Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Beware of New and Improved

I think that progress is wonderful. In no way would I want to go back to living the way my ancestors of one hundred years ago did. I'm not looking to boil my clothes on top of a wood-burning stove. But in adopting all the marvelous items that have made life easier we are sometimes duped into believing things that may or may not be true.

Manufacturers are not stupid. They know that most people are people of habit. While they may occasionally buy a new product, they tend to stick with the tried and true that has worked for them. This is unacceptable to manufacturers, who need consumers to be constantly buying. The weapon they use? "New and Improved" emblazoned boldly across a product package.

So what makes that product new and improved? What is the actual benefit to the consumer? In some cases the only thing that has changed is the product packaging, and that is not always to a consumer's benefit. Some orange juice companies touted a new, improved, sturdier container for their orange juices. Improved? The juice in the container went from 64 ounces to 59 ounces, but the price remained the same. What was improved was the producer's bottom line.

Companies that make cleaning and grooming products are among the worst offenders when it comes to using the new and improved label on their products. From year to year the packaging of these products changes, and trust me, the packages never get larger, only smaller. Sometimes the only actual changes are the colors of the labels on the packages. Sometimes the size of the bottle/box changes. And sometimes the shape of the bottles change. One major shampoo advertised heavily that its bottles were now more user friendly because they had an indentation in the middle allowing them to be grasped easier during use. That new shape plus a cap that was 3/4 of an inch taller than the old one on a bottle that was shorter than the old one resulted in 4 ounces less of shampoo in the bottle than was there previously--and a cost that went up over $1.00 per bottle.

Reynolds aluminum foil 200 foot roll is touting its new space saving packaging. Now let me ask you: was storing that roll of foil really such a space saving problem? Forget the new packaging: I want to know what they have done to the foil inside the package. Is it still as thick as it once used to be? That the package is not going to tell you. When that foil costs 6.99 to 8.99 a package I'd rather have something tangible that reduces the price, not the packaging.

Along with new and improved you also have the word "concentrated" to deal with. If you read the label even briefly, concentrated should mean that you need to use less of the product now then you did before. Maybe. Some of these products are 2X concentrated, some 3X or 4X concentrated. Most of the manufacturers who offer concentrated products claim they are saving you money by doing so--they reduce the expense of the packaging while still giving you the same amount of product. Yeah, right.

The manufacturer of a popular detergent went the concentrated route on most of its products, and shopping for this product is now way too complicated. Side by side you have the concentrated and still a few of the non-concentrated items. So, a concentrated bottle of the detergent, offering 3X concentration. The weight on the bottle is 32 ounces. The bottle states that it gives you 32 loads of laundry (except when you actually read the bottle and find out that large or heavily soiled loads will need twice the detergent.) That should mean that the non-concentrated detergent would be 96 ounces for the same 32 loads. Now look at its 2X cousin. That bottle is 60 ounces and states it will give you 31 loads of laundry. So in the non-concentrated form that would be 120 ounces equalling 31 loads of laundry. Anyone noticing a problem? In black and white and looked at side by side you've got 31-32 loads of laundry using either 96 ounces or 120 ounces of regular detergent. The numbers don't compute. Of course they don't; if they did you might actually be able to compare the cost per ounce and see which of the products is the least expensive. And even though both the 2X and the 3X give you about the same number of regular loads, their prices aren't the same.

It shouldn't take a degree in advanced mathematics to go grocery shopping. Thanks to all those new and improved products that flood the shelves, that's where we are heading. I was sitting with a pocket calculator figuring all the costs across the various sizes offered on a paper towel product. The assistant manager of the store walked by and saw me doing my calculations. He pointed out that the best buy was a paper towel that was being offered at what he called a "spectacular" sale because of its new and improved space saving size and multiple rolls per pack. I then pointed out to him that he was wrong, dead wrong. The on sale paper towels were smaller in dimension than many other of the towels being sold and had less towels per roll than many of the others. Even with more rolls per pack they were more expensive to buy than others were. They weren't as thick as many of the others either. Even on sale they weren't a bargain. He walked off grumbling about smartaleck shoppers. Tough.

Yes, today it really must be emphasized: let the buyer be ware. Those manufacturers are not producing their products out of the goodness of their hearts. And when they tell you about new and improved? Learn how to be a skeptic.


tesyaa said...

Re laundry detergent, you and your readers should know that you don't have to use as much detergent as the package says, whether it's the old formulation or the concentrated formulation. You can use about HALF of the recommended amount and still get most clothes clean.

Lion of Zion said...

yes, there was a NYT article about this recently. not only is it wasting money to use to the manufacturer's recommended amount, but it kills the maching quicker. the article recommends a towel test.

ProfK said...

Tesyaa and Lion,
Yes and no on the amount of detergent to use. The factors involved are: size of load, type of load, wash/rinse water temperatures used, length/strength of wash cycle used, type of material of items being washed, and dirt present--type and degree. The amount of time that a dirty item has been sitting waiting to be washed can also affect how it will need to be washed and how much detergent will be needed.

Leahle said...

Also depends on if you are using chlorine bleach in the wash.

I've got some of that 2X and 3X detergent in the house and never even checked the ounces. Just figured they were 2 or 3 times the regular. But you're right that the ounces don't match up. Another way to screw the consumer.

efrex said...

As I've said on a number of occasions (possibly even on this blog), the problem with "free markets" is that the second word in that phrase is also a verb. "Marketing" in the US is almost universally definable as "how to get the customer to make an objectively bad financial decision." Often, dozens of products in a particular consumer category perform their stated tasks equivalently, but put a fancy sticker on the packaging (preferably with a few exclamation points) and you can suddenly create the illusion of superiority. Unfortunately, it's very hard to break the hold of brand names on customers.

The one area where this always amazes me is in chemical/medicinal products. I can understand someone believing that Diet Coke tastes better than Diet Pepsi (although, IIRC, most people couldn't tell the difference in a blind test if their lives depended on it), but why are earth are there five different drain-cleaning products, all of which are just sodium or potassium hydroxide solutions of the same strength? How does Duane Reade manage to sell a single bottle of Motrin or Advil, when its generic ibuprofen at the same strength level sells for half the price?

Sometime back in the Jurassic Era, I believe I read an essay by a computer developer (possibly Guy Kawasaki) who described how his company tried to place advertising in a Russian magazine that was reviewing his product. The ad was rejected because it didn't provide any useful information that wasn't already in the main article. I don't think we need to go quite that far, but I do wish advertising would lose a lot of the meaningless and misleading jargon.

ProfK said...

You're right for the most part Efrex. But there are a few acceptable reasons for the existence of multiple products whose main ingredients are identical. One of the reasons is the smell of the product. I cannot get up close and personal with plain chlorinated bleach--I gag just opening the bottle. And then some enterprising manufacturer started making those bleaches with perfumes added. I finally found a scent I can live with, thankfully a generic brand, but I imagine that other people might do better with a different scent, added by a different manufacturer than the one I use. The scent, or lack of a scent, is also why I pay more for a name brand detergent (I stock up during a good sale) but it's one of the few that is both scent free and color additive free.

Re the medications, taste can be a factor for the liquid ones. The main medicinal ingredient may be the same but the flavors can vary from one product to another. Back when my kids were little there wasn't the mad choice there is now with cough syrups. There was basically one name brand and a few generics of that name brand. The taste of the generics was so horrible you couldn't get anyone to swallow them--basically worthless. The name brand used a flavoring that cost more to include.

Anonymous said...

You can skip a lot of the hype if you use no name. I'm a big believer in generics and store brands. Often the no name products are made by the manufacturer of the name brand. But, as ProfK points out, for some people there are some products where generic won't do. For me, it's ketchup and mayonaise. For just about everything else, I don't notice a difference. It also can be hard to find the healthier version of many foods (i.e. low sodium or without high fructose corn syrup) in the no name brands.

Lion of Zion said...


"How does Duane Reade manage to sell a single bottle of Motrin or Advil, when its generic ibuprofen at the same strength level sells for half the price?"

i've been meaning to post about this sickening adv. i've heard on the radion for branded aspirin, encouraging people to "use the brand you've trusted for years"

so why do ppl do it?

a) because people are idiots

b) not the case with motrin/advil, but with other medications people in most cases get the brands rather than generics because they don't have to pay for it out of their own pockets (going off on a tangent, but this is one abuse issue that has to be worked out with nationalized health care)

and btw, duane reade doesn't want you to buy the brand advil/motrin.

Anonymous said...


"For me, it's ketchup"

oh yeah! i eat ketchup on everything and there is definately a big difference in taste. that's the hardest part of pesach for me.

Toby said...

Especially with cleaners of all kinds the new and improved goes together with 'now oxygenated' or 'oxi.' Last time I looked oxygen is air, so they've added air to the product. and if they've added air then the product weighs less or there is less of it. Those used to be detergent bottles that had 32 ounces in them now go from 22 to 28 ounces. Talk about getting rooked.

SubWife said...

I could never understand the phrase "new and improved". If it's new, it means there was nothing before it, so they couldn't possibly improve it; if it's improved, it cannot really be new. Am I missing something?

Regarding generic medicines. I was a big believer in generics, until I had done some research after experiencing problems with switching manufacturers of the same generic drug. According to FDA, if the active ingredients deviate within +-20% of bioequivalence from the original formula, it is considered acceptable. And measuring could be very tricky. It doesn't mean that all generic drugs are bad, but they are not exactly carbon copies of the brand names either.

Litvak said...

Prof., did you see the WSJ article the other day on detergent and washing machines?

Take a look. Quite interesting and highly recommended!

Lion of Zion said...

just came back from the grocery and was reminded of my favorite new and improved produect, i.e., the watered down grape and orange juice the same as the regular product