on the little tags which the stores have on the shelves as I seldom bring my reading glasses which are necessary if I want to be able to see the calculated price. But since math has never been a challenge for me, it’s a very simple process.
Generally speaking, larger quantities of the same item cost less per unit than smaller packages. That is something that I have come to expect over many years of grocery shopping. Occasionally a smaller quantity will be on sale while the larger version will not and it is actually less expensive to buy the product in the smaller version. But as a rule and without having to resort to doing math, I have found that it is usually less expensive on a per unit basis to buy a larger quantity of an item than a small one. Until now.
One of the items that I purchase regularly at my local Smith’s store, the name under which the Kroger Corporation does business in Nevada is chicken jerky. Gracie loves the stuff and it is part of her breakfast most mornings. I have tried a variety of different brands. Most of them have ends that are highly pointed and I am always concerned that in her enthusiasm in eating them she might gulp the treat down without fully chewing it causing herself a problem. By contrast, the version at Smith’s has flat ends – so I began buying them.
The product comes in two different sizes. I began reaching for the larger package when I did my little price check just to make sure I was getting the best value. In fact, I wasn’t. The larger version actually cost more per ounce than the smaller one. I double-checked my math by putting my face within an inch or so of the two little price tags on the shelf. My math was impeccable.
I thought that this was strange and brought it to the attention of the very pleasant lady in Customer Service. Perhaps the store had mispriced this item. If so, I wanted to bring it to their attention as this was something that I anticipated buying on an ongoing basis. The lady in customer service thanked me and said that she would bring this to the attention of the store manager. So I left feeling that I had done something positive for all the other shoppers who would purchase this chicken jerky for their companion animals.
Well, a month went by and then another and the prices on the chicken jerky never changed. As it happened, I needed to purchase some oatmeal as I had begun baking doggie treats at home for Gracie and this was a key ingredient. So I went to the cereal aisle and took a look at plain old-fashioned Quaker Oats. I was a little surprised to discover that purchasing this product in the larger version cost more per ounce than buying it in a smaller quantity – just like the chicken jerky. So that started me thinking – is this a strategy rather than an error? Well, I didn’t have time that trip to fully investigate but determined that I would do so. And I did.
After spending about an hour in the store on an investigative trip I discovered more than twenty items, detergent, fabric softener, cereals, plastic wrap, and pet supplies among others, all of which were more expensive on a per unit basis in larger quantities. Now I will admit that defining this as a strategy based on a handful of items in a store that stocks thousands of different products is hardly conclusive. But I do think this is more than a coincidence.
The grocery business is a low margin business and I understand why a firm like Kroger or its competitors try to squeeze every penny they can back into those margins. It’s the same theory that grandma had in trying to squeeze out every penny of her shopping dollar that she could – but in reverse.
If I am correct in my theory, there is certainly nothing wrong, immoral, or illegal in Kroger’s pricing strategy. And I am not calling for a Congressional investigation into the matter. The firm very correctly tags the unit prices of its products and the consumer who takes the time to analyze those can make an intelligent, money-saving purchasing decision.
So the moral of this story is let the buyer beware. I will continue to do my math computations when grocery shopping. And if my brain is feeling a little tired when I go on my next outing, I’ll just have to remember to bring my reading glasses.