Aaron's Real Opinions:

Commercial Nannyism
by Aaron Harber
August 19, 2007 - Print Article

Part 1: The Rise Of The Nanny State.

One of the battle-cries of American Republicans (once known as being “conservative” but long-ago having abandoned most conservative principles) in recent years has been the need to stop the epidemic expansion of the “Nanny State.” Of course, the criticism was reserved for Democrats (once known as “liberal” but long-ago having abandoned that in exchange for becoming “Republican Lite”), who Republicans accused of propagating the disease.

The Nanny State was a description of a Government philosophy where citizens were instructed by a Government which told them what to do and how to live, most notably in key aspects of their private lives which actually needed less - not more - intrusion.

Republicans didn’t blanch at their own contradictory behavior when, once they ascended to total power in Washington - claiming control of the Presidency, the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, and the U.S. Supreme Court – they embarked on their own version of Nannyism by seeking legislation, rules, and regulations which told Americans what to do and how to live their lives. Naturally, because Republicans knew their views were “right,” they did not see this as their own version of the Nanny State; rather, they simply saw their actions as “corrective measures” needed to put Americans on the “right” course.

Now, a U.S. company has entered the Nanny State fray in its own small way. It’s one of my favorite stores - SAFEWAY. SAFEWAY is in the extraordinarily competitive world of the grocery business. At grocery stores today, one can buy almost anything. Most recently, SAFEWAY even began offering gift cards not only for their own stores but for a wide variety of other consumer outlets.

What was most amusing, however, was SAFEWAY’s latest effort to help its customers, such as yours truly, decide what we should buy at its stores. This is where SAFEWAY’s nannyistic approach becomes so silly it may backfire. It certainly did for me.

Part 2: Always Buy More Than You Need.

The rise of the Nanny State now has expanded to commercial enterprises. In the case of SAFEWAY, perhaps it would be better described as the rise of the “Dummy State.” Now that there is a version of “Computers For Dummies” on every subject (“Microsoft Windows For Dummies,” “Car-Buying For Dummies,” “Sex For Dummies,” et cetera), SAFEWAY has entered the arena with its own version of “Grocery Shopping For Dummies.”

Specifically, every week, many of the major grocery chains such as ALBERTSONS, KING SOOPERS (KROGER), WHOLE FOODS, WILD OATS (OK, soon to be WHOLE FOODS), and SAFEWAY, among others, print colorful flyers describing the specially-priced items we, as consumers, can purchase that week. The flyers implore us to buy more than just groceries as profit margins on dry goods often are far superior to those on food items, especially for staples (which have become commodities in every sense of the word). The result is our eyes are treated to a colorful array of 100 or more products out of the thousands available at each store - all emanating a siren call to “Buy me now, before the sale is over.”

Sharp shoppers know that, if you shop the sales every week, you can save quite a bit of money. These weekly specials, especially if purchased in bulk (I did find out, however, lettuce doesn’t stay fresh forever and ultimately is transformed into an alien slime I can’t even convince any of my dogs to eat), can result in savings which best even COSTCO, SAM’S CLUB, and other bulk, warehouse grocery outlets.

And who cares if you have enough tomato paste for life? At ten cents a can, I couldn’t resist buying a pallet of those little buggers. It’s true that, if you do the arithmetic, some deals are not too great. I remember buying 12 pounds of bananas at the attractive price of only 25 cents per pound. I ate only one pound of the bananas before the rest turned to a black mush (sorry, no one offered to bake banana bread for me). It was only weeks later when I realized my effective rate of banana purchases was $3 a pound. So much for me being the Smart Shopper!

Coincidentally, have Chiquita, Dole, and their brethren perfected the banana spoiling process so they begin to rot once they’ve been in your home no more than 60 minutes? These days, most foods seem to be lasting longer, in terms of freshness, but bananas seem to have been genetically altered so they no longer are our friends, chronologically speaking, even if you buy them when they’re dark green.

Part 3: Grocery-Shopping For Dummies?

Where SAFEWAY has gone beyond the boundaries of decency and respect for the already low IQ of the American consumer is with its own weekly flyer. SAFEWAY decided it is not sufficient to have a full-color brochure highlighting its weekly specials. No, no, no. Obviously, its customers are too stupid to recognize what great deals all these specials are. Instead, in order to help us, SAFEWAY has established a practice of circling, in black ink, some of the specials they believe are more special than their specials.

Now, each week, I admit I look forward, with great anticipation, to the weekly grocery-store flyers inserted in my newspapers. I wake up that morning and my first thought (OK, after getting the dogs outside before there is an accident in my house) is, “What wonderful food-related surprises await my tummy today?”

I get the newspapers and - before even having breakfast - grab my large marking pen and go through each ad, circling items I absolutely must purchase that week. It’s often the highlight of my day (sad as that is to say).

However, now SAFEWAY has sabotaged my selection process by using its own large marking pen to circle items it believes are especially special. In one recent flyer (good through August 21st of 2007), out of eight special items presented on the lower half of the flyer’s front page, seven were circled by SAFEWAY. That’s a “special special” rate of almost 90% - high enough to argue items aren’t so “special” if all of them are included.

They included such critically important items as Nabisco “Chips Ahoy” cookies (“BOGO” or buy one, get one free - at an inflated price which made the deal not-so-special anyway). They urged me to buy two 12-packs of Coca-Cola so I could get three 12-packs free (although, at the inflated price and given my need to cut back on soft drinks anyway, this wasn’t a good deal). Two pounds of cheese went for $5.99, which also wasn’t so special (now, when you get it down to $2 pound, I’ll be there). And PREGO Pasta Sauce was offered at a rate of 4 for $5.

This PREGO Pasta Sauce example made me wonder why we’re now being asked to do all the math. Isn’t “4 for $5” the same as “$1.25 per item?” or did I miss something? I noticed many stores were making offers such as “3 for $7” - forcing their customers to do calculations which most of us perceive as higher math. Is this what I took college calculus for?

Do grocery stores assume significant numbers of their customers are so stupid that, when asked to do simple arithmetic problems, they will make a mistake and think the pasta sauces, small yogurts or whatever are going for ten cents apiece and, therefore, we will buy more because we think we’re getting a better deal than we actually are? (I have found, thanks to my own experimentation with the 200 cartons of yogurt I purchased, that yogurt, when refrigerated, however, does last longer than bananas - but not as long as I needed it to last.)

Part 4: It’s Time For A Grocery Store Revolt!

My beef with SAFEWAY’s decision to circle some of their weekly specials each with what appears to be a thick-tipped black marker interferes with my own selection process. When I review the flyers from SAFEWAY and its competitors, I use my own thick-tipped black marker to highlight which of the specials I want to purchase - along with my list of other “must-have” items that week, such as potato chips, Mother Nature’s most complete food (well, it is when eaten with broccoli, brown rice, and miso).

SAFEWAY argues their circled items offer even greater savings opportunities but the sophisticated shopper knows this is not always the case. Prices on “buy-one-get-one-free (“BOGO”) deals often are at their highest the week BOGO’s are offered - rendering savings far smaller than desired. And often the circled prices really aren’t so “special.”

I want to circle my own items. I don’t need Nanny SAFEWAY to tell me which of their specials are especially special. If milk is being sold for $2 a gallon, I know that’s a good deal. I don’t need SAFEWAY to circle that special for me. I can do the math (OK, I bring a calculator) and I know most of my shopping colleagues - male and female - can do the same.

SAFEWAY also fails to realize their dark markings are distracting. As I scan their flyer I notice the items they have circled but I barely see the other items they’ve included. Their approach is self-defeating because I now am paying attention only to a small fraction of their items. Often the major grocery chains copy each other. This happened when ALBERTSONS started its “10 for $10” promotion. Soon SAFEWAY and KING SOOPERS followed. I hope they ignore the Nanny approach SAFEWAY deploys to call attention to their most “special specials.”

So, I’m calling for a revolution. SAFEWAY, put down your think-tipped black marking pen and let the customer decide if your specials really are special. Remember, your flyer calls attention to less than one-tenth of one percent of everything you offer in your store. That is special enough. Keep publishing your weekly offerings and we will determine whether or not they each one is truly special enough to warrant a visit (or even more than one visit if there are numerical limits on purchases - another rule those of us who hoard groceries do not like at all). Your customers are not as stupid as you seem to think (OK, some of us are, but most are quite intelligent people).

Actually, this was written on a Wednesday and I need to stop now so I can get over to my local SAFEWAY in Erie (which has some of the friendliest people in the business) so I can shop all the specials and even some of the “special specials” before the rest of my community buys all the good stuff and leaves me clutching a handful of rainchecks. (That subject will have to wait for another column.) Bon appetit!

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