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December 11, 2017

The Case of the Missing Almonds

Filed under: Food/Groceries,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:58 am

MrConsumer recently bought a bag of Nutty Naturals trail mix. According to the label, it was a mix with almonds as the primary ingredient followed by cranberries, sunflower seeds, peanuts and chocolate chips. What could be bad?

Trail mix front
almonds first

After munching for a while, it dawned on MrConsumer that there were not many almonds in the bag yet they were supposed to be the primary ingredient. So it was time to figure out exactly what and how much was in the mix. Even MrConsumer did not have the patience to separate and weigh everything in a nearly pound and half package, so one cups-worth was analyzed instead (after shaking the bag to better mix the contents if they had settled).

1 cup of trail mix

Separating the five ingredients into different piles made it abundantly clear visually what the actual proportions were. Putting each pile on a digital scale revealed the actual weight of each component.

*MOUSE PRINT:

6 piles weighed

As it turns out, for a product that is supposed to be flush with almonds, you could count them on one hand in this test.

In order of predominance then, the actual number one ingredient was peanuts, followed by cranberries, chocolate chips, sunflower seeds, and almonds last (and least). This is distinctly different from the representation on the front of the package suggesting that almonds predominated and also is contrary to the ingredients label on the back which is required under federal law to list the ingredients from most to least by weight.

*MOUSE PRINT:

ingredients

MrConsumer contacted the two owners of Ocean State Job Lot where he purchased the trail mix to tell them about the problem. The very next day he heard back that they were pulling the product off their shelves in all 129 stores. The co-owner in charge of buying groceries even went so far as to dump test packages of the trail mix on his desk to see if what MrConsumer had discovered was true. How’s that for speedy, responsible action by an ethical retail chain!

Later that day, MrConsumer received a call from the president of the firm that manufactured the trail mix. He admitted that he reduced the amount of almonds in the product and substituted peanuts when the price of almonds skyrocketed. He said he is going to restore the original recipe of almonds being predominant at least in the short-run.

The Food and Drug Administration, which has jurisdiction over labeling issues like this, said through a spokesperson that, “We cannot comment on this particular case but we expect food labels to be truthful and not misleading.” The agency has already contacted the manufacturer and we’ll report back if they take any enforcement action.

Let’s hope that being vigilant and speaking up as a customer, taking quick action to remedy consumer issues if you are a retailer, and not messing around with a product without changing the fine print if you are a manufacturer, are important lessons heeded by everyone in the future. (Well, we can hope.)

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November 27, 2017

Some Retailers Misled Shoppers on Black Friday Savings

Filed under: Electronics,Internet,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:53 am

[Note: The next new Mouse Print* story will be December 11.]

For both Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, retailers know that shoppers love a bargain, so the bigger the savings they can claim, the more sales they will likely ring up. Telling shoppers they can save hundreds of dollars by buying now is potent advertising.

The trouble is some of the discounts claimed are grossly exaggerated, promising illusory savings of $100, $200, $300 and even $600 in the following cases.

Take this Samsung HDTV, model UN55MU6290FXZA, that many major retailers used as a doorbuster deal for Black Friday. It’s a new item that was just introduced in August according to Samsung and was only recently stocked in stores. Some might call it a “made for Black Friday” TV. On Samsung’s own website, it was on sale for $499.99 — a savings of $200 compared to the regular price of $699.99:

Samsung TV Samsung site

A Samsung spokesperson confirmed for Consumer World that the manufacturer’s suggested retail price for this TV is in fact $699.99.


The Good Guys (maybe)


How did major retailers promote this TV around Black Friday?

Among others, Best Buy, Walmart, Amazon, Sears/Kmart, and surprisingly J.C. Penney (which is known for inflating regular prices just to offer goods at big discounts) played it straight. They advertised the TV as being on sale for about $499.99 — a savings of $200. (Of course, we don’t know if all these stores really offered the TV at what they claimed was the “regular price” of $699.99 price for any substantial period of time before discounting it to $499 — a requirement under some state laws.)


Best Buy Samsung TV

Walmart -Samsung TV


Sears Kmart 699-499TV

J.C. Penney Samsung TV



The Other Guys

1. BJ’s Wholesale Club:


At other stores, sellers took some liberties it appears in telling customers how much over $200 they would save if they bought this TV for $499. Early in November, BJ’s Wholesale Club seemed to suggest that its regular price for this TV was $699.99, and once put in the cart, the price became $499.99 — the standard $200 savings.

BJs TV Nov. 3

Then, in promoting its upcoming Black Friday savings event, the BJ’s cover item in circulars now proclaimed that buying this TV for $499 would save customers $300! Miraculous.

*MOUSE PRINT:

BJs Samsung $300 off

How did they do that? Online, BJ’s simply replaced the previous crossed out $699 regular price and changed it to a $799.99 regular price crossed out. Neat trick, huh? Raise the regular price and claim bigger savings.

BJs TV 799.99



2. Target:


BJ’s was not the only seller seemingly playing games with the regular price of this TV in order to make a more dramatic savings claim. Target, which historically has not engaged in questionable pricing practices, appeared to have slipped this time. In their Black Friday week circular, they claimed a regular price of $799.99, and a sale price of $499.99 — for a $300 savings. That is an extra $100 of phantom savings compared to the real list price of this TV.

To make matters worse, on their website, starting on November 19th, they were claiming a $400 savings because their regular price of this TV inexplicably jumped up to $899. (See update at the end of this story.)

*MOUSE PRINT:

Target 799 regular

Target $899 regular



3. Kohl’s:


The inflated regular prices compared to list price didn’t stop there. Kohl’s which has also been accused of inflating regular prices to offer illusory discounts on its merchandise, was selling this TV on its website prior to Black Friday “on sale” for $899.99 — a savings of $100 over its supposed regular price of $999.99. This TV is a key doorbuster in the Kohl’s Black Friday ad, selling for the standard $499.99 sale price but with a savings supposedly of $500 compared to its so-called regular price of $999.99.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Kohl's TV 999-899

Kohl's TV 999-499



4. Shopko:


Lastly, taking the prize for the most exaggerated saving claim is Shopko. They contend that this $499.99 TV on sale was regularly priced at $1299.99 — providing lucky purchasers with a whopping $800 in savings.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Shopko - 1299-499



The Law


Under FTC Guides Against Deceptive Pricing:

If … the former [regular] price being advertised is not bona fide but fictitious — for example, where an artificial, inflated price was established for the purpose of enabling the subsequent offer of a large reduction — the “bargain” being advertised is a false one; the purchaser is not receiving the unusual value he expects…

At least under Massachusetts law, “regular price” refers to the seller’s own previous selling price that the store actually offered the goods for. “List price” is different, and cannot be used as a basis of comparison unless a reasonable number of sellers actually offer the goods at that list price.

Now, just because Samsung has established a suggested list price of $699.99 for this TV, doesn’t mean retailers have to sell it at that price. They can establish any regular price they want for goods generally as long as that price is legitimate, meaning it is not substantially above the manufacturer’s list price, is not set artificially high to facilitate a false price drop with huge but illusory savings, and is one that the store openly charges for a reasonably substantial period of time.



Company Responses:


Some sellers, including Samsung itself, really did offer this TV at the full list price of $699.99 at least for a short time. It is doubtful, however, that all the stores that advertised this item as regularly selling for $799, $899, $999, or $1299 ever really offered it at those prices for any appreciable period of time in any of their stores. We don’t know for sure because not all stores responded to our inquiries including BJ’s and Kohl’s. We asked when they offered this TV at the high so-called regular price noted in their ad and how they respond to critics who say that the savings they advertised for this TV were exaggerated.



Target’s Response:


Target did respond, explaining that the $899.99 regular price for the TV was a “system error” and to their credit, they immediately changed their website to show only a $200 savings from the now updated $699.99 regular price.

Corrected 499-699 comparison

The company could not immediately explain, however, why other of their advertised Samsung TVs also had grossly exaggerated regular prices too.



Shopko’s Response:


A spokeperson for Shopko said it was not their policy to inflate regular prices, and was committed to following all laws and regulations. Michelle Hansen, the spokesperson, further indicated that the TV was a seasonal item gotten in for Black Friday and could not say if the store ever offered it at $1299. Of course, this suggests that the only price they ever charged was the $499 Black Friday price and they advertised an arbitrarily high regular price for the TV to attract customers to their big sale.



Final Thoughts


It is time for the FTC and state attorneys general to take action against retailers that have established a pattern and practice of deceiving the public about the actual savings that their customers can achieve when buying advertised items.

And for shoppers, the unfortunate truth is that you cannot always rely on advertising to truthfully disclose the amount of money you will actually save on any particular item.

[Note: graphics were edited for size and to add store logos.]

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November 20, 2017

Thanks for Nothing:
P.C. Richard’s Black Friday Price Guarantee

Filed under: Electronics,Internet,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:08 am

It is rare to find any retailer offering to match competitors’ prices on Black Friday, but New York area appliance discount chain P.C. Richard & Son is advertising just that.

PC richard price guarantee

Wow. Walmart did this a few years ago, but has not since. But before you get all psyched about shopping at P.C. Richard, you better follow the asterisk to their fine print disclaimer.

*MOUSE PRINT:

PC Richard price guarantee details

It basically says that while it lasts 30 days, their Black Friday price guarantee excludes Thanksgiving, Black Friday, the weekend after Black Friday, and Cyber Monday for any competitor advertising limited quantities, certain hours for sales, etc. But virtually every retailer has those restrictions on their doorbusters or other great deals that you might only see between Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

We asked the company about the dubious nature of this policy and they have yet to respond.

So to P.C. Richard, for your Black Friday price guarantee we say, thanks for nothing.

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November 13, 2017

It’s Open Season on Befuddled Health Plan Shoppers

Filed under: Health — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:17 am

Once again it is open enrollment time for those choosing a new health insurance plan. In searching around for a new plan for MrConsumer’s friend in New York City, he came up with what looked like a dream plan — a new national plan that tapped into Cigna’s national network of 500,000 providers. (Most individual plans in New York have very limited networks except for Empire Blue — and even Empire is not all-inclusive.)

The plan is from MVP Health Care called “Platinum National Embedded.” It is considered a non-standard plan and therefore is “off-market” — not on the New York “Obamacare” health exchange — and is sold individually directly by the company.

A handy map shows which counties in the New York City region are covered:

MVP  map 1

A quick look makes it appear that all five boroughs of New York City are covered as well as two northern counties. When using MVP’s online plan lookup feature, entering my friend’s Manhattan zip code kept triggering an error. How could that be?

*MOUSE PRINT:

MVP plan map

A closer look at the fine print asterisked footnote reveals that MVP is not licensed to sell these plans in any of the five boroughs of New York City, despite them being listed above as “included.”

We asked the company why it used such misleading representations and whether it would fix the distortions. They have yet to respond.

Finding the right health plan is hard enough without shenanigans like this.

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November 6, 2017

Beware of Geeks Bearing Gifts:
Free Quicken 2018 CDs Come with Costly Catch

Filed under: Computers,Finance,Internet,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 4:50 am

Quicken 2018 Upgrade CDOver a million Quicken software users are in for a costly surprise if they install the free upgrade CD that many received in the mail last week. Consumer World is warning them that the 2018 upgrade could triple their cost of the popular personal money management program.

Starting with the 2018 edition, the new owner of Quicken (H.I.G. Capital) is converting the software to a subscription service and charging a regular annual fee of $49.99 for Quicken Deluxe. If not renewed, the user faces the loss of online functionality to update account transactions and pay bills.

Quicken $49.99

The previous owner, Intuit, required purchasers to upgrade only every three years or lose online access. The list price for the three year program then was $74.99, but was often on sale for $50 or less, and even lower when bundled with TurboTax.

“This is a pure money grab by Quicken’s new owners,” commented Consumer World founder Edgar Dworsky. “The original intentional crippling of the software after three years was bad enough, but now reducing it to just one year in essence triples the cost for many, and will drive away thousands of users.”

How did the new management disclose their major change in terms for 2018 in the fancy three-fold mailer that accompanied the upgrade CD? It was only in a hard-to-read fine print footnote.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Quicken 2018 fine print Click to enlarge

For those who cannot read that, it says that a purchase would entitle users to [only] one year of Quicken, that data downloads stop at the end of the term, and that users’ memberships would be automatically renewed each year and users charged the then current renewal rate.

When Quicken introduced annual subscriptions in Canada earlier this year, it utilized an additional ploy to encourage annual renewals. It disabled the ability to even add transactions manually if the software was not renewed after a year. Following public criticism alleging that the company was holding users’ data hostage, they relented and lifted that restriction.

Echoing the company CEO’s open letter to customers about the changes, a spokesperson for Quicken explained that the primary reason for instituting annual renewals was so that their technical team can concentrate on continually improving a single version of the software. Currently the company has to separately update the 2015, 2016, and 2017 editions. He did acknowledge, however, that they are getting “negative feedback” about the pricing change.

Dworsky challenged the company’s justification suggesting that they could have just as easily introduced a single version of the software good for three years from the date of installation rather than just one year.

Quicken was spun off from a company that also engaged in tactics to “encourage” customers to upgrade. Two years ago, Intuit created a self-inflicted public relations nightmare when it changed the functionality of its most popular version of TurboTax tax preparation software to force users to upgrade to a more expensive version. After a public outcry, the company restored the software to its original form.

Consumer World recommends that current users of Quicken 2016 and 2017 continue using those versions since they are still fully functional until April 2019 and April 2020, respectively. But, they should lodge a complaint with the company now (here and here) if they are upset by the pricing changes.

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