August 5th, 2008

Tropicana/Target/Lucky revisited

A few weeks ago, I wrote about an unpleasant discovery I had made in some grocery stores: Tropicana had long been touting a redesign of their standard 96-ounce pitcher, and that redesign finally arrived a few months ago. What they didn't tell us was that in the process of redesigning it, they also reduced the volume (to 89 ounces). Of course, retailers continued selling them for the same price as the old 96-ounce containers, but worse, their shelf labels still claimed a volume of 96 ounces. I saw this at both Target and Lucky in multiple locations. It was unclear whether the retailers were being greedy or simply careless, but either way, I felt Tropicana's role was unequivocally deceptive.

As promised, I'm posting an update following my attempts to contact those companies. By the way, I'm know this might seem like minutiae to some. I mean, what's 6 ounces of orange juice in the grand scheme of things? Certainly, we all have bigger things to worry about (gas prices, anybody?). So what's the big deal here?

It might sound like a cliche, but, "it's the principle that matters." I don't care how big or small the issue is; if a company (or any entity or individual in a position of power or influence) does something misleading or dishonest, there needs to be awareness and discussion. We cannot set a precedent for allowing ourselves to be duped or gouged without consequences. Now, I'm not going to spend all my time going around hunting for inconsistencies and inequities, shouting a triumphant "ah-HAH!" whenever I discover that 1 in every 150 spools of chartreuse yarn is 1 centimeter shorter than claimed by the packaging. I mean, you get the idea. But when something jumps out at me ... when I notice a tricky little sleight-of-hand that many consumers are likely to miss ... I'm going to say something (and, if possible, do something) about it.

Anyway, back to Tropicana/Target/Lucky.

I attempted to contact all three companies through their online feedback forms. In the case of Lucky, I went through www.albertsons.com under the mistaken impression that Albertsons is still affiliated with Lucky, and a reply instructed me to call a toll-free number instead because Lucky's parent company doesn't have a functioning web form yet. In any case, the Lucky representative noted my concerns and assured me they would look into it.

Target was the first to respond. Within a day or two, somebody from their Guest Relations department left me a voicemail, with a case number, cordially inviting me to call back and discuss the issue, which I did. The staff were very friendly and responsive, and they promised to contact the merchandising team (although the rep I spoke to also took advantage of the opportunity to invite me to try buying some Target-brand grocery items next time I was in the store, but that's probably part of her job). And on my most recent trips to my two usual Targets, I noticed that the shelf labels actually had been updated. Unfortunately, the pricing is still the same, and many people still might not notice the volume reduction, but at least the information is now accurate and honest.

Which brings me to Tropicana. They were a little slower to respond (a week or so), but the response was thorough and surprisingly candid. I'll let them speak for themselves:

Mike:

Thanks for contacting us about our new SNAP Cap packaging and outdated shelf labels. We appreciate the opportunity to address your concerns.

Regarding the store shelf label, whenever any consumer package company launches a new product or package, a new code (black bar code on that you scan at the store) is issued to the retailer. The retailers in turn generate shelf tags with various information and sends these tags to their stores for shelf placement. Just as in every other occasion, Tropicana followed this process. We cannot explain why these stores still displayed an old label, but we can assure you that neither store would intentionally misrepresent the products they are selling. Because we have not received any other consumer calls or emails about shelf labels we believe these are isolated incidents. If you would be so kind to tell us the locations (city and street names) of the Target and Lucky stores where you shop we'd be happy to contact them and rectify the situation.

Regarding our packaging redesign, our decision to improve our bottle was not recent. Based upon feedback from families where children pour their own juice, we began working on this new package concept more than two years ago. The idea was to have an innovative cap that easily and securely sealed just by pressing on it, and one that easily poured without "glugging," the primary reason for spilling. The downsizing from 96 to 89 ounces wasn't a decision we took lightly. And, you are right, Mike -- skyrocketing prices are impacting both consumers and manufacturers. We had the choice to either increase prices or to downsize the bottle. We chose to downsize the bottle but felt the innovation of the SNAP cap and new bottle added a value which consumers were seeking.

Although you may not agree with our decision, we hope you can appreciate that they were made in the best interest of our consumers and shareholders. Please be assured that feedback from consumers, such as yourself, does influence decisions, and your comments have been shared with our marketing group.

Thanks again, Mike for bringing this matter to our attention. We hope to hear back from you so that the shelf label situation may be remedied.

[name deleted]
Tropicana Consumer Response


The highlights are the detailed explanation of how information is propagated to retailers, and the admission that the volume reduction effectively was a price increase necessitated by rising costs, as I had suspected. (Note the "best interest of our ... shareholders" part. Keyword: shareholders.) I am doubtful, however, that the erroneous shelf labels were isolated incidents, since I found them in 100% of my own "random sample," i.e., the stores I happened to visit -- and in multiple retailers, no less. Once again, it's probably just that (a) many people won't notice, and (b) many of those who do probably wouldn't bother to say anything.

I replied to Tropicana and thanked them, respectfully clarified that I'm not opposed to redesigns if they actually serve a legitimate purpose (I'm willing to believe this one does) and aren't just used to distract and deceive consumers (which this also does), provided them with the requested store information, and caveated it with the above rationale for why I believe it wasn't an isolated incident.

The following week, I got a piece of snailmail from Tropicana. It was a form card, thanking me for contacting them, and some coupons. The coupons are of questionable use to me -- each is good for one dollar off Dole beverages (and what does Dole have to do with Tropicana...?). But the card is great. On the back is a marketing graphic of their hot new product: the 89-ounce easy-pour pitcher! Yay...

I still don't like the situation. Sneakily reducing volume under the guise of a redesign is just wrong, even if there is a legitimate need to increase the price. And even though I noticed it, I still feel manipulated as a customer.

But I did speak up and compel these companies to account for themselves, and at least the shelf label problem has been fixed. It's a step in the right direction.

"Green" construction in Alameda County

Last week, I attended a panel hosted by Congresswoman Barbara Lee and a number of local leaders and elected officials. The subject was the emerging "green economy." Although it was supposed to be a "green jobs panel," followed by a job fair, it didn't prove very useful to me personally in that regard; but I feel it was still time well spent for me to hear directly from these influential figures about such a critical current issue.

One of the speakers was Carolyn Bloede, who is involved with sustainability management for Alameda County (I don't recall her exact title). She was the only panelist to deliver a slideshow, and she took the opportunity to showcase some recent efforts to make County buildings more energy-efficient and altogether environmentally friendly.

Which got me thinking: if the County is taking these steps to "green" construction, who's watching over the corporate property owners (such as apartment management companies)? There is huge potential for saving energy by exercising a little foresight in the construction of new buildings, and it's simple: add insulation. Use efficient heating and cooling technology. Maybe take it a step further and install some solar panels (goodness knows we get enough sunlight here in California). Feeling truly ambitious? Use ground-source heating and cooling.

But, by and large, it seems companies cut corners and build as cheaply as they possibly can, in spite of whatever large costs (environmental or otherwise) are incurred down the road. And since energy costs get passed along to tenants (in the case of residential construction and leased office spaces, anyway), there is no bottom-line incentive for builders and owners to think green. Clearly, this is one area where the corporations aren't going to get off their arses and act responsibly until government forces them to.

After her presentation, Carolyn provided her e-mail address and invited attendees to contact her. So, I did. I have yet to receive a response (it's only been a few days), but if I do, I will post an update.

Hi Carolyn,

I attended Monday morning's panel discussion at BCC. It was an informative, inspiring session; and even though it didn't turn out to be of particular use to me as a "job fair," I enjoyed hearing from Rep. Lee, and various other local officials and leaders including yourself, about current efforts towards environmental sustainability.

So, thank you for your part in that presentation, and for providing your e-mail address. As it turns out, there is an aspect of this topic I've been meaning to find out more about, and I was hoping you could give some pointers or refer me to other sources.

As I recall, you spent some time discussing recent improvements in energy efficiency in county buildings, so I'm wondering what kinds of guidelines corporations are obligated to follow with privately-owned buildings.

I've been a resident of Alameda County twice -- first when I moved to California 5 years ago, and now again for the past year. I'm living in an apartment complex in the Jack London Square area of Oakland, and it's pretty new (less than a decade old). But it's rather apparent that the designers cut every corner imaginable in an effort to build cheaply, and this is particularly evident in the case of energy efficiency.

These new buildings are drafty. There seems to be zero insulation. How can a building built in the 21st century be conceived in a manner so blind to these concerns?

More broadly, what I'm curious about is the kind of restrictions and guidelines architects and construction companies are forced to conform to when building new structures in the east bay these days. We all know corporations tend to be cheap and greedy when possible, and it often takes government oversight to ensure progress. What is Alameda County doing (or able to do) to leverage corporations to "do the right thing," environmentally speaking? Are there tighter regulations on the horizon? Is this something within the county's jurisdiction? Or is this more of a City of Oakland issue, or maybe a State of California one?

To be clear, I'm not looking to pursue any particular action against the property management company. I'm just a concerned citizen who has become aware of an apparent major loophole for energy-inefficient design in new construction. And in this day and age, there's no room for that.


I hope this is relevant to your position and that I'm not wasting your time.


Thanks,
Mike

Beware the food-stealing alien politicians!

"Don't Let Sacramento Politicians Remove Products From Your Grocery Bag"

Thus blared the headline on the front of the mailing I received a few days ago from BPAfacts.org. Behind the text was a grocery bag, full of leafy greens, radishes, cans, and other most assuredly wholesome items. And before I even got to the text of the mailing, out the window went any shred of credibility it might have had otherwise. (In this case, the text is even worse.)

It's yet another flavor of that all-too-common political tactic we know as "fearmongering": drumming up support for a cause by appealing to unrelated "everyday values," thereby creating a straw-man argument that no decent person would oppose.

This particular mailing is about BPA, a substance which has been making news lately. Apparently, research has uncovered potential health risks, and certain heavily affected companies (like Nalgene) have had to do an abrupt about-face and reengineer their plastics. And the California legislature -- you know, made up of those dastardly "Sacramento Politicians" -- is considering a ban on the substance.

But this group -- BPAfacts.org (a "project of the American Chemistry Council") is desperately trying to prevent said ban. Why they really want to stop the ban isn't entirely clear, because the mailing doesn't even touch that subject, instead relying on sentimentality-laden distractors intended to terrify people into thinking "Sacramento Politicians" want them to starve. Although I'm guessing, you know, just a random hunch, that maybe it has something to do with money, and that the poor, beleaguered chemistry industry doesn't want to get its delicate little bottom line pinched by having to depart from a potentially harmful status quo.

If you continue to follow the geneology from BPAfacts.org, you'll see that the American Chemistry Council "represents the leading companies engaged in the business of chemistry." Surprise surprise. And if there's one thing I've learned from watching the ongoing battle between business and social interests, it's that when a corporate consortium opposes a piece of legislation, that piece of legislation is probably on the right track.

I honestly don't know the real deal about BPA. There does seem to be conflicting research, and maybe a ban is a premature knee-jerk reaction. After all, just as corporations are liable to oppose progressive legislation, governments frequently overreact in order to appease an upset constituency in the wake of some unfortunate event. (Sarbanes-Oxley, anybody?)

But that's not the point. While I would warmly welcome an open, honest debate about the BPA issue, the tactic used by this consortium is misleading, manipulative, and downright dishonest. And it also has serious social consequences. The same approach was used to sell the Iraq war, and it's used all the time by right-wing religious groups to bring conservative voters out to vote against gay marriage and other aspects of civil equality. It's used, obviously, because it works, but that doesn't make it right.

I wrote about this same subject on Marth 15th, 2006: http://nightvzn.livejournal.com/15792.html

I've always been amused about the whole sneering-tone "Sacramento" thing. You see it all the time (and with other capitals as well), whenever some political action group wants to denounce some legislative initiative. I know what it means -- ivory-tower, out-of-touch, blah blah blah, but it's overused to the point that it sounds comical. And you almost have to feel bad for Sacramento. First of all, you get certain faux-cosmopolitan Bay Areans denouncing it as some Central Valley cow town, when in fact it's a big city in its own right; and now we talk about our lawmakers in Sacramento like they're convening on another planet, a planet where little green men get some perverse pleasure out of making Californians miserable.

Hmm, I wonder how these campaigns are modified for the Sacramento market. It would be deliciously ironic for somebody living in Sacramento to get a mailing playing off implications about how out-of-touch the people in Sacramento are.




And now, I will include the text of the mailing -- with my annotations added in parentheses and italics -- for my own amusement.

[FRONT COVER]

Don't Let Sacramento Politicians Remove Products From Your Grocery Bag (Yes, one has to watch out for that sort of thing -- stealing people's food makes politicians very popular around election time.)

[INSIDE LEFT]

Banning Materials That Keep Our Food Fresh And Safe Is A Terrible Idea (Of course it would be! But that's not the point. If BPA is harmful, science will just have to come up with alternatives. Nalgene, for one, is already on the job with their water bottles.)

Soon, many common, everyday products could disappear from grocery store shelves all across California. (Be afraid ... be very afraid.)

WHY?

In Sacramento (here we go again), politicians (remember, they're not human) are considering a ban of BPA -- a material that's been safely used for 50 years in food packaging and a wide variety of plastic products like reusable water and baby bottles. (Yes, and how many decades were cigarettes on the market before we began to realize how truly harmful they were? Could it be that we're just becoming aware of the dangers of BPA, and that it's the magic-bullet explanation for many widespread health problems over the years? It may not be, but just because it's been in use for 50 years doesn't mean we should discount the possibility of it being harmful.)

And rigorous scientific reviews in the United States, Europe and Japan have all concluded that these products are safe for use. (Yes, and certainly, research has never been slanted, rigged, or spun in support of a corporation's interests... And even if there is legitimate research in favor of BPA's safety, it's at odds with other research, so there needs to be independent review and reconciliation.)

A ban on BPA-based protective coatings used in canned foods and beverages to keep them fresh and safe could threaten the safety of our food -- by increasing the risk of spoilage and contamination. (I have a better idea: how about we develop a replacement for BPA, and then we can have our unspoiled cake and eat it too! At least until that replacement is found to be toxic as well, but hey, we've got another 50 years before we have to worry about that...)

Maybe that's why no other state in the country bans BPA. (Nobody wants to be the first to get in the lifeboats, so let's all go down with the ship.)

[INSIDE RIGHT]

Busy working families depend on convenient, safe and affordable food packaging and containers to put nutritious meals on the table. (Oh no! Traditional values are under attack again! Mobilize the troops!)

At a time of rising food prices, limiting consumer choice is unfair and unnecessary. (Yes, that would be problematic, but this assertion is made without evidence that banning BPA would actually have such an effect. It's just a red-herring appeal to emotion.)

Call your state legislators today! Tell them to vote NO on SB1713. (I.e. "in case our campaign contributions and lobbying aren't enough, help us do our dirty work.")

[BACK COVER]

...

Paid for by BPAfacts.org (There you have it.)

Don't Spill Food on your Genes

Don't Spill Food on your Genes


All this time I've spent living a few blocks from Oakland Chinatown, and I never passed by this place before (you have to take a little "homophonous liberty" to appreciate it, but I think it's just classic):


(Click on thumbnail for full-size image.)


Personally I would have gone with GATTACA Bistro or Double Helix Express, but that's just me...

(Plus, if you think about it, anything you eat really is made up partly of DNA, so this place isn't too far off... not the most appetizing realization, in any case.)