The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Posts tagged ‘retail’


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.



 Out of the many tasks grandma undertook on behalf of our family, I know she loved cooking the most. But another job that she enjoyed was buying clothes for me. She was in charge of making selections for my wardrobe – and updating my school uniform as I outgrew those clothes was no exception.

 The concept of a school uniform might seem strange or antiquated to you. When I see children going to the school just outside my little homeowners’ community, it’s apparent that there are no standards for attire. Sadly, this leads to unfortunate rivalry among children – who has the most expensive pair of athletic shoes – that sort of thing.

 By contrast, children who are in their school’s uniform have none of that competitive consumerism. We all dressed and looked the same. The uniform engendered a sense of camaraderie – we all belonged to the same family. Instead of focusing on what we were wearing we could focus on what we were learning.

 The components for my school uniform could only be obtained at one store – Rogers Peet. They and they alone had the required charcoal grey slacks that I would wear during the next school year.

 Rogers Peet was an upscale clothier. They catered to an upper income clientele (we were not part of that group) – and to a number of New York’s private schools in providing the uniforms those school’s required their pupils to wear.

 As there was already a little nip in the air and it was gusty that day, grandma put on her usual black cloth coat, having arranged her white hair with two bobby pins and her hair net. She grabbed her purse and we were off on the bus to get me attired.

 As we walked in the store, it was painfully obvious to me that the sales staff looked at grandma and thought she must be “the help” for one of their wealthy clients. Although she asked several of the sales people for assistance, each of them was “busy.”

 So unassisted we made our way to the pants department to begin looking at their selection. Grandma pulled out a pair of pants and held them to my waist to see how close a fit they would be. After a few tries we found the right size and waited patiently for one of the store’s sales people to assist us with our purchase.

 Three more of the store’s employees came by but they too were “busy.” I couldn’t understand what all the sales people could be doing with so few customers in the store. But we waited patiently for someone to finish with their present customer so they could assist us. We waited over twenty minutes but no one came by.

 Finally, grandma began removing stacks of pants from their rows on the shelves, piling them neatly on the floor. She was working on her fourth stack when a man came rushing towards us.

 “Madam,” he said. “What are you doing?”

 Grandma asked him who he was. He said he was the store manager.

 She said, “We have been in your store for half an hour and none of your sales people would help us. But now that you’re here, you’ll do. I would like to purchase this pair of pants.”

 By the look on his face, you might have thought that grandma had landed a strong left hook to this man’s midsection. But he wrote up our purchase and we left the store with my new pants which grandma would spend the afternoon altering at home.

 I remember being embarrassed about this incident while we were in the store – embarrassed for my grandmother who was obviously snubbed by the store’s sales staff. And embarrassed for the sales people who made the assumption that this little lady who looked like “the help” couldn’t possibly afford to buy anything at their exclusive store.

 Grandma was always considerate, kind and caring. But when she had to be – she could be one tough lady.


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