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A Cunning Trick sometimes used by Supermarkets to Skimp on the Value of Goods on Sale (Portion Distortion)


Of course we'd like to trust that supermarkets are honest and fair, and that there are no shenanigans going on such as products not being quite what they seem. These days it matters quite a lot, because some customers write stuff up online.

In the UK and some other countries that have a law-based jurisdiction, supermarkets aren't allowed to make false statements about the weight of products on sale, and they're not allowed to cheat in various other ways which are tangible. If they are caught selling goods that are underweight, falsely priced, incorrectly described, etc, they can be put in court and tried. This is a quite separate system of justice from the one in which people shop elsewhere because they think the place is not fair. However, there are some ways in which goods on sale can be legal and yet the customer can be fooled.

A way in which customers can be caught out, apparently easily, is by a cunning technique which is applied as follows:

1. A product line is put on sale at a particular price and customers buy it, and it sells quite well. Customers get accustomed to it and begin to rely on it being unchanging.

2. The product is then swapped for something which looks very similar, is in an uncannily similar packaging, and is the same price, but is of a poorer weight (or otherwise of lower spec).

3. Customers go on buying the (changed) product, unaware of the difference, as most people don't read labels, or check things, etc.

I have seen this trick done with a variety of products at various supermarkets. Most often it is the weight of the product that's reduced, and customers are oblivious to this. If the supermarket were taken to account for it, they would have a legal defence by pointing out that the weight was correctly stated. Legally, it is the customer's responsibility to read all the smallprint on the packaging, and if they don't, then they are unprotected by the law in such matters.

As a paranoid schizophrenic myself, I can easily spot the folly going on, and I can see how oblivious the normal people are to it. Sometimes the weight has been reduced by as little as 8%, and sometimes as much as 30%, but it's easy for me to read the weight figures automatically. I'm a multi-track mind. Meanwhile I can see the normal people are just loading the supermarket products into their trolleys without even noticing.

In the late zero-zeros decade, some types of alcohol were similarly being legally skimped. For example, the label on a bottle would have a name that looked a bit like "Vodka" and would have a Russian style type font, etc, but instead of being 37.5% vol or 40% vol alcohol, it would be 22%. No customer would have a hope in court, as lawyers could easily point out that the stuff isn't claiming to be Vodka, and it clearly says 22% vol, etc. See, it's the customer's responsibility to read the label.

I have heard there can sometimes be problems of "Free Range Eggs" not being as free range as they should be. There was a particularly nasty attempt by the Australian Egg Corporation to redefine "free range" as something which most people would regard as neither free nor fair. For more about this problem, see the Australian paragraph in the page about Free Range Eggs and follow the links.

A more sinister version of the sneaky labelling trick on products is sometimes (though thankfully rarely) performed, where the packaging remains the same but the recipe is changed. The new recipe may contain substances which some people find toxic. Yet, the majority of the area of the packaging is identical, so they have no reason to examine it closely. As a coeliac myself, I take a keen interest, and am quick to spot if the dreaded wheat has been added sneakily.

I don't believe there is a sinister plot to poison coeliacs, but I do believe there is a policy among some places to augment the weight or alcohol content in such a way as to let the customer be fooled. Whether such fooling is being done by supermarkets or manufacturers is another matter, but the evidence is strongly that it is going on.

The problem has sometimes been termed "Portion Distortion", although that is subtly different from the undersize skimping of food portions in supermarkets.

What's to be done about it:

There is no legalistic solution, as people are allowed to fool themselves and to believe things that aren't true. It would be impractical and counterproductive to legislate to protect people from their own stupidity.

A more practical solution would be for customers to watch out for skimped products and to highlight them on a website. A similar thing is already going on regarding expensive 0870 phone numbers. For products that are deceptive, it would be possible to expose them, and then people will be able to vote with their feet and shop where they choose. There is, at least, some fair competition.

If you notice a deceptive product, to be fair you should contact the customer careline and tell the place in question and give them a chance to repent. Only if they persist should the humiliation be upon them.


Also see 99p, and also the toilet roll middles