Sunday, July 18, 2010

Toilet Paper

What happens when you permit your society to become over-educated and underemployed? Well, for me words like regular, double, big, giant, mega, and huge come to mind. When we fail to provide opportunities for young people to do great things, too many of them are tasked to be ever more clever doing mundane things, like working diligently to screw around with as many people as possible. (How often lately have you been delayed on a clear day because the air traffic control or airline computers are down or sat in a darkened house because your local utility has experienced a system upset, again on a clear day).

Think about it for a moment…if all you have to sell is a paper product that serves the same purpose as every other paper product on the shelves, how do you differentiate your product from the crowd? Provide higher quality, of course, but more often it’s price that sells a product.

When I was growing up and for some years of early adulthood, I felt no need to be concerned with toilet paper, other than to be sure there was some within reach. If you were feeling flush (pun intended), you could pick up something soft like a 25-cent roll of Charmin, or if you were frugal, a 10-cent roll of Scott tissue would do. Decisions involving mega, huge, double, regular, or big were simply not part of daily life in those days.

Sometime through the years it became obvious that the rolls needed to be replaced more and more frequently. The price and number of rolls hadn’t changed, but there was clearly less paper on the rolls. One tip off that something fishy was when you started seeing 6-packs, then 12-packs, then 24-packs, and even 36-packs! The other tip off was that the paper roll began to feel like a marshmallow, dusty, and spun on the core.

Soon you were hauling packages of toilet paper out of the store that were the size of sofa cushions, where a 4-pack used to suffice. Then you realized that some beady-eyed marketers had figured out how to diddle the price of a common, closely watched product without antagonizing its customer base—so I started watching the stupid toilet paper pricing more closely. Sure enough, the pattern was clear—slowly cut the quantity, raise the price, and hide the chicanery in a flurry of unnecessary “choices.”

Not long ago, things started changing again. Soon the surface area of a double roll pack was not what it had been—the new double rolls were wound more and more loosely. When I started watching the toilet paper years ago (say about 1993), a double roll 6-pack had about 352 sq. ft. of surface area and cost about $3.50. Most recently, I noticed that a 6-pack, double roll package contained 200 sq. ft. and the cost was $3.49. That’s a 76% price increase over my old benchmark package.

Recently I saw a new Charmin package that took the toilet paper wars into new territory. I had grown accustomed to seeing the cute little pictures on the packages telling me how purchasing a package of Double rolls was the same as purchasing twice as much of the Regular rolls. Bless their little hearts…Charmin changed up their product line by presenting us with new “choices” none of us needed—Big, Giant, and Mega rolls!!

Charmin has reintroduced my familiar old 6-pack, only this time it is the all-new Mega Rolls which now costs about twice as much as they did. On the package the marketers from Charmin explain graphically how their all-new Mega Rolls relate to Giant rolls, Big rolls, and Regular rolls.
With all the new choices and a little time on my hands to calculate this garbage, I discovered that depending on my choice of size and number of rolls, I could spend $3.95 or $6.15 or $8.75 for an equivalent of my old 1993 package of paper. And it took a calculator to clear the fog...

The same nonsense has been going on in the paper towel business—same manufacturers, you know. Our State law requires the retailers provide a unit price card beside the sell price card in order to help folks do their cost comparisons. The usual unit is $/sq.ft.

Such simplification presents a challenge to all those highly educated, beady-eyed paper marketers. Once the folks figure out their personal benchmarks of cost vs. quantity, the marketers have to change things up to throw the folks off again. The Bounty package below was one I spotted recently that introduced a couple of new curves. Huge was a new term to me, and the odd number of roll equivalents makes the math a little more challenging.

But the cutest scam I’ve seen recently was the introduction of unit pricing in $/sheets rather than $/sq.ft. One section of the Bounty towels showed a unit price about half of the other choices. Then I spotted the scam…it was a section containing those “select a size” towels where the half sheets technically satisfied the unit pricing law, even if not the spirit of it.

My heart aches for the young people working in these enterprises who think they are doing something worthwhile. Can’t we find something more constructive for all those sharp young folks to do?

Adios, too much about too little?

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