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Martin Sloane's Classic Columns

  

Is Your Grocer "Taring" Money Out of Your Hand?

When Water is Injected Into Meat You Pay for the Weight

Low Carbs - High Prices!  Are They Worth the Money?

Fill Your Gas Tank With Grocery Savings!

Product Downsizing.  What You Can Do About it!

Club Cards; A False Sense of Savings?

Product Downsizing

Lessons children can learn at the supermarket

Ten things that changed the way consumers shop for groceries. 

 Healthy Choice Earns Millions of Miles  hold

The Infamous Texas Toothpaste Tasters

A Cashier Tell it Like it Is, for Her!

Is Your Grocer "Taring" Money Out of Your Hand?

By Martin Sloane

In the past, the butcher’s thumb on the scale meant you were being overcharged. Today, supermarket shoppers never see the scale when fresh meat and poultry is packaged.  When you pick up a tray of fresh meat is an invisible thumb stealing a quarter from your purse?  Here is this important story:

Your food purchases, sold by weight, such as fresh meat, should not include the weight of the packaging. This is both state and federal law.  The packaging for fresh meat for example, includes the tray, the soaker under the meat, the plastic wrap and the label.  Taken together, it is called the “tare weight”. A lawsuit recently filed in Seattle, Washington, raises the possibility of consumer fraud taring many millions of dollars out of shoppers’ pocketbooks.

The class action lawsuit accuses the Fred Meyer Stores supermarket chain of including at least some of the weight of the packaging when it calculates prices for fresh food.  Fred Meyer Stores, owned by Kroger, operates approximately 130 supercenters, primarily in the Northwest.  The lawsuit, brought by two consumers and a butcher employed by the chain, alleges that Fred Meyer did this over a number of years, disregarding warnings from governmental agencies and from employees.  The plaintiffs claim Fred Meyer has overcharged consumers more than $1 million each year.  Fred Meyer Stores issued this statement:

            “We are committed to 100% price accuracy for our customers.  Fred Meyer has strict guidelines and policies in place for ensuring that the price per pound charged to customers is accurate, fair and consistent.  We expect every associate to adhere to those procedures.  We take these allegations very seriously and are conducting a thorough review of this matter.” 

The plaintiff’s charges are supported by John Moore, who served for many years as an inspector, trainer and supervisor with the Arizona Department of Weights and Measures.  Moore conducted a statistically-random sample of Fred Meyer in-store packaged beef, poultry, pork, lamb and seafood.  He randomly selected at least eight packages from each of 30 Fred Meyer stores.  In total, 257 packages were purchased from June 11 to August 3, 2004. 

Moore states:  “I determined that eight of the 257 packages met the net contents declaration on the label. There were 249 packages that did not meet the contents declaration.  In other words, on 96.9% of the packages which I examined, Fred Meyer charged for more than the actual net contents of the package.  The overcharge in weight ranged from .01 pounds at the low end to .33 pounds at the high end.”

Bradford Crain, the director of the Statistics Consulting Laboratory at Portland State University, was employed by the plaintiffs to analyze the results obtained by John Moore. Crain says, “on average, between 14 and 17 cents of the price which Fred Meyer charged for the item was charged for packaging material.” For large packages such as family packs, the overcharge could be much greater.   

            Most supermarket chains, weigh packaging materials at the chain’s headquarters, and assign a tare weight code number for each product. The information is entered into a central computer system. These weights are then sent to each meat department’s computerized “wrap and weigh” scale.  When a certain type of meat is being cut, packaged and weighed, the employee will enter the appropriate code number in the scale and the scale will then deduct the tare weight from each similar item weighed. 

The experts tell me that accurately deducting tare weights requires a continuous conscientious effort of self-inspection by supermarket management. Supermarkets say they are conscientious.  Bob Kean, a spokesperson for Stop & Shop chain in the Northeast says, “we take every step necessary to insure the correct weight (tare) is deducted on every package.”   Tina Massingill, a spokesperson for Safeway said: “Tare weight is checked on an ongoing basis to assure consumers they are getting accurate weights.”

Who is checking the supermarkets?  In the past, this was done by state or local weights and measures inspectors.  But, according to Clark Cooney, Field Operations Manager of the Oregon Department of Agriculture Measurement Standards Division, there has been no packaged product tare weight inspection program since 2002 because of department budget cuts. He says inspections have been similarly eliminated in many other states; and supermarkets know it.   

Is there the potential for fraud?  Clark Cooney told me that meat department managers can manipulate tare weight deductions.  Why would they do this?  “The manager is responsible for the financial performance of the department,” explained Cooney.  “Manipulating tare weight is a way to compensate if things are not going well.”  There would certainly seem to be potential for manipulation of the tare weights at headquarters where the coded tare weights originate.

 What can Smart Shoppers do to insure they are not paying for the packaging?  John Moore says it is easy to find out if you are being overcharged:  “Take a tray of meat and ask the butcher to weigh it in front of you where you can read the scale. The weight shown on the scale should be more than the net weight printed on the label.  This shows there has been a deduction for the weight of the packaging.”  I tried this with several packages and in each instance, found the weight shown by the scale was more than the net weight of the meat shown on the label.  For example, the net weight on the label of pork loin back ribs was 2.05 pounds.  The weight on the scale showed 2.08 pounds, indicating a tare deduction of .03 of a pound, which is almost one half ounce.  For reference, .0625 of a pound is equal to one ounce.  The price of the ribs was $5.69 a pound. If the tare had not been deducted, I would have been overcharged 17 cents.

            I urge my readers to test their supermarkets.  If you find the net weight shown on the label is the same as the weight of the entire package, you should report this to your county or state bureau of weights and measures.  They will usually conduct an inspection based on a consumer complaint.  And, be sure to let me know. Write to me, Martin Sloane, The Supermarket Shopper in care of this newspaper.

copyright: United Media Enterprises, New York, NY

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When Water is Injected Into Meat You Pay for the Weight

By Martin Sloane

           A shopper selects a  pork roast from the meat case, not recognizing there is something different about it.  Before putting it in the oven, she rubs it with her usual salt and spices.  After it is cooked, it tastes salty and the shopper wonders why.  What did she do wrong?  The problem was not realizing there was already salt in a solution that had been injected into the roast. It is important for shoppers to know what they are buying.  Here is the story: 

A recent study conducted for Cryovac, one of the largest producers of meat trays, found that 21% of fresh meat offered by retailers contained an enhancing solution.  Enhanced meat is meat which has been injected or marinated with a solution of water and other ingredients, which could include salt, phosphates, antioxidants and flavoring.

The Butterball self-basting turkey is an example of an enhanced meat.  When you marinate a steak overnight, you are enhancing it with the marinade solution. Tyson, known for chicken, is also America’s largest supplier of pork and beef. Gary Mickelson, a spokesperson for Tyson says:  “Products are enhanced primarily to improve tenderness and moisture, as well as enhanced flavor.” Mickelson says the percent of solutions in Tyson products vary widely, from 3 to 15%, depending on the product and desired flavor profile. The general range of solution in fresh chicken sold in supermarkets, is 8-12%.

In the injection process, a machine injects the solution through many fine needles that evenly spread the fluid throughout the whole cut of meat.  The 10% solution injected into a Publix supermarket ribeye steak included, in order of prominence; water, sodium lactate, beef flavoring, salt, natural flavor, sodium phosphate, and hydrolyzed corn protein.

Dr. Robert Post, director of labeling and consumer protection for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), told me:  Phosphates are for water holding to keep the meat juicy during cooking. Sodium or potassium lactate reduce micro-organisms and contribute to food safety.  Hydrolyzed protein is for flavoring. Dr. Post says all ingredients used in enhancing solutions are approved and listed as safe and suitable by a joint process of the USDA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

A few meat processors give enhanced products a special identity that make it easier for shoppers to recognize.   For example, Perdue’s solution enhanced chicken is sold under the Tender & Tasty banner.  The whole birds are marinated with up to 12% of enhancing solution.  Tender & Tasty boneless chicken breast have up to 15% of solution.   Chris Whaley, a spokesperson for the Perdue Company, told me the solutions are used to protect the natural texture and tenderness of the meat during cooking.  “It is very easy to over cook,” she said, and gave as an example, stepping away from the kitchen with a task that takes longer than expected.  “Our enhanced Tender & Tasty chicken, take some of the risk out of cooking.”

 If the label says up to 15% enhancing solution, up to 15% of the price you pay is for that solution.  Some of the enhanced meat I found have a lot more solution than you would think needed to flavor it or keep it moist during cooking. Both Jennie-O turkey breast tenderloin and the Hormel Always Tender boneless pork roast, contain up to 30% solution.  The solution information always shows water as the first and most prominent ingredient.  Consequently, if the price of the enhanced tenderloin or roast is $9, a buyer pays $2.70 mostly for water! My industry sources say it is a temptation for meat processors to add more solution to the meat.  It reduces their cost and increases their profit.

It may be that you prefer using enhanced meat.  But in any case, you should be able to recognize them.  Processors are required by U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations to show on the label what percent of the meat’s weight is solution.  That message is in small print.  The solution ingredients are in even smaller print. Just because meat is displayed unpacked does not mean it has not been enhanced.  Ask the butcher whether it has been enhanced with a solution.  If you do not trust the answer, ask to see the original box or packaging. For shoppers on sodium-restricted diets, checking the sodium information on the labels of enhanced meat is vitally important. 

            If pumping solution into meat is an improvement, supermarkets are unusually silent about it.  They don’t put up shelf signs announcing it (The feeling among retailers seems to be, if the meat comes out of the oven better, it doesn’t matter that consumers are unaware a solution was pumped into it). With very few exceptions, supermarkets do not talk of enhancing solutions in their advertising.  However, if the meat ad says; “moist and juicy” or “moist and tender,” look out! 

            The use of enhancing solutions is growing.   If you prefer regular meat, tell your butcher and vote with your wallet.  It may just make enough difference to ensure you will continue to have an alternative to the enhanced products.

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Low Carbs - High Prices!  Are They Worth the Money?

By Martin Sloane

             In the last year, grocery product manufactures have introduced more than a thousand low-carb products.  I surveyed some of these products, offered by major manufactures, to find out if carb-conscious shoppers are getting their money’s worth.  Here is the story:

            Unilever has taken several of its popular brands, including Wishbone, Imperial and Ragu, altered their formulations and created Carb Options products. Regular Wishbone Olive Oil Vinaigrette has 4 grams total carbs per serving and I found it priced at $2.33. The Carb Options version had 0 carbs and was $3.19 or 37% more.  The label on regular Ragu Garden Style spaghetti sauce shows 19 grams total carbs and was priced at $2.05 for the 26 oz. jar.  The Carb Options version with 7 grams total carbs and 5 grams net carbs was $2.89.  For several of the Unilever products, a difference of just a gram or two makes a person wonder why they bothered.  Carb Options Alfredo Sauce at 2 grams total carbs, was just one carb less than the Ragu Alfredo, but cost 84-cents more for the 16 oz. jar. Carb Options mayonnaise with 0 carbs was $2.99 versus Unilever’s Imperial mayo with just 2 grams at $2.29.  Is saving 2 grams of carbs per serving worth the 31% price difference?  I think it is ridiculous.

Here is another one:  Heinz customers are paying an exorbitant price to save just 3 grams of carbs.  The new Heinz One Carb Ketchup at 1 gram total carbs was $2.39 for the small 14 oz. bottle.  One Carb was 72% more than the regular ketchup with 4 grams of carbs, priced at $1.39. 

            Entenmann’s offers Carb Counting chocolate chip cookies with 9 grams net carbs priced at $5.32, which is $2.03 more than the regular chocolate chip with 20 grams total carbs.  Keebler offers Carb Sensible chocolate chip cookies with 4 grams net carbs in a small 5.6 oz. bag priced at $3.99, a unit price of 71.25 cents an ounce.  The regular Keebler chocolate chip cookies have 9 grams total carbs and the 18 oz. package was $3.49, or a more reasonable 19.39 cents an ounce.

General Mills Total cereal has 23 grams of carbs; a 12 oz. box was $3.79.  The new Total Protein, has 11 grams of carbs (8 grams net) and was $3.99 for an 11 ounce box.  General Mills rushed to beat Kellogg’s to the shelf with the first low-carb cereal.  In the rush, good taste got left behind (I think Total Protein tastes like cardboard).   General Mills recently announced it would delay the introduction of Total Protein with Almonds, and would lower the price of Total Protein.   

I found Pepperidge Farm Carb Style white bread.  The wrapper shows 8 grams total carbs (5 grams net) and a serving size of one slice; two slices for a sandwich would have 10 grams of net carbs.  A regular loaf of Pepperidge sandwich white, shows a serving size of two slices, and 23 grams total carbs.  The 20 oz. Carb Style was $3.99, a big price premium compared to $1.99 for the 16 oz. regular white. 

Can you be carb-conscious and still enjoy pasta?  On packages of Mueller’s new Reduced Carb spaghetti is a burst, “All The Taste - ½ The Carbs!”  The package shows 31 grams total carbs and 12 grams dietary fiber.  Subtracting the fiber and sugar alcohol is the way most manufacturers calculate net carbs, results in 19 grams net carbs.  This compares to regular Mueller’s with 41 grams total carbs and 2 grams fiber.  Cutting your pasta carbs in half will cost you $1.85 for a 12 oz. box, compared to 98-cents for 16 ounces of the regular spaghetti.   It may be worth the difference.  

I asked several of the manufacturers why their low-carb products cost a lot more than the regular versions.  The most frequent answer was the products were specialty foods, which was their justification for elevating them to a higher price level.  But, they are selling these products in supermarkets, not specialty food stores.  I believe the simple truth is the manufactures see the heightened consumer interest in low carbs as giving them an opportunity to increase profits.  But there is some good news for carb-conscious shoppers on a budget.  My retail sources say many of the new low-carb products are selling poorly.  I expect this will put pressure on manufacturers to lower prices and offer money-saving consumer promotions. Unilever, maker of Carb Options, has said it plans to lower the prices of several of the products to meet increased competition.  In fact, I have begun to see low-carb products on sale, coupons too, and even a  low-carb BOGO!

Have you noticed that some low-carb products are not worth the big premium in price?  Have you saved money on a low-carb?  Write to me, Martin Sloane, The Supermarket Shopper in care of this newspaper or email me at:  site4savings@hotmail.com.  I publish the most interesting letters. (Note: This price comparison is intended to give my readers cost and value sensitivity.  Retail prices of the products I have mentioned will vary at different retailers).             

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Fill Your Gas Tank With Grocery Savings!

By Martin Sloane

             Gasoline or groceries?  It is not a happy choice.  However, if you are living on a fixed income, spending less at the supermarket may be your only alternative. If you are in this predicament, I have some helpful advice.  An easy way to cut back on your weekly grocery bill is by playing what I call, The Great Grocery Game. 

            I recommend you start playing The Game for a half tank worth of savings.  Saving half the cost of a 16 gallon fill-up at $2.10 a gallon is $16.80.  Begin the game for gas money by becoming a zealous bargain hunter in the supermarket circulars.  The typical sale on a grocery item will save you roughly 50-cents, with many featured items saving you a lot more.  The hundreds of items supermarkets put on sale each week are going to help you pay for gasoline. Open the store’s advertisement and circle all the sale prices for items you can use.  This week the circular at one of my favorite stores included savings of; 39-cents on house brand O.J.; 49-cents on a cantaloupe; 92-cents on Kraft chunk cheese; $1.49 on strawberries.  An in-ad coupon saved $2 on  a 20 oz. Cheerios.   “Buy 1 – Get 1 Free” items included savings of  $1.69 on 32 oz. Mueller’s pasta, $2.89 on Ocean Spray Juice, and $3.59 on Oscar Mayer beef franks.  A sale on boneless shoulder roast, saved $4.20 on a 3 pound roast.  The savings on these nine items added up to $17.66; more than enough to fill half a tank.  Use the circular bargains you select to make your new “Saving For Gas!” shopping list.  

            Would you like to play The Great Grocery Game to pay for the whole tank of gas?   Your goal is to save an additional $16.80.  You can do it with manufacturer coupons.  On a typical Sunday, the newspaper inserts will contain more than $100 worth of valuable coupons, many for products you use. The monthly P&G Brand Saver insert contains more than $40 in coupons for that company’s popular products.  Purchase a coupon file or wallet (I use an expanding check file) and start clipping the coupons. As you make up your Saving For Gas! shopping list, use as many coupons as possible for the groceries you need.  Don’t be discouraged if you only use a few coupons the first week.  Within a month or two, your coupon wallet will be filled with useful coupons just waiting for those items to be needed. 

            My readers who play The Great Grocery Game match the coupons with the sales to save 50% or more.  We call these Double Play Savings; two discounts on the same item. Matching a coupon with a “Buy 1-Get 1 Free” is a big Double Play. When supermarkets offer double coupons, you can make a Triple Play by matching a coupon with a sale price; three discounts on the same item.  Think of BOGOs and double coupons as free gas!

             Here are some frequently asked questions:   How much time will it take for a tank full of savings?  Just an hour or two each week to clip and file coupons and make up your “Saving For Gas!” shopping list.  Will it work for a single shopper?  These savings are based on weekly family grocery shopping for $100 or more.  However, a small household or a single shopper will achieve proportionate savings. Is it worth the gas to cherry pick the specials at two or more supermarkets?  Yes, the extra savings can far exceed the cost of the gas.

            More than a dozen supermarkets around the country have made it easy to turn grocery purchases into savings on gasoline.   Meijer is a family owned retailer operating 158 superstores throughout Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio.  “FREE GAS!” shelf signs are displayed on the shelves of many of the stores.  Customers purchase the products and receive Fuel Rewards discount coupons  at the checkout.  They redeem the coupons at Meijer owned gas stations.  The coupons are good for 30 days and can be combined up to the total value of the gas purchase.  Recent examples of qualifying products included:  Lean Cuisine or Stouffer's Skillet Sensations Selected Varieties 23-25 oz (Buy 2) and save $1.00.  Arizona Regular or Diet Green Iced Tea 64 oz (Buy 2) and save $1.00. Bumble Bee Chunk Light, White or Solid White Tuna in Water 12 oz (Buy 3) and save $1.00.  Smart Shoppers at Meijer’s are using manufacturer coupons on many of the free gas items!

            The free gas promotion program at Meijer is provided by Dallas based, Centēgo Marketing.  The company’s “Fuel Rewards” program is offered nationwide in approximately 1,600 locations and, was used by more than 25 million shoppers in 2003. A Centego spokesperson told me that grocery manufacturer participation has increased by 20% in each of the last two months.  For more information about Centego Marketing, and participating free gas supermarkets, visit www.centego.com.

            If grocery savings are helping to fill up your tank, write and tell me about it.  Write to me, Martin Sloane, The Supermarket Shopper, in care of this newspaper.  I publish the most interesting letters.

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Product Downsizing.  What You Can Do About it!

 By Martin Sloane

            Smart Shoppers are very conscious of product downsizing.  A few ounces seem to slip away all too frequently.  However, when the downsizing is substantial and shelf prices remain the same, my readers wonder what they can do about it.

            When The Dannon Company recently downsized single-serve cups from 8 ounces to 6 ounces,  many of my readers complained that the new size was too small.  They also reported there had been little or no reduction in the shelf price. Cynthia Lasley of Buena Park, CA checked her register receipts.  On December 29, last year she paid 89-cents for the 8-ounce cup at Albertson’s.  On February 5, the price of the downsized 6-ounce cup was 87-cents.   Anna Moses, a spokesperson for The Dannon Company, said there had been a 15 to 20 percent reduction in the price paid by retailers for the new smaller size  

            While consumers get scant notice of downsizing, manufacturers send supermarkets notice of every product change.  The downsized product will have a new Universal Product Code (UPC) number and the supermarket considers it to be a “new” product.  The product information, including weight and cost to the retailer, are fed into the supermarket’s computer.   The computer is typically programmed to add a percentage to the retailer’s cost, for example 30%, which is the “margin” necessary to cover the supermarket’s own costs as well as a profit.  That is the way most retail prices are set. 

But, every price change, or price for a new item, is reviewed by the supermarket buyer or category manager.  They pay special attention to high volume products like yogurt and detergent.  When consumers recognize that a major downsizing has not been accompanied by a lower shelf price, they can be fairly certain the supermarket buyer or category manager has decided to take an extra measure of profit.   One of my industry sources told me: “In setting prices (for downsized products) supermarkets will charge whatever the market will bear.”

“There is not a lot manufacturers can do about retailers who do not pass along a price reduction to consumers,” said Mike Diegel, a spokesperson for the trade group, Grocery Manufacturers of America.  “However, sooner or later prices will probably come down.  One retailer will reduce the price.  Other retailers will take a hard look at the price reduction and will match it to stay competitive.”

            That market theory is slight consolation for shoppers like Cynthia Lasley who are paying 87-cents for the 6 ounce Dannon.  Sensing the opportunity to make a greater profit on the popular Dannon yogurt --- the 6 ounce cup it is almost the same size as the old 8 ounce --- all the supermarkets in an area may follow a “leader” who has not reduced the price.  Should shoppers sit by and hope that competition will push the price in the right direction?   I don’t think so.

            I went back to Anna Moses at Dannon and informed her that some retailers were charging the old 8 oz. price on the new 6 oz. yogurt cups.   She said Dannon had notified retailers in writing that the new smaller 6 oz. size would be accompanied by a lower price.  She also said that Dannon’s salespeople mentioned this to supermarket buyers and category managers when they visited them.  “We want retailers to pass these savings along to our customers.”  

            Obviously, it didn’t work at some supermarkets and I pressed her for a solution:   “Dannon would like to know about situations like this” said Anna.  “We don’t want our products to be at a disadvantage to the competition, so I urge your readers to contact us.  They can call our toll-free telephone number 1-877-326-6668 or write to:  Dannon Consumer Response Center, P.O. Box 90269, Allentown, PA 18109-0296.  We want to know where they shop so we can take action.”   Dannon’s website:  www.dannon.com has a convenient e-mail form for contacting the company.

            Should you complain to the supermarket?  The Washington, D.C. based, Food Marketing Institute, is the trade organization for the supermarket industry.   I asked Tod Holquist, a spokesperson for FMI, what shoppers could do if supermarkets do not pass along to consumers the savings from lower manufacturer prices.  “It is important for shoppers to speak up.  Supermarkets do listen to their customers.”   I asked Tod if  customers should complain to their store manager?  He replied, “That’s fine.  However, the customer’s communications may be more effective if they send a note or e-mail to the supermarket’s consumer affairs department.  Most supermarkets have websites and there is usually a ‘contact us’ section that provides phone numbers, addresses and e-mail.” 

            How effective is a price complaint e-mailed to a supermarket?  At Wegmans, a leading supermarket chain in the Northeast, an e-mail message is likely to reach the right person.  “An e-mail message is received by our consumer affairs department and we generate management reports and forward messages to our associates who should be made aware of them,” says Joe Natale, Manager of Public Relations.  “When a customer is concerned about the price of a product, the message is sent to our merchandiser responsible for making decisions for that product category.”   

             So, what should a Smart Shopper do?  Of course, you can stop buying the product, which sends a strong message to the manufacturer.  If you are a Dannon customer and you have not seen a 10 to 15 percent reduction in the shelf price for the new 6 ounce cup, use the toll-free telephone number of  website e-mail to tell Dannon about it. I strongly recommend you also complain to your supermarket --- go to the supermarket’s website and use “contact us” e-mail if possible --- and ask why a major downsizing has not resulted in a lower shelf price. 

            Finally, let me know the results.  Write to me, Martin Sloane, The Supermarket Shopper, in care of this newspaper, or use the e-mail on my column support website.

copyright: United Media Enterprises, New York, NY

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Club Cards; A False Sense of Savings?

             By Martin Sloane

             Approximately eighty percent of U.S. households have supermarket frequent shopper cards.  Supermarket shoppers enjoy seeing messages at the bottoms of their register tapes,  “Your Card Savings $19.33.”  But are they being lulled into a false sense of savings?   Does the use of a club card assure shoppers of the lowest grocery bill?

Katy McLaughlin, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, recently went supermarket shopping in five cities to find out whether consumers using frequent shopper cards were paying less for their groceries than shoppers at stores that do not have the cards.  The cities were Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, San Francisco and Brooklyn, New York.  At each store she used the same 20 item shopping list including items like coffee and detergent.  Most of them were not card specials.  She also purchased five additional “impulse” items that were card specials which should have given the club card supermarkets an edge. 

            Shopping at a Safeway in San Francisco, she paid $66.17 and her register tape said she had saved $18.02 using the Safeway Club Card.  The reporter then shopped at the independent grocer, Cal-Mart, a no-card store, and paid $62.66.  The no-card store was 44.80 less costly in Chicago.  The difference in Brooklyn, New York was less than a dollar.  In Dallas, she saved $4.46 at a no-card Super Target compared to an Albertsons.   

            What happened?  Why did it cost this reporter less to shop her list at the no-card stores?  The Wall Street Journal story concluded that the regular priced items at the no-card stores tended to be less expensive than at the stores that offered the cards. 

            This is no surprise to me.  Operating a club program is costly for these supermarkets.  Those expenses must be made up somewhere, usually in higher prices on regular price items. This is similar to supermarkets offering double coupons.  A supermarket that offers double coupons for any length of time, usually increases its prices to make up for it.

            Another reason why the no-card supermarkets showed well, was some of the same items that were offered as card specials were also on sale at the no-card stores.  Grocery sale price savings are funded by the manufacturers as part of their marketing campaigns offered to all supermarkets. 

             Predictably, supermarkets with frequent shopper cards, tell me than 25 items is not a fair test.  And, they say price is not the only thing that shoppers consider in deciding where to buy their groceries:  Service, selection, convenience, cleanliness and short checkout lines, also matter.  And, these are good points.  

            The Wall Street Journal story was titled “The Discount Cards that Don’t Save You Money.”  Unfortunately, the story missed the mark because the card programs do save money, often a lot of money, for Smart Shoppers.  The Journal’s reporter did not start out with a shopping list that was purposely created to take advantage of the supermarket’s cards specials.  That is not the way readers like Alan Martell of Delmar, New York, shop for groceries.  On a shopping expedition at Price Chopper, the purchases on Alan’s well-planned shopping list totaled $188.50.  He used the Price Chopper Advantage card to whack  $56.94 off the total and double coupons (up to $1) to reduce the bill by another $74. Carefully planning a Shopping Adventure to make the most of card savings is an important part of Playing The Great Grocery Game. 

I have another problem with the Journal’s story.  In concluding that the club cards are not money-savers, the Journal’s reporter failed to recognize that many shoppers have more than one club card.   Reporter McLaughlin did not take into account that in today’s troubled economy, Smart Shoppers like my readers are willing to “cherry-pick” the best card specials at several supermarkets and then fill in other items at whichever store has the lowest prices, card or no-card.   

One of the reasons why most of the supermarket industry has embraced frequent shopper programs is the belief the cards promote the loyalty of their best customers, and fewer sales are lost to the likes of Wal-Mart Supercenters.  Now, let’s consider what happened when the Journal’s reporter did her comparison shopping in Atlanta.  Atlanta is a very competitive grocery market.  When the reporter shopped her list at a Kroger store, her total was the lowest of any card program store, $48.89.  However, the comparison with an Atlanta Wal-Mart Supercenter was an eye-opener.  While admittedly, a few of the brands and sizes on her list were not available at Wal-Mart and she had to substitute, the total was a skinny $34.70.  Supermarkets who thought their cards programs would make them competitive with Wal-Mart’s low prices, are learning a lesson the hard way.  The added costs of the program are making the price disparity even more obvious.

Finally, a note for confirmed card haters and I know that some of my readers dislike them intensely.  If you shop at a card program supermarket, you have noticed that most of the sale items are now reserved for card users, and finding a no-card supermarket with low prices is growing more difficult.  Three quarters of America’s supermarkets have card programs including almost all of the large chains.   Albertsons and Winn-Dixie, who long opposed the programs, are now issuing cards.   Publix is still holding out, but it is anyone’s guess for how long.   In some areas, the only no-card stores are independent operators of smaller supermarkets and they may not be acceptable or convenient alternatives.   However, consider an important point made by reporter Katy McLaughlin:  Card savings are paid for by the manufacturers in the form of a lower price charged the supermarket. So, shoppers who do not use the card and pay a higher than necessary price, give the supermarket a windfall profit.  Which do you dislike most, the idea of using the card or giving the supermarket the windfall?

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Grocery Product Downsizing 

 By Martin Sloane

             Over the past year I have received dozens of letters from readers complaining about product downsizing.              Downsizing is a nasty word.   For grocery shoppers, it usually means getting less for your money.   Peter Hayes of Seal Beach, California, wrote to me when he first noticed Tide powder had been downsized from 110 ounces to 87:  “That is quite a healthy, but sneaky, price increase.”

            Consumers don’t like sneaky downsizing.   The didn’t like it when Procter & Gamble made the bottles of dishwashing liquids, Dawn, Joy and Ivory, taller but reduced the size from 28 ounces to 25 ounces.  

            Downsizing can become downright sneaky when a product like laundry bleach is suddenly called “Ultra,” and with no significant change in the formulation, is reduced by 25%, from a gallon to three quarts.  

            Sneaky or not, grocery products are being constantly downsized.  And the changes are often less noticeable.  Consider ice cream.   Bryers recently downsized when it introduced its Ice Cream Parlor line.  These are the Reese’s, Heath and Oreo varieties.   Bryers justified the smaller container, saying the ingredients were more expensive, and given the choice of a higher price or smaller container, it chose the latter.  At the time, I said consumers could expect other ice cream makers to follow Bryers, and they have.   If you look carefully, you will notice the round container Edy’s is now 1.75 quarts.  (the squat container Edy’s Home Made is still a half gallon).  Healthy Choice is now 1.75 quarts. 

            When manufacturers offer consumers fewer ounces or fewer sheets, they often justify it with claims the products are better.  For example, a Procter & Gamble spokesperson said Ultra Charmin wasn’t downsized this year when double rolls were reduced from 340 sheets to 264.   As the P&G spokesperson told me, it was “upgraded” because the sheets had more fiber and were softer and thicker. Six months ago Sue Geiger, a reader in Trafford, PA wrote to tell me that Scotties went from 175 tissues to 160.  A spokesperson for the Irving Tissue Company, maker of Scotties tissues, told me they put more fiber into the tissues and they are thicker and softer.  

            For some manufacturers, downsizing seems to be a game of trying to outwit consumers.  When Procter reduced the size of the dishwashing liquids, it also made them thinner.   Procter claimed it was a much better product.  “It is not so,” said readers like Lillian Warner of Taberg, New York, who has used Dawn for decades.  “I have used Dawn since it was introduced.  It is now thinner and I have to use more to do my dishes.”  P&G told consumers who called in to complain, they just didn’t understand it was a better product.  In other words, they were dummies.  The response wasn’t appreciated and P&G wound up apologizing.

             Consumers understand that manufacturers are faced with rising costs.  Grocery shoppers recognize that the cost of raw materials, labor, packaging and trucking keep going up.   Why don’t manufacturers just increase prices instead of playing downsizing games?   That is what I asked Gene Grabowski, Vice President of the D.C. based trade association, Grocery Manufacturers of America.

            “All of the manufacturers do consumer research.  This research tells them that what consumers dislike the most is grocery price increases.    Consumers prefer manufacturers offer a smaller size than pay a higher price.”  Grabowski continued, “This opinion is widely voiced by seniors and other consumers on a fixed income.”

            Are consumers really that short sighted?   Unfortunately, the reality is grocery manufacturers will continue to downsize as long as their costs continue to rise.  And, consumers can’t expect to see big banners on the boxes announcing,  “10% Fewer Ounces!” 

            So, what is a Smart Shopper to do?   A careful look on the supermarket shelves will show you a few packages that have been upsized!   Specially marked packages of Wisk laundry detergent, now available at many supermarkets, have a big banner, “15% More FREE!”  Specially marked bottles of Ajax dishwasher liquid, say “50% More” and contain 38 ounces instead of 25.    Stouffer’s Skillet Sensations have a banner, “50% More Beef!”  

              If you are tired of the more the fiber, thicker, softer claims, consider taking packages of paper products and comparing their weight!  That is the advice of Cooki, a reader from Irwindale, California, who sells paper products by the case: “Large rolls don’t necessarily mean more paper.” says Cooki. “A case of toilet tissue can range in weight from 34 to a high of 50 pounds.”   I tried it, and using the supermarket’s produce scale, a 4-roll package of Ultra Northern Double Rolls weighed approximately 24 ounces.  A similar package of Charmin Ultra weighed 20 ounces.   A package of Brawny napkins, 200s, weighed 21 ounces.  The similar package of Bounty 200s was 18 ounces.  Interestingly, a package of low price Sparkle napkins, 250 count, weighed only 17 ounces.             You can also become a more knowledgeable Smart Shopper by subscribing to Consumer Reports.  When Consumer Reports tested 30 toilet papers in its laboratory, it discovered decided differences in strength, disintegration, softness, and absorption. Moreover, it found big differences in their price--from 6 cents per 100 sheets to 25 cents.   For convenient access to tests of grocery products in dozens of categories, I highly recommend subscribing to the Consumer Reports online service at:  www.consumerreports.org.           

              For most shoppers, the best solution to product downsizing in the coming year is to play an enjoyable game of your own.  Don’t just get mad, get even --- or get ahead of the game  --- by playing my Great Grocery Game.  While product sizes have decreased over the years, coupon values have gone up.  If you notice fewer sheets of toilet tissue, save the next toilet tissue coupon you find and then wait until the brand goes on sale.  That “Double Play” discount is the best solution to downsizing and your personal triumph at the checkout counter!

            When you notice a grocery product has been downsized, please let me know.  Write to me, Martin Sloane, The Supermarket Shopper, in care of this newspaper.  I publish the most interesting letters.

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Lessons children can learn at the supermarket

By Martin Sloane             

             The supermarket can be an enriching learning experience for children.  Here are my suggestions.  Consider their usefulness based on your child’s abilities.  Make them simpler for younger children.  I recommend them for boys and well as girls.

            I suggest you start the learning experience with making up the shopping list.  Explain to your child how you prepare the list.   If you are a Smart Shopper, who creates a money-saving list using coupons and store sales, play the “match game” with your child.  Select several coupons from the Sunday inserts and ask you child chose the product they want most. Have your child write the shopping list; a useful experience to promote good  penmanship. 

            In the supermarket aisles, ask your children to help you find the products on your list.  You can ask them to point out any packages that have the word “FREE.”  Even young children, riding in the child’s seat, can help you hunt and point to a product they know very well.  

The produce department is a fertile classroom where young children learn to identify the veggies and help you pick the ones you like best.  This is the place where you teach your child how to use a scale.  

            Children can learn by seeing you compare products.  You can compare prices, ingredients and nutrition information.   This is the time to show your child your interest in healthy eating.  For example, when you select a cereal that has just a few grams of sugar per serving, compare it to the cereal you might not want that has 20 or 30 grams.

There are reasons for everything you do and select in the supermarket.  You can reinforce the learning process by describing what you are doing and why you selected a product.  

When your child is learning to read, use the product packages to improve reading skills.  The most interesting place for them to start is probably the cereal aisle.  Ask your child to read the headlines and banners and other copy on the cereal boxes.  There are so many ways to help your child learn basic math skills; counting, addition, subtraction, multiplication and division (i.e., bananas are 3 lbs for 99-cents, how much is one pound?). 

Set a good example.  As you maneuver through the aisles, children learn manners every time they hear you say, “pardon me,” or “thank you…”   If you find an item on the floor or accidentally knock an item to the floor, make a point of showing your child it is important to put it back in the proper place. 

            At the checkout counter, show your child how you follow the prices as they are being rung up.  Even if you usually pay with a credit card, or by check, on this shopping trip use cash.  Then, teach your child how to give the cashier the money and take back the change.  Ask the cashier to count back the change into your child’s hand.  

Remember the power of a reward to keep the shopping and learning session calm and productive.  You probably know the treat your child wants most.   You can plan that it is the last aisle you visit.  No eating in the aisles!  But, when you return home after a great experience with your child, give the rewards as soon as you can.

             A few learning experience tips:   Make the experience an important objective of your trip to the store, not just casual and sometimes remembered.  I suggest the learning session be one of your “fill-in” trips rather than your big weekly “stock-up” trip.  Make the supermarket your classroom when it is not busy.  It is far easier to teach in un-crowded aisles.  Give yourself a lot more time than you would for a normal shopping trip.  Be realistic in your expectations, especially deciding that your child is ready for learning in the aisles (well behaved and follows instructions). 

Here is an example of the Smart Shopping Skills Ingrid Marshall of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania  has taught her three sons, 7, 9 and 12: 

          “Each week my boys take turns cutting out the coupons from the weekly coupon inserts and helping me with the shopping list.   I don’t take my boys on my regular shopping trips, but I make a point of taking them once in a while when the supermarket is not crowded.  They know we do not buy anything unless it is on sale, or we have a coupon, unless it is an absolute necessity (i.e. milk)  In the aisles, we talk about unit prices and I have them carry the calculator to ‘check Mom’s math’!  What has really made a big impression on them is when they see how excited I am when I come home from shopping and talk about all my savings.” 

I first learned about Ingrid and her smart shopping sons, when she sent me this  Shopping Adventure:   “This week I gave my three sons a savings lesson:  My boys love Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal (CTC).  However at $4.19 a box, they don’t get it.   Mr.Z’s supermarket had General Mills cereals including CTC on sale for $2.96 a box.   I bought four boxes using 50-cent coupons which were doubled.   Each box had a coupon for a free box of Reeses Puffs cereal.    When I checked out I received two coupons for $1.50 off my next purchase of three boxes of CTC.  I also received a bonus certificate for 20 bonus Box Tops for Education.   I wound up paying $7.84 for eight boxes of cereal my kids love, two $1.50 coupons for future purchases, and the Parent Teachers Organization of our school receives box tops worth $4.80 which will be donated by General Mills.”

               Finally, a few words of caution.  The holidays are approaching.  Supermarket aisles will be unusually crowded at peak traffic hours.  These are times when you have to be especially careful when shopping with young children.  First, BUCKLE THEM UP!  And, then, watch them carefully as you shop!  An ounce of prevention was never more important!  

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Ten things that changed the way consumers shop for groceries. 

            When I recently wrote my 4,000th Supermarket Shopper newspaper column, I began thinking about the most important things that have shaped the way you and I shop for groceries, today.  These are my selections:  (1) the creation of the supermarket, (2) the invention of the shopping cart, (3) manufacturer coupons, (4) case ready meat, (5) bar code scanning, (6) frequent shopper cards, (7) prescription dispensing pharmacies (8) combination stores, including Wal-mart Supercenters, (9) shopping for groceries at stores other than supermarkets, and (10) product nutrition labeling. 

            By the 1920s there were scores of large self-service grocery stores around the country.  However, the credit for the first supermarket in America is usually given to Michael Cullen.  In 1930 he opened what he called the King Kullen Super Market in an empty building in Jamaica, New York.  What made it super were; the gigantic self-service store, the unusually large selection of more than a thousand items including fresh meat and produce, and low prices.  Mike Cullen had a flamboyant streak and his “Super Market!” advertisements were bold and brash. Instead of shelves, merchandise was piled high in floor displays.  Shoppers rushed to the store from all corners of the city to buy the “cheapy” groceries and Mike Cullen made it easy because the King Kullen store had its own parking lot!  All taken together, it was a Super Market.

             Six years after Mike Kullen opened his first supermarket, Sylvan Goldman, operating the Standard-Humpty Dumpty discount grocery chain based in Oklahoma City, realized shoppers were limited by the items they could carry in the wicker baskets he provided.   Goldman was looking at a wooden folding chair when he had an inspiration.  Why not raise the seat, attach two baskets to it, and put castors on the feet of the chair so it could be pushed through the aisles?   Goldman’s first carts were built of wood as he had envisioned them. The wooden carts bucked over the smallest bumps and quickly fell apart.  But, with each catastrophe, improvements were made.  Eventually, Goldman built the first steel framed shopping cart with larger wheels. 

            The credit for distributing the first manufacturer cents-off coupons goes to the Coca Cola Company in the 1895.   Coupons were used by grocery product manufacturers to motivate consumers to try their new products. However, it was not until the 1960s that coupons really took off with consumers and became America’s favorite way to save money on groceries (I started writing this column in 1969).  When supermarkets began to wage double coupon wars in the mid-1970s, coupons became even more important to budget conscious shoppers.  Eight million shoppers use coupons and last year manufacturers distributed 239 billion coupons and Smart Shoppers saved $3 billion dollars.   

            Until the late 1960s, fresh chickens were iced and delivered to supermarkets whole. Supermarkets sold them the same way.  It was wet and messy.  The bright idea for packaging chickens and parts and delivering them to supermarkets “case ready,” came from North Carolina’s Holly Farms (now owned by Tyson Foods).  In 1964 Holly Farms began delivering packaged chickens to supermarkets on the East Coast.   Shoppers welcomed the concept and it quickly spread.

            In 1962, Giant Food, Landover, Maryland, opened the first pharmacy in a supermarket in Pasadena, Maryland.  Today, more than nine thousand supermarkets have prescription dispensing pharmacies.  In the 1980s several supermarket chains around the country opened combination food and discount stores.   Wal-mart saw this opportunity and opened the first Wal-Mart Supercenter in Washington, Missouri in February, 1988.

            While supermarkets were installing pharmacies and taking business away from the drug stores, the 1990s saw the drug stores get even by expanding their selection of convenience groceries.   Shoppers were already accustomed to buying groceries in other types of stores.  The first membership warehouse club was a Price Club in San Diego in 1976. 

            Bar codes have changed the way we shop.  On June 26, 1974, a cashier at the Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio scanned a 10-pack of chewing gum across her register. It was a first time a bar code was scanned to ring up a grocery purchase.  By the early 80’s the shift to scanning swept through the supermarket industry.  It resulted in more accurate price ring ups and faster checkout.  Unfortunately, it lowered the skills required for cashiers. 

In 1973, the Food and Drug Administration standardized product nutrition labeling requiring information for calories, carbohydrate, protein and fat.   Shoppers were able to shop smarter.  In 1994, to satisfy a health-conscious nation, the FDA made major changes that result in the nutrition labeling we see today on processed foods.

            The idea of using cards to identify loyal shoppers has changed grocery shopping.  The first frequent shopper card was issued by Richmond, Virginia based Ukrop’s Supermarkets in February 1987 in a single store test.  The cards, with bar codes printed on them, gave shoppers electronic discounts when presented at the checkout counter.  Today almost all the major supermarket chains have card based frequent shopper programs.  Whether or not they like the idea of carrying another piece of plastic, and having the supermarket keep files on what they purchase, Smart Shoppers find they have to participate in order to save.    

            Of course, there have been many bright ideas that didn’t work. Grocery shopping might have a different look today if an innovation introduced in a store in Nebraska in 1960 had succeeded.  When shoppers entered the store they picked up a rubber stamp instead of taking a shopping cart.  Conveyor belts were installed in the aisles of the store.  As they selected products shoppers stamped them and put them on the conveyor belt.  At the front of the store, cashiers sorted the items coming down the belts and each shopper’s purchases were rung up and bagged.  Shoppers were promised a faster checkout and the store owner hoped shoppers would purchase more because they did not see a cart filling up.  It didn’t work.

            What has been the most important change in grocery shopping for you?  Whether you consider the change good, or bad, write and tell me about it.  Write to me, Martin Sloane, the Supermarket Shopper, in care of this newspaper.  I publish the most interesting letters. 

            If you are interested in reading about eight major changes that will impact your grocery shopping in the future, look for them in my column, coming soon. 

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             The Proof is in the Pudding!

By Martin Sloane

            David Phillips, a civil engineer from Davis, California, has achieved an amazing feat of smart shopping. Last Spring David and his wife, Cindy, noticed the Healthy Choice free frequent flyer miles offer on a Healthy Choice package, and decided to try and collect enough proofs-of-purchase to receive a few free airline tickets. The offer was a 500-mile certificate for each 10 proofs-of-purchase. David also noticed that submissions made before the end of May, 1999, earned double miles!

            David calculated that the air-miles were worth about 2-cents each, or about $20 for each double-500 mile certificate. "We enjoy the Healthy Choice products and at a sale price of $2 for a frozen dinner, it would be a good offer." He and Cindy and their two daughters, Katie and Emma would enjoy the food and have free airline tickets, too. The offer asked for UPC codes and cash register receipts for the purchase of any Healthy Choice products. It did not take long for David to realize that there were hundreds of Healthy Choice products and many were considerable less costly than a $2 frozen side dish. "I found Healthy Choice soups that were less than a dollar" says David, "and we did not need a freezer to store them." David began scouring the supermarket circulars for the soups. He did find them on sale and over a period of several weeks purchased 800 cans at an average cost of less than 70-cents a can.

            At first Cindy was skeptical. So David called a friend and the two of them read the small print on the Healthy Choice offer to be sure that he had not missed something important like an offer limit. "It was clear that there was no limit," he says. "In fact, the offer told consumers to remember that there was no limit to the number of miles they could earn." Actually, of the six participating airlines, Delta had a limit of 100 certificates and United had a limit of 40 certificates, but the other four, including American Airlines, had no limit.

            Then one sunny day, David walked into a Grocery Outlets store and discovered an aisle display of Healthy Choice Pudding. Normally, the pudding is sold in 4-cup packs, but the display had been intended to introduce the new pudding and the single sample cups, originally 39-cents, were on sale at just 25-cents each!

            "This was tremendous luck and we went wild. In one afternoon I visited ten of the Grocery Outlets stores and purchased 3,000 cups, all Double Chocolate." Over the next few weeks he purchased an additional 9,000 pudding cups.

            David had a problem. After giving it some thought his family could never consume this much pudding, and even more important, he would not be able to remove the proofs-of-purchase before the double certificate offer expired. "I called the Salvation Army and explained the situation. They were interested and agreed to serve the pudding and collect the proofs-of-purchase. They actually gave David the entire cover of each pudding cup which included the UPC Code.

            David says he tried to make it as easy as possible for Healthy Choice’s fulfillment company. "I attached the proofs-of-purchase to sheets of paper, 10 to a sheet and then numbered each proof and placed the series of numbers on each register tape. I included a cover letter which described the number of proofs enclosed and my request for the appropriate double certificates." David made photo-copies of the receipts and his cover letters.

            The 1,250 sheets of paper, register tapes and cover letters packed in two big boxes and sent to the fulfillment house by Express Mail. Each box was insured for $15,000. Early in his endeavor David decided to make a video tape which included him buying the pudding cups and then scenes of the cases of cups stacked up in his home. He was not taking any chances.

            David says the odd part of participating in the free air miles offer was how it was actually fulfilled. The offer said it would take 6 to 8 weeks to fulfill and he waited for eight weeks and did not receive the air miles certificates or any indication his submission had been received. At this point he was concerned and he called Healthy Choice’s toll-free 800 number and spoke to a customer representative. No help there, but the call probably resulted in the letter he received a week later saying the company had no record of his submission and asking him to forward documentation.

            Now, David was really worried. He finally spoke to someone at the fulfillment house and he was asked to send in copies of his submission letters and shipping receipts. But, two days later, David opened up his mail box and was delighted to find his free air miles certificates had arrived. There was just one more step. David had to send the airlines the certificates and then wait several weeks for the miles to be posted to his airline frequent flyer accounts.

            Where are David, Cindy and their daughters flying to? The first trip is planned for a flight from Sacramento to Milan, then on to Barcelona and a final stop in London. David says that each ticket will use up about 40,000 of their air miles and be worth approximately $1,850. That works out to a value about $7,400 or almost 5-cents for each of the family’s newly acquired air miles. David will then have more than a million more air-miles remaining in his air miles accounts and no time limit to use them. All of this for purchasing $3,140 in Healthy Choice packages.

            What a deal! And what an AWESOME! feat of Smart Shopping.

            If you would enjoy reading columns like this, ask your newspaper to include the "Supermarket Shopper"

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The Infamous Texas Toothpaste Tasters

By Martin Sloane

        Supermarket managers face many difficult decisions, however one of the most difficult is the decision to call the police and press charges against a customer.

        I recently received a letter from a reader in Texas who told me about an incident that her husband had witnessed at a Wal-Mart store. I called my reader and spoke to her husband, whom I shall call Fred, and he described what happened:

        Fred had gone shopping with his wife at Wal-Mart and he was looking for deodorant --- his wife was in another aisle --- when he noticed two women in front of the toothpaste section. Something was strange and he took another look. One of the women, sitting in a wheelchair, had several different packages of toothpaste in her lap. Fred watched as the woman in the wheelchair opened a tube of toothpaste, put a dab on her finger and tasted it. "I couldn’t take that in the morning," he heard her say. The other took the tube of toothpaste and tasted it in the same way. The woman in the wheelchair then put the top back on the tube of toothpaste, put it back in the carton and then back on the shelf.

        As Fred watched in growing consternation, the two women proceeded to taste the other brands of toothpaste. He heard one of them say, "imagine having to go through all this to pick a toothpaste." Finally, Fred approached a Wal-Mart employee and told him what was happening in the toothpaste section. The employee called security. A few minutes later a manager approached Fred, asked what had happened and then asked him to point out the two women.

        Fred pointed them out and told the manager, "I will check with you before I leave and if something is not done about this I will call the Health Department."

        A few minutes later one of the assistant managers approached Fred and said "I want to let you know what happened." She then told him that each of the women denied tasting the toothpaste and accused the other of doing it. However they agreed to go with the store manager to the toothpaste section and point out the boxes that had been opened. The assistant manager assured Fred that the boxes that had been tampered with would be removed from the shelves. The women would then be free to leave the store. She said that it was unfortunate but there was not much the store could do about this. "These woman want us to identify you (Fred), and they could cause you a lot of trouble,"

        There was nothing further that Fred or his wife could do and they left the store.

        In her letter, my reader said that opening a container and tasting a product and then putting it back on the shelf is worse than if the women had actually stolen the items because this kind of tampering could put other shoppers at risk. My reader and her husband are mad because they feel the two woman should have been hauled before a judge.

        Undoubtedly, the two woman were embarrassed and unhappy when they left the store. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, they had no intention of hurting anyone or taking the toothpaste without paying for it.

        What was the Wal-Mart manager to do? He could have given the two women a stern warning about product tampering. He could have told them that if it happened again, they would be responsible for paying for everything they opened and possibly a lot more if it was necessary to remove all of the toothpaste from the shelves.

        The store manager could have told the women that intentionally tampering with or destroying property without the consent of the owner could make them guilty of Criminal Mischief under Section 28.03 of the Texas Penal Code, and make them subject to fines, community service and even jail time.

        But, we don’t know what the manager said to the two women and we do not know the reasons why he did not press charges against them. There may have been extenuating circumstances, but it is not likely we will ever know. A Wal-Mart public affairs representative refused to allow me to speak to the store manager. The representative said, "you have our statement and that is enough."

        Here is that Wal-Mart statement: "Based on the facts, as we know them, we believe the actions taken by our store were appropriate."

        I spoke with a Texas Criminal District Attorney and he disagrees with Wal-Mart. "This is not a situation where a shopper merely walked through the produce department tasting the grapes. It is very different because there are so many communicable diseases out there." The Texas prosecutor advises store managers confronted by a similar situation to call the police so people who tamper with products can be tested to determine whether they have any of these diseases. He commented: "Across the country Wal-Mart replaced a lot of mom and pop stores that customers trusted to look out for their interests," said the prosecutor. "Now they are gone and Wal-Mart can take the attitude, who cares."

        This column began with the statement that store managers face many difficult decisions, and one of the hardest is whether or not to call the police and press charges against a customer.

        What do you think? Has increased product sampling in supermarkets caused shoppers to become less sensitive to what is the right way to sample and what is the wrong thing to do? Should store managers give shoppers, perhaps misguided, the benefit of the doubt and merely warn them that product tampering is unacceptable. Or is this a situation where store managers should first consider the safety of their customers and make an example of shoppers who tamper with products and make them stand before the bar of justice?

        I would like to hear from you. Write to me, Martin Sloane, the Supermarket Shopper, in care of this newspaper. I will publish the most interesting letters.

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A Cashier Tells it Like it is, for Her!

By Martin Sloane

       

      What are some of the things that seem to bother you?

      Let's start with shoppers who forget to bring their club card with them.  They  always ask the cashier for a card.  We don't have one!  The store expects you to have yours.  We can find their card number on the computer but this takes several minutes.   And do these shoppers tell us at the start that they need the number? No!  They wait until the last second and then make all the other customers behind them wait. Customers can bring their card and register tape to the service desk on their next visit and they will give the shopper the card savings.

          What are the ways that customers could help you?

          They can give us a hand once in a while, especially if there are heavy bags.  Consider how many of those bags we have to lift in an eight hour shift.  I have to say that we have some good customers who go out of their way to help us bag and they lift some of the bags themselves.

          Do you think most customers are generally helpful and considerate?

        I do, but it only takes one pain in the neck for a cashier to have a 'bad day.'

      What is the worst part about the cashier's job?

          Working holidays. I wish customers would avoid shopping on holidays. I personally, will not shop on a holiday. We have families and feelings about having to work on a day when others are celebrating. On a holiday, one customer told me that of course we should be open on the holiday because we were public servants.  I don't think so.  We need to go back to the days when families had Sundays and holidays together.  

          What else bothers you about the way customers act?

          The express lanes are for just that, EXPRESS!   Many customers don't get it.  Give us all a break and use the proper line.   And, if you are paying by check, PLEASE get it out and start filling it in before we have the total.

          Do you have advice for parents shopping with children?

          I am not impressed when parents who allow their children to bang on our credit card machines.  And I do not need them under my feet when I am ringing up an order or bagging it.   We understand there are days when children may not be on their best behavior, but it is the responsibility of the parent to keep them under control.  Believe me, when I say we recognize certain children when they enter the store by their screams and crying.

          I read your newspaper column and I remember you writing about the danger of children standing up in shopping carts.  We see this often.  Some parents are happy when we mention to the child that she or he should be sitting down.  There are also parents who get angry because the clerk or cashier is drawing attention to the fact they are not properly caring for their child.  They get hostile and inform us that they are the parent, which means they know best.  Do they understand that a fall head first to the concrete floor often results in brain damage to the child?

          Do you have any other problems with customers?

          Some shoppers do not read the signs.  There was one customer who believed all of the cereals on the end-of-aisle display should be at the sale price, not just the ones with the sale price signs.   She complained to the store manager and he gave it to her for the sale price.  She then said to me, "You don't expect me to read all the signs?"  Yes, actually, we do expect you to read them!  We don't put them up just to waste paper.

          And, don't hand me a banana peal and say you are sorry, your child just ate it.   Am I supposed to guess the weight of the banana?  Guess What?..... I will figure something out because I do want you to pay for the banana.  And don't put loose grapes and candy in your cart and eat them while you shop.  That is STEALING and somebody should tell you that.   Mr. Sloane, will you tell them?

          Yes, I will. What else bothers you?

          Customers who complain to us about the prices.  They should know that cashiers have nothing to do with setting prices.

          If you wonder why groceries are so expensive, just look around the supermarket.  A clerk has to spend time emptying trash left in carts; another clerk is sweeping up the broken cookie that a child dropped which the parent was too busy to pick up, while cashiers are just standing there while the computer looks for a shopper's club card number, and someone is eating the groceries before they get to the checkout counter, and a gentleman on the way out just took a handful of grocery bags from the counter closest to the exit for a quick getaway..... I could go on and on.

          And don't forget those shoplifters.  They are now bringing their own grocery bags which they fill up as they go through the store and then try to walk out the door with them.  If you see someone stealing, tell us!   We would not say you told us.  We would just watch that person more closely and try to catch them at it.

          This is more than I intended to tell you, but it needs to be said. 

            I agree, but why are you a cashier?

            Please don't suggest that I get another job!  Working in a supermarket as a cashier is very interesting.   I really enjoy my job and interacting with so many different people.  And believe me, the nice ones far out number the odd ones.

            I want to thank you for sharing your feelings and experiences with me and my readers.  To my readers: Please do not be the inconsiderate shopper that needlessly ruins a cashier's day.

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