We must be getting old, here at Routing By Rumor world headquarters, because we’re not spotting deceptive consumer practices as quickly as we used to. If you’re a regular visitor to these parts, you’ve heard us complaining about manufacturers who downsize their products, and about manufacturer’s practices we’ve termed “deception engineering“.
Case in point… When last month’s “Costco Connection” advertising and propaganda publication arrived (they call it a “lifestyle magazine” – believe that, and we have an “infomercial” we want you to watch), we found great news on page 52 (View the April edition of Costco Connection here). Costco announced, in a two-page article, that while other brands of tuna fish were shrinking their cans from six ounces to five ounces, Costco was increasing the size of their “Kirkland Signature” house brand of tuna fish, from six ounces to seven ounces. You don’t read good news like that every day. Sounds like they’re making an already good value even better. Break out the mayonnaise and strike up the band. Happy days are here again!
Or are they?
It turns out that it’s good news for Costco, but bad news for Costco members (and, we suspect, for those cute little tuna fishies). While it’s true that they have increased the size of their Kirkland Signature tuna fish by 16.6%, to seven ounces, consumers are not getting more tuna for their money. The article in their Costco Connection magazine somehow forgot to mention the fact that the price per can actually increased even more than the size of the can! Bottom line: You get more tuna per can, but the price per ounce has increased.
Silly us. We thought we might be getting more tuna fish for the same price. In actuality, while the size of the cans was increased a whopping 16.6%, the price per can has increased an even more whopping 20%. Packs of eight 6-ounce cans had sold for $9.99 in area Costco Wholesale warehouses. Now that they have introduced packs of eight 7-ounce cans, Costco has raised the selling price to $11.99, a 20% increase. By the way, didja ever notice how most grocery items at Costco seem to be sized so that the average price per package is around $10 or $12 ? Throw 9 or ten items in your cart, and you just spent at least $100. But we guess that’s the whole idea of shopping in a “warehouse” club. And why does the price of everything have to end in “.99″, ie: $9.99, $11.99, $14.99 ? We realize that Costco didn’t invent that pricing strategy, but if you’re shopping in a place like Costco, which says it caps it’s margin** (see below) at 14%, it seems like a suspicious practice to cynical little us. Like maybe if their normal markup dictates a selling price of $12.35, it gets rounded UP to $12.99, just because someone at Costco likes the number 99, and rounding it up to an even $13.00 might seem, well, excessive. Yes, we know that 13 is not an even number, but you get the point. Besides, 1300 IS an even number, which is sort of odd, when you stop and think about it. Then again, maybe we’re paranoid, and when they have an item that should sell for $12.35, they decide to give their members a break, and round the price down to $11.99. Yeah, right. All we know is that if you look at your receipt the next time you shop at Costco, just about everything except random-weight packages of meat, poulty, fish, etc., will end in “.99″. But even those random-weight items will have a unit price ending in “.99″, such as $5.99 per pound.
But then, there are a lot of odd things at Costco, like the fact that they will accept any credit card in your wallet, as long as it is from American Express. And the fact that they don’t offer grocery bags, so you end up throwing 500 loose items into your car in the parking lot. And the fact that they won’t accept any manufacturer’s cents-off coupons, unless they are distributed by Costco themselves. And the fact that they have pretty limited hours of operation, especially for the lowest-cost membership holders. And the fact (according to this New York Times article), that Costco refuses to accept food stamps (now issued as debit cards) for purchases. And the fact that you’ll find horrifically environment-unfriendly packaging of many small items (especially electronic items) at Costco, which doesn’t seem to be getting Costco members too upset. We’re talking huge plastic blister packs (which can’t be recycled, at least where we live), or combination plastic and cardboard blister packs, so that these small items are less likely to be stolen. In our opinion, some of the terribly excessive packaging at Costco and other warehouse-type retailers qualifies as a crime against the planet, even if it doesn’t happen to be illegal.
Now, we’ll admit that we aren’t going to stop buying Costco tuna fish. It’s actually excellent quality tuna. It is quite possibly the best quality tuna we have ever found, at any price. But those good folks in Seattle must think their customers are idiots. To be sure, the price per ounce has increased only slightly, and it’s still a good value. But shamelessly hyping the increased size of their cans of tuna fish, and not mentioning that it’s now more expensive and was actually a better value before they increased the size of the cans isn’t what we would consider good news or being straightforward with their customers . In our opinion, it borders on deceptive advertising. Of course, you can’t expect that manufacturers will go out of their way to let you know when they raise prices, downsize a product, or substitute cheaper ingredients, either. What we don’t like is the fact that, in our mind at least, Costco’s announcement paints a picture that it’s now a better value, when the opposite is actually true.
Since when is raising the price (per ounce, per pound, per gallon, etc.) of a product, while at the same time, forcing you to buy more of it at once, a good thing for consumers ? What ever happened to the warehouse club concept that as package size increases, so does value ?
For us, the appeal of shopping at Costco isn’t so much about price, as it is about quality. After all, shopping at Costco means an extra shopping trip, an annual membership fee, not getting your groceries bagged, often waiting in long lines at the checkout, limited shopping hours and very limited product selection. Indeed,we can buy many identical items for less at the local supermarket, especially when they’re on sale or if we use manufacturer’s coupons. What we like most about Costco is that the quality of their private-labeled items, such as their tuna fish, is generally superior to not only the national brands, but any brand at any price. Even Jimmy Kimmel shops at Costco. Watch Jimmy shopping at Costco on youtube. We never knew a trip to Costco could be so much fun.
An article entitled “Costco’s Artful Discounts” (Business Week, October 9, 2008), says this of Costco CEO James D. Sinegal… “he’s constantly pushing his buyers to find creative ways to lower prices and add value while getting his managers to crank up their efficiency efforts”. It seems to us that Costco’s new 7-ounce cans of tuna have failed to deliver the lower prices or added value which Mr. Sinegal is so fond of. What they do seem to have provided is a lot of hype for Costco’s marketing efforts, and very likely a higher profit margin because a product’s shipping and packaging costs (especially for canned items) decrease (on a percentage basis), as container size increases. There is very little difference in the cost of manufacturing a 7-ounce tin can, compared to a 6-ounce tin can. In fact, in the case of Costco tuna fish, the old and new cans use exactly the same size lid; but the walls of the can are slightly taller. Costco is also very good at finding ways to minimize shipping costs, for instance, by having their vendors redesign packages so that more of them can fit onto a standard shipping pallet. We wouldn’t be surprised if Costco’s next “improvement” to their Kirkland signature tuna will be to offer it in new and improved square cans. Think of all the space that will save in the pantry, and the fact that you won’t have to worry about your can of tuna fish rolling away, should you drop it. That’s always been a big problem for households that live in hilly areas. Now, if the United States mint would only start issuing square pennies !
So, what have we learned today, class? We’ve learned that you get less for your money when manufacturers shrink the size of their products, and sometimes, you get less for your money when manufacturers increase the size of their products. Heads, you lose. Tails, you lose.
Dear Costco… May we please have our old 6-ounce cans of Kirkland Signature tuna fish back again? They were a better value.
Then again, maybe we should just pay our money, eat our tuna fish (mercury content and torpedoes be damned), and keep our mouth shut. Mother always said you shouldn’t speak with your mouth full, and now it’s 16.6% more full.
– Routing By Rumor
** “Margin” is not the same as “markup”. For instance, if you buy an item for $1.00, and sell it for $2.00, your markup is 100%, but your margin (the percentage of the selling price that represents your profit) is only 50%. We’ve always felt that putting things in terms of profit margin instead of markup, especially as markups become greater, has the effect of making a seller’s prices seem more reasonable.