Superman in Market

JOHN AVERY SNYDER is a senior at the Episcopal Academy in Overbrook, Pennsylvania.

Owing to circumstances beyond our control, we are all forced to eat. But although food becomes easier and easier to prepare, it becomes harder and harder for the buyer to procure. I found myself thinking about this the other day at a supermarket.

As I stepped on the rubber mat at the entrance, the massive glass door automatically swished open, like the entrance to Ali Baba’s cave, giving me the impression that I couldn’t go home again.

Before me stood a gigantic mass of shopping carts, symmetrically jammed together. I avoided the mangled one in front, undoubtedly the work of some woman driver, and chose a cart parked in the rear which looked more capable of doing the job. I ignored the small pieces of lettuce and cellophane and the foullooking bit of paper in the bottom of my cart, upon which some undecipherable hieroglyphics had been scrawled. As I headed to the left for the first item on my list, I discovered that I had again, as always, procured a cart with a bad wheel and a mind of its own which invariably shot off in the wrong direction. This was soon forgotten as I got used to bumping into displays, people, and other carts.

Certain words become familiar to the shopper as he wanders around the market, because the market, like any other complex medium, has a special vocabulary of its own. Phrases like “50 percent off” keep popping up. I find myself wondering off what the 50 percent has been taken. “Sale” is a rather meaningless word which is used when nothing else is left to attract attention to a product. The word “free” indicates that “sale” was not doing its job. I almost got caught when I went to buy salt. As 1 reached for the brand I usually buy, a sign caught my eye. It said, “Brand X salt, usually ten cents, now ABSOLUTELY FREE (with the purchase of a four ounce can of Brand X pepper).” With a can of Brand X pepper in my hand, I stopped to think. How could they afford to do this? I soon found out. Brand X pepper was eleven cents more expensive than any other brand of pepper on the shelf.

Because a label is the main factor which influences an average person to choose at random one brand instead of another, it is interesting to study the psychology used in designing a label. If a product has not been selling, the word “new” appears on the label. If this does not help the situation, the phrase “new improved” replaces it. The last resort is a completely changed label design stating “All .New With Miracle Ingredient DX-7-4038.” I suspect this is nothing more than the advertiser’s phone number.

Manufacturers also found that they could vary the sizes and shapes of the packages in which their products come. I am still trying to discover whether “jumbo” comes between “king” and “giant” or “economy” and “family” sizes. Oddly shaped bottles, plastic containers, spray cans (which contain as much air as product), and whipped products (which are twice the size of the same product not whipped) are extremely confusing as to the amount of product they contain. When odd shapes were introduced, the size of packages began to mean very little.

The law requires the net weight or fluid content of a package to be printed on it. On solid packages, I am certain that if I squinted through an electronic microscope, I would find the weight of the contents carefully hidden by the design. On bottles, the statement of how much liquid they contain is usually printed on the back of the label. In this way, I can be sure of the number of fluid ounces I have bought only when the bottle is half empty and tilted at an angle. I was very happy to find, however, that the cereal I chose clearly stated that the weight was twelve ounces. Only after I opened the package at home did the four ounce lead toy almost break my breakfast dish.

Another packaging rage is the new “no deposit, no return” cans and bottles. All these containers just get thrown away. Why lug them back to the store? In essence, all this means is that the customer pays two cents more for each item.

See-through packages are becoming more and more popular. Let the customer see what he is buying! Actually, I only see what the packager wants me to see. By removing the two-inch-square price tag from my meat. I was interested to find a two-inch-square piece of fat in the middle of my steak. Bacon is packaged so that 1 see only an eighth of an inch of each strip. In cellophane-wrapped packages of vegetables, the visible vegetables are always fine.

Finally, I proceeded toward a cashier. As I waited in line, I began to feel like one of many sheep on the way to slaughter. When my turn finally arrived, I started unloading my shopping cart on a revolving belt which served as a counter. This counter is a very clever device. It makes certain that the customer with a large order never sees all of his purchases at once. By the time I finished unloading my cart, some of my order was already in shopping bags. Because of the cheap quality of the bags, the checker was using two bags, one inside the other. This seemed awfully wasteful until I realized who was really paying for it — me. Idly I wondered whose son-in-law was in the bag business.

The checker was loading the last bag when it dawned on me that I had fallen for the oldest gimmick of all — so many for so much. I had been mesmerized by the pennies I was saving, and it had seemed well worth the inconvenience of being slightly overstocked. Defeated, I watched three boxes of chocolate-covered ants follow each other into the large double bag.

The cashier pushed the grand total button. The cash drawer and my eyes popped out simultaneously.

“Well,” said the checker, “it is a little high, but think of all the free stamps you’ll get. Now let’s see. Here are your four jingle cards, one for each ten dollars. You get your “Win-a-Thousand” tickets punched out, and here’s one “Grand Sweepstakes” chance. Here are your four hundred and forty-nine stamps, one hundred and twenty for your newspaper coupons. Now let’s see, twenty-four cents for coupons, four — I’m sorry, sir, we don’t take four cent bottles here. You’ll have to go over to counter eleven and ring the bell. Now, that will be forty-four dollars and ninety-eight cents.”

By this time I was thoroughly confused and well on the way to incoherency, just as they had planned. I opened my wallet and tossed the bills on the counter. “Here. Take it all!”

“Sorry, sir. We’re not allowed to accept tips. Here’s your change.” Two new pennies clinked into my hand. “Thank you.”

Abandoning the bottles, I slowly made my way toward the door marked “out.” It opened automatically, and I pushed my basket through.

“Good afternoon, sir. Want to contribute to the Ipsi Pipsi Children’s Fund?” The two new pennies dropped into his pot. “God bless you, sir.”