Wendy Knowler masthead
October 24 2012 at 09:46

If you can’t be bothered to check out the small print on labels, you are laying yourself open to being ripped off at every turn.

The sad truth is that if manufacturers can get away with making products that are smaller and/or of poorer quality than those of their competitors, they will.

By doing so, their prices appear to undercut those of their competitors, and consumers who aren’t savvy or motivated enough to do proper comparison shopping choose these “cheaper” products in the mistaken belief that they’re getting a good deal, being guided only by price.

I’ve devoted masses of column space to examples of downsizing, and in some cases, downgrading of products: a smaller bar of soap or bottle of tomato sauce; a shrunken bar of chocolate; less chicken in the chicken pie.

And it’s happening in every supermarket aisle, not just the food and cosmetics ones.

Rajesh Ranjith recently queried whether the thickness of black rubbish bags, sold in packs in supermarkets, was regulated because in his experience, he said, it varied greatly.

Worse still, he said, many brands don’t declare the micron count on their packaging, so consumers had no idea what the manufacturer means by “heavy duty” at the time of purchase.

“You only discover the inferior quality of some of these bags when you’re taking out the trash and they rip,” Ranjith said.

Responding, Rory Murray, marketing manager of Tuffy Brands, said manufacturers were not required to state the thickness, in microns, on the packs, nor were the descriptions linked to regulated micron counts.

“The industry has sort of regulated itself into three bands – 18 microns for a ‘budget’ bag, 22 microns for a ‘standard’ bag, and 35 microns for ‘heavy duty’,” he said.

“Tuffy has taken the stance to hold our product offerings to these specifications, but not all brands are doing this,” Murray said.

“So Mr Ranjith is quite correct – consumers may well be faced with two rolls of 10 refuse bags, both stating ‘heavy duty’, but in fact one is 35 micron and the other 28 micron.

“The 28 micron bag may well be cheaper, as less material is being used in its manufacture, but the product is in fact 20 percent thinner.”

Since March, all Tuffy products have carried a micron count on the packaging, Murray said, but given that plastic bags have an indefinite shelf life, much old stock – without a micron count – remains on sale.

“The upcoming new SABS legislation requires the thickness to be stated on the outer packaging,” Murray said, “but this will only apply to products carrying the SABS endorsement.”

Right now, the supermarket shelves carry a mix of refuse bag products that do declare the micron count, and those that don’t.

So, don’t just grab any old pack of refuse bags based on price – look very carefully at the micron count, and if you’re into sparing the environment, choose one that uses as high a recycled content as possible.

The same goes for tissues – some brands are packs of 200 and others packs of 180 or less, so check out the number on the pack before you buy.

And not all paper towel sheets are the same size – there’s something else to check.

Reader Peter Lovejoy said he bought a triple pack of Pick n Pay brand paper towel earlier this month and later realised that the sheets were smaller than they were previously.

“The pack reads 260mm x 220mm – the sheets used to be 277mm x 230mm!”

And he’s convinced the quality has been reduced, too.

I sought a response from Pick n Pay and was told by corporate brands general manager Cindy Jenks that the size change came about when the supplier of the PnP brand paper towels changed its machinery, “in order to utilise more efficient technology with better embossing and reduced wastage”.

“This is so disappointing,” Lovejoy said. “No doubt we’ll be told it’s about keeping the product ‘affordable’ but I’d rather pay more for a better quality product.”

Toilet rolls are regulated in terms of number of sheets, as well as the thickness and the size of each of those sheets, but, as previously reported in this column, the regulations changed recently to allow, among other things, for two-ply rolls to come in either the traditional 350 sheets or just 200 sheets.

Those smaller “mini” packs sell for seemingly bargain prices, but are actually the most expensive option. Beware.

Paper serviettes are also regulated. There’s an SABS standard that manufacturers are required to conform to in terms of both size and thickness. Serviettes should be 21g/m2 thick and measure 30x30cm when unfolded.

But I’ve just discovered that some manufacturers are ignoring that specification and making serviettes that are smaller and thinner than the standard, thereby undercutting the competition, but providing unwitting consumers with an inferior product.

If you’ve got a pack of these plain serviettes at home, take out your rule, and measure – you might just find them to be about a centimetre short, contrary to the measurements stated on the pack. Let me know!

Are the supermarkets that are selling these non-compliant products aware that they are short-changing their customers?

I intend to find out…

Watch this space.


Follow Wendy on Twitter: @wendyknowler


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