Duck Soup: 38 Percent Free!

The other day I picked up a tube of toothpaste that promised 38 percent more for the regular price. Then I found a bag of cat food that claimed to give me one pound free. Next I grabbed a batch of buy-one-get-one-free floppy disks and a bag of buy-two-get-one-free cassette tapes.The question that haunted me as I walked into the parking lot was this: Do I want to continue dealing with a company that willingly ripped me off last time? If they gave me 38 percent "less" before, weren't they just playing me for a sucker? The manufacturer probably overcharged me for as long as possible, and then in the face of competition decided to squirt a little extra dentifrice my way. I bet the whole scheme involves some sort of short term ploy to put a competitor out of business or buy them out. Then they'll probably downsize and give me half the fluoride for twice the price. I feel like I'm being fleeced, or at least mentally flossed. And what about the extra cat food and supposedly free disks and tapes. Do you suppose these three marketeers were poring over the ledger books one day and yelped, "Gosh, we've been charging too much!"? Or do you think it seems more likely that a pollster and an ad exec are laughing over an $80 lunch, "Boy those nummers will buy anything!"? This sort of shell game is clearly related to another one long noted by careful shoppers: The Giant Economy Size Family Value Pack merchandising that pulls your eye and hand to a great big box of detergent or toilet paper or cereal with bold letters and splashy graphics that seem to shout, "Bargain!" Unless you are an idiot savant or carry a laptop computer everywhere, it is almost impossible to sort out the numbers. That's why you see a harried mother in aisle six mumbling, "Hmmm, the little package is 15.75 ounces for $8.79, and the big package is 1268 grams for $27.49, but the middle sized box is 2.3 pounds for $17.79." All the while her daughter is tugging at her skirt whining, "Mommy I want some Winkies! Please Mommy, can we get some Winkies? You said we could get some Winkies!" To further confuse the issue some of the boxes have coupons attached to use now, and others promise coupons inside to use later. Sometimes the ones inside are for other products the company wants you to try or involve mail-in rebates which plugs postage into the equation. Obviously such companies only want to offer you the best product at the best price in order to claim your brand name loyalty. Right. If you believe "that" one you probably still send contributions to Newt Gingrich's reading program for disadvantaged kids.Some stores pretend to help you sort out these pricing schemes, but often when you examine their supposedly consumer friendly labels you find only further deception. Take coffee for example: first the packaged coffee was switched from one pound containers to eleven-and-a-half- or thirteen-and-a-half-ounce cans and bags and then most grocers installed grinders and bulk bins for the fancy roasts. The little tags tell you the price of bagged coffee in ounces, and the big display offers French Mocha Espresso Mint for $7.77 a pound. So you stand there dividing seven point seven-seven by sixteen while the loudspeaker tells you about a two for one sale on giant economy size frozen plastic pizzas just $4.88 while supplies last.Frustrated folks have two alternatives. The first is to join what is euphemistically termed a shopping club, although "club" implies a chummy all-for-one-and-one-for-all attitude that is a complete sham. Such warehouse sized bulk retailers suggest you are buying wholesale when in fact you are simply sacrificing convenience in order to buy full case quantities of stuff you may never use. Or, you join a co-op. Few co-operative groups are large enough to get the volume discounts available to big merchants - so this may be a wash on savings. Any real gain comes from getting higher quality products, often organically produced, which are not available in the mass market.Thirty-eight percent free is way cool. Cool, that is, if you really wanted the other 62 from the start.

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