I Can Save More Than Walter O’Brien’s IQ on a box of Froot Loops

Some people are addicted to television. For some it’s booze. Others it’s food.  For me, it’s all three.  From a television perspective, I watch the spectrum but I’m partial to dramas.  From gritty HBO shows to cheesy cable crime fighting, I’m a sucker for it all.  One show I’m partial to is Scorpion, the absolutely ridiculous account of the life of Walter O’Brien, a man who supposedly recorded an IQ of 197, the 4th highest in history.   Him and his band of social misfits (including the actor who played “Shit Break” in the  American Pie franchise) hang in a garage and await for various facets of the government to call them for help landing planes, breaking codes or minimizing the impact of natural disasters in urban areas.  There seems to be no job too difficult for the crew but I doubt even Scorpion’s team of geniuses can match the kind of magic people like April and Chastity can perform during a episode of TLC’s extreme couponing.

scorpion walter o'brien
A Striking Resemblance

Couponing has evolved from the days of clipping paper with the same skill set required as needlepoint to needing a post-secondary education in advanced mathematics to decipher deals driven by algorithms which consist of more variables than a quadratic equation. For the purposes of argument, I will focus on my trifecta of food cost savings; flyers, checkout 51 and  PC points.

Flyers

Flyers are the blueprint of the ultimate cost saving experience. A mere glance through  the colourful pages tells you where the cheapest bread, potatoes or Nutella are.  For some, they price match.  Personally, I am against the practice of price matching for two reasons.  First, I hate making people wait for me and the thought of rifling through pages of pictures like I’m looking at mugshots after witnessing a crime makes me very uncomfortable.  Second,  I hate when I’m wrong and the last thing I want to do is be corrected by a snotty 18 year old cashier when I try and price match the wrong jug of Tropicana orange juice. I cringe at the thought of her snarled nose as she tells me “Sorry sir, but that’s the three point forty nice litre jug you have, NOT the two point sixty three litre one”. Rumour has it that grocery stores will phase out price matching in the near future.

There is a list of grocery items I refuse to buy unless they are on sale which includes pop, yogurt and cereal.  I also have a strict rule that I will not pay more than $0.25 per roll of toilet paper.  I won’t pay triple figures for pasta or a box of Kraft Dinner and cheddar cheese needs to be less that $5 a block. For other items, it’s like playing the price is right; you just get used to the prices and can easily bust into a game of grocery game or Hi Lo at a moment’s notice. In order to enforce these rules, I often need a detailed itinerary to ensure maximum efficiency. This involves minimizing unnecessary driving and understanding which stores will have the highest chance of such items in stock.

Checkout 51

I got hooked on the Checkout 51 app about a year ago and have since banked just shy of $250.  The premise seems simple enough.  Every week, you get a list of products which, after purchase, you scan the receipt and receive a cash reward.  There are numerous advantages to this app. First, in most cases (unless otherwise stated), you can buy the products anywhere.  Second, there are often big name and well recognized products such as Tide, Kellogg’s cereal and hair/beauty products like Dove, Axe, Pantene etc.  There are also practical deals for things like..umm…lady essentials.  On the fun side, you’ll get the odd McDonald’s offer and even discounted BOOZE including a few bucks off select beer, wine and even spirits.

The bad news is the fact that many of the offers are limited in number and there are cases when I got home and was too late to scan my receipt. Damn them!  Also, you have to remember not to use your receipt as a facial tissue or a chewed gum depot before you have had a chance to snap a shot.  Another factor is the fact that many of the deals repeat themselves and before you know it, you have a arsenal of dish soap large enough to survive a zombie apocalypse.

The need for Walter O’Brien comes in again when you are offered further savings for buying multiple items.  For example, sometimes if you buy 4 back to school products they will throw another $1 into your account the next week and yes, I have gone to 4 different stores to get the 4 items to get the extra buck.  I never said I didn’t have a problem.

PC Points

The introduction of PC points was deemed an evolution in points programs.  This promised to be a smarter program which analysed your buying patterns and offered deals on that basis.  It’s a bit creepy and at the same time a bit random. I mean, I get offered points for dog food regularly but this week I can save on farmer’s market muffins and boxed meat;two things I never buy although I’ve been with the program for well over a year.

You accumulate points until you have at least 20 000.  Some people will redeem ASAP while others will let the points build with some expectation that at some point they may be able to buy the store or have enough t buy food for their kid’s university career.  For me, I save the points until I have to buy something I hate spending money on.  This year, I got a great Fraser Fir at Christmas time for free.

Once again, the services of Scorpion may be required to understand PC points. The issue is the way the points are awarded.  For example, last week  I could get 1000 points for every $4 spent on Tre Semme hair care.  With three girls in the house, this was a no brainer.  The problem was the product was on sale for $3.97.  So, by buying two I got 1000 points because I was six cents short of 8 bucks. The other problem is you can only redeem an offer once.  For example, you may get 100 points for every dollar you spend on beef.  If you want to get steak at Loblaw and ground beef at Superstore, you need to decide which would cost you more and go there first so you don’t waste you deal on the cheaper product. Another reason to have Mr. O’Brien on speed dial.

The Trifecta

One of the most gratifying grocery shopping experiences is when you complete the trifecta in which you find a flyer deal which is also on checkout 51 and offers PC points.  This happens about an often as an eclipse but is just as exciting. It goes something like this…you open up the No Frills flyer to see Delissio pizzas on for $4.44.  When you open the PC points app, you also see that you get 1000 PC (the equivalent of a dollar) for every $4 spent. Finally, you flip open Checkout 51 to see that you can get a buck off a pizza as well.  In the end, the pizza costs $2.44 and you feel like you won the lottery.

My Take

I’ll admit I have a problem but I get great joy when it comes to saving money on food. Sure, I sometimes buy things I really don’t need so I build up PC points or Checkout 51 dollars but in the end a little extra time can lead to big savings and bragging rights.  Yeah..that’s right.  I have sent pictures to friends with step by step pictures and text showing  how I earned three cents buying Dove antiperspirant with a flyer special, Checkout 51 and a sheet on stick on coupons I got from a buddy and  keep in my trunk for a rainy day.  In the end, I’m no Walter O’Brien (although I could use his help sometimes) but I think keeping my mind sharp with couponing not only saves me money on shampoo but saves me having to subscribe to luminosity.com to spare my cognitive decline.

 

 

 

 

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Food Deserts: The Comestible Topography That Brought Unilever to Its Knees

I recently participated in a project called #mytomato which was sponsored by Hellman’s.   The point was to bring awareness to the concept of food deserts which can be loosely defined as geographical  regions which have limited availability to fresh, quality produce at a reasonable price.  Food deserts are a component of a broader issue called food insecurity which is loosely defined as  the inability for a person to buy the food they want to buy when they want to buy it. It’s the mother who chooses evaporated milk instead of formula for her baby because it is all she can afford.  It’s the father who can’t buy ground beef anymore because the price has doubled in the last 2 years and he needs to pay rent so it no longer fits in the food budget on a regular basis.  This is not the same as a decision to not buy a cut of steak because it is too expensive. The difference is choice.  I could buy the striploin if I wanted to but the decision not to is more of a value assessment than one out of necessity.

The #mytomato campaign involved the transformation of a GTA grocery store into one more reflective of a food desert experience.  As a participant, I was asked to enter the store and react to what I saw. The produce was scarce, of questionable quality and priced through the roof.  Among the limited choices was a $69 watermelon and tomatoes priced at $18.00/kg.  A subsequent interview allowed me to state that I would have a hard time feeding my family the way I wanted to if this what was available on a regular basis.

Teaser for the Food Desert Real Food Film
Teaser for the Food Desert Real Food Film

The campaign launched on facebook, twitter and youtube with reasonable fanfare.  There were comments reflecting sides of the fence. On one side there  was sympathy for the situation whereas others suggested that the ridiculous prices reflected supply and demand, meaning that if people aren’t interested in buying fresh tomatoes they won’t which raises the prices for those who do.  Another keen observer quoted the price of tomatoes in their community but also cited  the price of a jar of Hellman’s at $6.49 which is significantly higher than what you would see if a Southern Ontario grocery store and points to the fact that it isn’t only produce prices that are affected by geography . Then, as quickly as it started, the campaign vanished.  The facebook comments stopped and the youtube clip is now unviewable and listed as private.  When I inquired about the reason for the rash cessation, I was told that a few retailers objected to the campaign so it was terminated.

(Don’t Bother…you can’t see anything)

I got thinking about this and  a number of interesting issues came to mind which merit a discussion.  There is the clash of big business versus big business, the issue of convenience versus necessity, the responsibility of government or other agencies in the regulation of food prices and the acceptability of corporate involvement in campaigns which deal with public health or social issues.

1. Big Business versus Big Business

Hellman’s parent company is Unilever, a multinational conglomerate who produces and markets some of the most recognizable brands across most sections of the grocery store. As a result, there is the need for Unilever to work with these retailers to ensure that they get ample shelf space and a strong visual presence in a highly competitive environment. That said, I imagine the saying “Don’t bite that hand the hand that feeds you” enters the discussion. If Hellman’s #mytomato campaign suggests that the retailer is even partially responsible for the inflated price of poor quality produce, then there could be a harsh retaliation including the omission or displacement of Unilever products from shelves.  We are not talking small mom and pop shops either.  The big three (Loblaw, Metro and Sobey’s) have an infrastructure in place which services everywhere from downtown Toronto to remote communities across Canada.  As a result, pissing them off may have ramifications far beyond a few towns speckled above the 60th parallel.  Nobody wants to loose the opportunity to have their mayo shelved at eye level after all.

2. Convenience versus Necessity

We live in a society where convenience has evolved into necessity.  It also comes at a price.  If I run out of bread at 11 at night or don’t want to make the long haul to the grocery store during the day, there are at least three convenience stores within a kilometre or two of the house which will gladly sell me a loaf of its finest Wonder bread for 5 bucks. In either situation, I have a choice.  I can wait it out or get off my ass and drive the extra kilometre to grab a loaf.  The same opportunity doesn’t exist in remote communities.  In this case, the alternative may not be a kilometre but instead a hundred kilometres. In order words, the grocery store IS the convenience store simply because it’s the only one in town. The interesting question is whether the inflated prices are a reflection of the realization there is a monopoly and that most local residents are handcuffed or the fact that the store is in a small town which means less volume and therefore lower overall sales.  Maybe it’s a little of both.  It’s no secret that a grocery business involves razor thin profit margins which in most cases rely heavily on high volume to succeed and that the only way to sustain profits in a smaller store may be to increase prices.

3. Government Responsibility

The question arises as to whether the government or some other organization should be responsible for regulating food prices across the province or country. I suspect most would argue that we do not need big brother to monitor the price of a tomato.  Sure, affordable produce would couple nicely with the numerous (and generally unsuccessful)  public education strategies geared at increasing the population’s fruit and vegetable consumption.  I find mundane strategies including Canada’s food guide lose steam when a person is asked to spend beyond their means or purchase unavailable foods to ensure a variety are included in the diet.  I have to disagree with those who suggest that regulation of food prices is impossible.  If there was financial incentive to do so, I’m sure the government would not hesitate to employ an infrastructure to ensure it got its fair share. Think of beer and alcohol sales. The price of a case of beer is the same whether you live in downtown Toronto or in Red Lake, Ontario.  Beer is heavy, boxy and requires refrigeration yet these burdens of transportation doesn’t add to the price in remote communities.  Maybe it has something to do with the fact the government scoops a tonne of revenue with every case sold. Since produce isn’t taxed one can speculate the urgency to regulate produce (or even food) prices in general is less than a priority for a cash-strapped government. It is cheaper and less difficult just to run ineffective healthy eating campaigns through public service announcements than it is to implement tangible policies changes which might actually result in behavioral change.

food guide
Health Canada’s Answer to Food Deserts

4.  Corporate Involvement in Public Health Campaigns

The last argument is whether or not big corporations should even be involved in health promotion or campaigns. On one side, I have read numerous criticisms of Hellman’s investment in its real food movement.  Some question how real mayonnaise actually is.  On the other side, supporters feel that big business should be obligated to funnel resources into strategies which potentially better society as a whole.  That said, philanthropy rarely comes with no strings attached and I’m not sure there’s a problem with this.  I guess the bigger question is where to draw the line.  A hands-off financial sponsorship? A partnership with third party consultants?  A jump into bed as long as the outcome is good relationship? I think delving into this at this point  is beyond the scope of this particular entry blog  (I think I’ll tackle this one separately)  but it is ” real” food for thought.

My Take

A little over a month and a half ago Hellman’s launched the next installment of their real food movement which involved a closer look at food deserts which are defined as areas in Canada that have limited availability to fresh and affordable produce on a regular basis.  As quickly as it went up it came down and now has all but disappeared presumably due to pressure from retailers who took offense to Unilever’s finger pointing.  In other words, addressing food deserts essentially caused the biggest consumer product company globally after P&G and Nestle to drop to their knees and assume the fetal position, presumably over fears that they would lose prime real estate in the condiment section.  This makes me concerned that any resolution to the problem of food desserts is nowhere in the immediate future. Big companies will simply abandon such fruitless endeavors and replace them with smiling celebrity chefs handing out tomatoes at food fairs (which I’m sure goes over well with those who are selling deep fried dough). Given relatively lower sales volumes, retailers in remote communities  will continue to stick to a supply and demand system to ensure their thin profit margins are just a little thicker . Government will continue to address the issue by using money generated from liquor sales to produce colourful sheets to remind us that fruits and vegetables are an important component of a healthy diet while they rot in produce bins due to exorbitant cost and poor quality.

I don’t know the solution for food deserts. Retail subsidies by either the government or by companies seems feasible, especially if funneled through the big grocery chains.  An issue might be the need to negotiate with franchisees but perhaps it can be offered with incentives in the same way  weekly flyer specials  from the parent company work.  Maybe a coupon system specific to produce could be created.  I would hate to compare this strategy to food stamps but it may be the easiest way to facilitate and specify corporate and/or government investment in this initiative.  Plus, it would be an interesting social experiment and one which could  test the validity of the famous Field of Dreams catch line “If you build it they will come” since one of the biggest arguments against providing fresh, affordable produce is the speculation that it would just sit there anyway because consumers would still opt to spend their food budget on other choices including non-perishables.

In the end, Hellman’s #mytomato campaign was a short lived mirage in an expansive food desert.  The intent was good but was quality quashed by point of sale retailers (likely related to the big three) who likely feel handcuffed by an inability to offer fresh fruits and vegetables without cutting into profit margins and ultimately their own livelihoods.  The solution is not evident but at the same time the problem shouldn’t fade into the sunset by pretending it doesn’t exist or by succumbing to the perception that if a powerful multi-national company like Unilever can’t tackle the problem then nobody can.