Friday, October 22, 2010

Still Life With Robin: Boxed Out

by Peggy Robin

It’s been six weeks since I’ve written a column that can fairly be characterized as complaining about something. You see, I’ve been doing my best to ration my natural curmudgeonliness to no more than one column a month. By that standard I’m overdue for a complainer, so here it is -- and imagine me saying what comes next in that irritating Andy Rooney or Emily Litella whine: Dontcha just hate it when you go to grab something off a shelf in the supermarket and you don’t notice till you get it home that you’ve bought the wrong thing? This happens because so many companies put their significantly different products in almost identical packaging. You really have to become good at finding the small print that tells you, for example, that you’re picking up a roll of Bounty “Select-a-Size” paper towels instead of perfectly normal paper towels that tear off in full-sized sheets. (Sub-whine on this theme:  Who ever came up with this idiotic innovation anyway? It may seem good in theory to be able to tear off just the size towel you need for the job – a tiny sliver of a towel if you’ve spilled just a few drops of milk, for example – but in what parallel universe does milk spill in just a few little droplets?

In my world, the sheet always pulls apart at the first perforation but the spill is always the entire cup.  “Select-a-Size” is just a cruel hoax, and  it seems to me that stores that truly cared about their customers’ well-being, mental as well as physical, wouldn’t even stock it. End of sub-whine.)

Next up, milk (since it's already on my mind from the previous example). I usually buy non-fat milk, which back in simpler times was called skim. And it was marked that way on the cartons, in four big clear letters: SKIM. Hard to miss. If you picked up a carton of whole milk instead of skim, you really weren’t paying attention. Now it’s all gone fuzzy. I think it has something to do with the fact that skim milk tastes nowhere near as good as whole milk, and so at some point the marketing geniuses got the idea of “rebranding” it as “non-fat,” which not only avoids the bad associations consumers had with “skim” but makes it sound like it’s good for you. Well, it is good for you, but at about the time this change came into effect, I think the package designers were also instructed to downsize the word nonfat, so that it doesn't stand out the way "skim" did. But that’s nothing compared to the confusion you’re in for if you want to buy something other than whole milk but still with a little yummy fat in it.  Oh, that one-percent/two-percent confusion is a trap! I’m sure I’ve actually peered closely at the carton to look for the percentage of fat listed under the big lettering that says MILK, and still ended up with the wrong type. Or maybe the milk gremlins switch it on me while it’s in my cart. I swear when I get it home, it’s not the same carton I picked up in the store.

Things get even worse in the tea aisle. The decaf teas and the caffeinated teas need to be kept on totally different shelves, because that's the only way I’m going to be saved from buying the wrong box. I buy both types, but I have a strict, self-imposed no-caffeine-after-1pm rule.  To prevent myself from running out of decaf tea on some afternoon when I really need a hot cup, I find myself devoting what seems like an extra five or ten minutes of shopping time studying the fine print on multiple tea boxes. I understand the objection to excessive government regulation, but when it comes to food labeling, we consumers need help. If the government won’t require large-type disclosure of the presence of the stimulant drug caffeine in products, I can only plead for the tea makers to do so voluntarily. Here’s what I want:  the word "decaffeinated" on the front of the box, either above or below the product name, printed in a standard readable font, in a type size at least as large as any other nouns or adjectives that tout the product (organic, filled with flavinoids, purple berries, anti-oxidants, and memory enhancing ginkgo blah-de-blah). Plus, the word decaffeinated should be printed in bright red ink. Okay, maybe seeking out the word decaffeinated adds a total of 30 seconds, not ten minutes to my shopping trip, but multiply that by 10 or 12 tea-shopping trips per year, times all my decades of shopping, and the hours add up. It’s time I can never get back.

On to boxes of cereal. Oh, don’t get me started. You can’t just buy Cheerios anymore. There’s Honey Nut Cheerios and Multigrain Cheerios and Banana Nut Cheerios and six (count 'em, six!) other varieties to confuse you. With General Mills Oatmeal Crisp cereals it's even worse: You must distinguish among  Maple Nut, Crunchy Almond, or Hearty Raisin, all in virtually identical boxes.  (At least the Cheerios boxes are color coded to provide some visual guidance for the perplexed.) The thing about Oatmeal Crisp is that the flavorings make all the difference; the Maple Nut is to my taste all but inedible, while the Crunchy Almond is a delight, with the raisin variety a ho-hum in between.  So what happens if you get home and find you have the dreaded Maple Nut? As long as you discover the mistake before you crack open the boxtop, you're fine, but if you're in ignorance until you pour out that first maple-permeated bowlful, you're out of luck. Once opened the box can't even be given away to a food bank. Down the drain it goes. (Hmm, did I say I wasn’t going to get started on this?  I seem to have done more than that, but at least let me stop myself while I still can.)

All of the mistaken package identity pitfalls multiply when you order online through Giant's Peapod or Safeway’s home delivery service. You go online and can usually see an image of the package you’re choosing, but it’s tiny on your monitor, and even if you zoom in, you’ll still miss tell-tale product markers that you might catch if you could read all four sides of the box as you might do in the bricks-and-mortar store. Both Giant and Safeway rush to assure you that if you end up with the wrong product, they'll come and exchange it for what you wanted. Still, it's a bit of a hassle to call and arrange a switch. And the friendly guy on the phone always wants to know if the store made the error or if you did. So far it's been my fault every time. They still cheerfully return, making clear that they want me to be happy and continue to use the service. But truthfully, most of the time it’s not worth the trouble for a single box of something, so I just keep it and use it up, even though I didn't want it in the first place. But it irritates me all the same.

There is a solution, however:  Slow down, read carefully, take your time, avoid mistakes. Or continue to curse the product package designers. Ah, I think I’ll go for that one. Because that's the curmudgeonly way.


  1. I'm totally with you on the mini-paper towel thing. So annoying if not downright baffling. Try adding coupons to the grocery shopping madness -- they specify in itsy-bitsy sized print exact product sizes, flavors and barely ledgible exeptions, legalese, disclaimers and expiration dates.

    If this helps -- we gave up paper towels completely in an effort to go green. We bought two 12 packs of white cotton tea towels at Costco and use them for all clean ups. Then, we just throw them in the wash when we do a load of whites. I suppose if one is a fan of the mini-mini paper towels, they could use face cloths instead! :-)

  2. I, too, have given up on paper towels and opt for rags that go in the white bleach wash. At least you know what you're getting out of the machine!

    But a GREAT point made is about the tea. I don't drink decaf, yet somehow, it's on my shelf. In fact, it's 1 a.m., so I'm drinking some now. Oh, well, better than taking it back (you could write a whole column on that, too!).

  3. This happens to me all the time. Twice I bought Head & Shoulders conditioner when I wanted shampoo. I can rarely find original-flavor Crest toothpaste and several times came home with a gel that I can't stand. Tide: accidentally picked up High Efficiency for my regular washer. Old Spice deodorant, hard to find original scent, original formula; can't stand their new Fresh scent. Plus what you said. —Ken Nellis

  4. Right, how could I have forgotten the shampoo/conditioner mixup! I probably do that more often than tea or cereal. And then I'm already in the shower before I notice that I have two shampoos and no conditioner.

    And to commenter at 1:08 that I could do a whole column on returning things: absolutely! I'm putting that on my idea list right now. Thanks!