Consumer Watch

Wendy Knowler fights for your rights...

Wendy Knowler masthead
September 10 2012 at 10:06

Well, what do you know: the supermarket group catering for this country’s poorest has been charging its customers a relatively exorbitant price for plastic carrier bags – far more than all the other major supermarket groups, including Woolworths.

Until nine years ago, South Africans got free plastic carrier bags from the supermarkets they chose to shop at.

Then the government stepped in and said to curb plastic waste, those bags had to be made of thicker plastic, and the supermarkets, along with other retailers, had to start charging their customers for them, the idea being that the cost and the enhanced quality would encourage people to re-use rather than discard them.

As an added bonus, 3c – now 4c – was paid to the government, to be used to set up recycling plants countrywide.

Well, as I said in this column a month ago, that grand plan has gone horribly wrong.

Most consumers still get fresh bags from supermarkets at every shop, having got used to paying for them, and that levy – about R150 million a year – hasn’t funded any “green” initiatives at all.

I did a little whip around when researching that column, and discovered that the big four supermarkets’ current standard 24-litre plastic bag prices varied somewhat:

PnP: 39c
Spar: 36c
Shoprite Checkers: 39c
Woolworths: 44c

This week I happened to buy a few things at the Umgeni Road, Durban, branch of Cambridge Food.

The rapidly expanding supermarket chain owned by Massmart, a Walmart subsidiary, caters for the country’s lowest-income consumers, many of them unemployed and reliant on government grants, according to its website.

Its much-repeated slogan is: “We save our customers money so they can live better lives.”

Well, the packet my few purchases were put into cost me 69c.

No, it wasn’t thicker than those of its competitors, and it wasn’t any bigger, either – 24 litres.

So naturally I asked Cambridge Food how the company justified the price, particularly in light of its slogan, and its claim to be slashing its profit margins.

This was the response I received from Massmart’s communications manager Roxanne Rolando: “Your assistance in bringing our attention to the price of our competitors’ 24-litre plastic bags and this issue is invaluable.

“Cambridge Food does indeed strive to provide its customers with affordable prices and because of this, from tomorrow morning (Friday, September 7), the 24-litre government-issued plastic carrier bags at Cambridge Food stores can be purchased for 40c.

“We will continue to strive to provide our customers with prices that will enable them to live a better life.”

So, just like that, they slashed their plastic bag price by almost 20c. But interestingly, the Cambridge Food “plastics” still aren’t the cheapest supermarket bags – only Woolworths’s bags, at 44c, are more expensive.

So apparently Cambridge Food would never have known what its competitors were charging for their plastic bags if I had not told them.

And there was I thinking that competition was a good thing.

Toilet rolls: smaller doesn’t mean cheaper

In April, Consumer Watch reported that while for years toilet paper manufacturers have been required by law to ensure that one-ply toilet rolls have at least 500 sheets, and two-ply rolls 350 sheets, this regulation was amended in March.

Now manufacturers can also produce rolls with fewer sheets. One-ply rolls can either be 500 sheets or just 300 sheets, and two-ply rolls either 350 sheets or just 200 sheets.

The marketing spin goes like this: “What these changes ultimately mean to the consumer is that they will now be able to purchase toilet rolls at a cheaper price point due to the reduction in sheet count of the new offerings.”

How this is a good thing for consumers is not clear to me.

For some years now, manufacturers of all sorts of goods have been reducing the size of their packs to pass on their higher input costs in |a sneaky way, rather than transparently putting up the price of the existing pack size.

They call it making the products “more affordable” or selling them “at a cheaper price point”, which consumers may confuse with “cheaper”, when what it really means is that the manufacturers have invested a whole lot in new packaging to create the illusion of cheaper, or at least not more expensive.

In fact, smaller packs mean we’re getting less for our money. You may have to outlay less for that box of tissues, bar of soap or bottle of tomato sauce, but you’re going to finish it quicker than the old, bigger pack, which means you’re going to have to buy a replacement one quicker.

The same goes for toilet rolls.

It’s obvious you are going to use up a 200-sheet roll of toilet paper a lot faster than a 350-sheet one.

And get this – the smaller rolls work out to be more expensive, per sheet, than the traditional size rolls.

The smaller rolls weren’t on the market when I wrote about this back in April, but they are now.

Kimberly-Clark is calling its smaller rolls “Mini” – and currently selling them in a pack of 24 marked “Value”.

Reader Roy Reed spotted them on special at Game – normal price R89.99, current price R69.99, which works out to just R2.91 a roll.

They are clearly marked as being 200-sheet rolls, but consumers to whom sheet count means nothing, and who assume all two-ply toilet rolls have the same number of sheets, as they did before, this would seem like a massive bargain.

But even at the reduced price, these “value” 200-sheet rolls work out to be the same price a sheet as the nine-roll pack of 350-sheet Baby Soft two-ply.

Industry insiders tell me the move is designed to induce those who can normally only afford one-ply toilet paper to try two-ply, given that it’s now “more affordable”.

Talk about false economy!

I took up the issue with Baby Soft manufacturer Kimberly-Clark, taking issue with the fact the Mini pack also has the word “Value” emblazoned on it, which struck me as misleading, under the circumstances.

The company’s MD, Garth Towell, said the company welcomed the change to the toilet paper regulations, allowing for the sale of smaller rolls, as it “improves the rights of consumers”.

Presumably he means the right to choose the size of your toilet rolls.

In my experience, what this will mean in reality is that many will mistakenly believe that toilet paper has suddenly become more “affordable”, or available at “a cheaper price point”, when in fact, sheet for sheet, the smaller rolls are actually quite |a bit more expensive.

That’s not exactly a boon for consumers, if you ask me.

Reducing pack sizes of everyday grocery items, so that we get less than we used to, does not solve the problem of rampant cost inflation.

It’s a silly, wasteful exercise.

Towell said the company was comfortable that they’d done enough to avoid consumers buying the apparently cheaper Mini packs without realising the rolls were smaller.

The sheet count – 200 – was prominent on the pack, he said, and the Mini packs were green, while the |350-sheet roll packs were blue.

As the for “value” claim, he said this referred to a comparison with the smaller nine- and four-roll Mini packs, not the regular 350-sheet |roll packs.

Ah.

The bottom line – no pun intended – is that the smaller rolls are not the better buy; they are the most expensive toilet rolls.

Don’t be fooled.

Ignore Ts and Cs at your peril

Vanity and greed – two human conditions that see many a consumer part ways with their money.

Tell people that they’ve won a pile of money, or that there’s a miracle potion or pill that will magically make their fat or wrinkles disappear, and you can be sure that enough of them will fall for it to make you very rich indeed.

Scores of SA women are being duped by adverts on Facebook and other sites into giving their credit card details to a company purporting to be a Danish |“anti-ageing” cosmetics company, for a relatively inexpensive “trial sample”, only to have their accounts debited for more than R1 600.

I’ve had quite a few complaints from victims of this “subscription” scam, and posts are pouring in to the complaints website |HelloPeter.

The anti-ageing range is called Formlife, and the company claims to be “Nordic Health Group APS” of Denmark, but as this is the internet we’re talking about, who knows?

I did try to get a response from the company, via the e-mail address on its website, but had no reply.

The site features very obviously doctored before and after photos of women who have purportedly reversed the clock by at least 20 years by using Formlife’s products. It invites consumers to pay just R30, including shipping and “handling”, for a trial “welcome pack” of products.

Under that invitation appears a smaller, fainter paragraph that reads: “By using credit card (sic), you accept that it is automatically charged for deliveries according to the agreed terms and conditions, unless otherwise stated.”

Under that is the section requiring consumers to fill in their credit card details, and under that, in even smaller print: “I hereby confirm that I am over 18 years. I have read the terms and conditions and I accept them.”

The site has pre-placed a tick in the confirmation box, so the order can be processed without the consumer actually ticking the box themselves, to confirm that they have indeed read the Ts and Cs.

Very dodgy practice.

Because by clicking on the words “terms and conditions” in that section, you get to discover what you’re actually agreeing to – and it’s a very far cry from just a R30 welcome pack.

You’re agreeing to “enter into an agreement about current subscription… and to pay for the welcome package and the first ordinary consignment”.

Two weeks after the welcome package is sent, R1 545 will be charged for the “discount club”, plus R90 for shipping. Then three months later, another R1 635, and so on. That’s R6 540 a year.

And it’s all right there on the site.

Many have panicked on seeing R1 635 debited on their credit card statement, and have cancelled their credit cards.

The thing is, the advertising of the offer is most definitely hideously misleading, but the terms and conditions, accessible via the payment page, do reveal the subscription, and the cost.

Anyone who bothered to click and read would never go ahead and supply their credit card details.

As I’ve been saying for years, the smaller and more boring the print looks, the more important it is for you to read it – whether online or on paper.

Rather gloss over the large print, and spend your time sweating the small stuff.

And don’t be so quick to enter your credit card details on obscure websites.

[email protected]

 

 

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