While you might think of Las Vegas or Broadway when you imagine the spectacle of a good magic show, the thought of your local grocery store or the food in your cupboard probably don’t bring to mind that good ol’ feeling of abracadabra. But look again and you might be surprised at all the smoke and mirrors and slight of hand you find taking place in the food industry all around you. But have no fear, because we are here to take you behind the curtain, to show you the marked cards and the trap doors as we reveal to you the 10 sneakiest food business tactics you never noticed scamming you.
10. The McDonald’s Fry Carton Pinch
McDonald’s french fries are generally regarded as the gold standard of fast food fries, so there is no doubt that when you order a helping of fries from the Golden Arches you want that carton filled with as many fries as can be squeezed in there. And when you get your order it usually looks like that is the case. But, as we all know, looks can be deceiving, and we aren’t just talking about that bump-up arch at the bottom of the fry carton. Everyone can see that, so that half an inch of lost fry space isn’t a surprise to anyone. However, former employees of the chain have made claims that when they worked for McDonald’s they were encouraged to pinch the fry carton when they were filling it so as to create a slightly smaller space to fill. The carton would look completely full, but would contain fewer fries. Although multiple former employees have made these claims, McDonald’s for their part have said that, “they believe these claims to be fictional, there are no ‘secret tricks’ and they have strict operational procedures in place to ensure that fry portions are not under-filled”. Either one party is lying or the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Regardless, it’s probably a good idea to just give your fries a quick check before you dig in just to be sure you are getting all the french fries you paid for.
9. Fast Food Menus
On their surface, looking at the menu at a fast food restaurant doesn’t seem like there is anything sneaky going on. But look a little closer and you will find a number of interesting things being done to get you to spend as much money as possible. One of the most obvious things to point out about those big, bright fast food menus is the size of the pictures. The hamburgers, french fries, salads and shakes all look so bright and mouth-wateringly delicious and the photographs of them are the largest things on the menu. Sure there is some text, but it is smaller. And there are even prices, but that font is generally even smaller still. They want you to focus on the food, not the price. This also makes it harder to read from far away. And once you get up to the counter and can read all the details, there is that pressure of it being your turn to order. They will even place the most expensive menu items on the left-hand side – which is where you start reading – so you see them first. And if there is a value menu, you can often find it hidden in the corner or off to the side. It’s not usually showcased front and center. And let’s talk about those prices. Everyone is familiar with the 99 trick (making a price $9.99 so that we still think of it as $9 even though it is, for all intents and purposes, $10). Well, fast food restaurants know we know, so many of them have gone to $9.79 and $9.89 pricing which does the same thing, but better.
8. Container Sizes
It may seem simple enough. Different size containers cost different prices because you are getting more or less content in each one. Well, not so fast. The truth is that while the cups and/or bowls might all look like different sizes, the amount of soup, drink, etc you are getting in each one, can often be exactly the same! These misleading descriptions can happen anywhere and one quick look online finds consumers complaining about the practice everywhere from local eateries to the big restaurant chains. As an example, one poster on Reddit claimed that at one unnamed chain people would pay more for soup in a bowl than in a cup, but basically ended up with the same amount of soup in the end – the bowl was just shorter and wider at the bottom than the cup. Someone should do something about this you say? Isn’t that illegal? Well, at this point there might not be much we can do given that it actually isn’t illegal to sell the same amount of product in different size containers at different prices. It sure is sneaky though and for now at least it is on all of us as consumers to be aware of the practice and be on the lookout for deception.
7. That’s Not What You Ordered
This one seems like a no-brainer right? If you order one thing and get something different you are going to know. How can this be a trick? While, yes it’s true if you order a Whopper and get a chicken sandwich you will be able to tell and won’t be very happy about it (and rightly so, because Whoppers are delicious!). And if you order a Frosty and get a salad, that too is not something that will go unnoticed. But what if it’s not as easy to tell the difference? Well, there have been reports from employees at some of the big chains of some more subtle switches. Like regular coffee just being watered down and passed off as decaf (for those wondering, no, that is not how decaffeinated coffee works). And if regular mayonnaise is cheaper than fat-free mayo, there is a chance that you will be getting the full-fat version on your sandwich even if you asked for the low-fat one. While some people may be able to tell the difference, these are examples of switches that could go unnoticed by the average customer – until they are wired on caffeine wondering what happened. While we haven’t heard reports of this happening, we wonder if there have been instances of restaurants serving customers Coke instead of the Pepsi they ordered – and vice-versa. And more importantly, did they notice!
6. Photos Can Be Deceiving
This is one we all know and yet we can all fall for it again and again. Food photography is a big business and the professionals who do it are experts at making whatever gets in front of their camera look so good that you feel you need it in your belly. But there isn’t one restaurants customer who hasn’t had the experience of seeing a photograph of what they ordered and then looked at what they actually got, only to be a little dismayed by the difference. The same can also be said by a lot of people after meeting that Tinder hottie in real life. Just remember the food in the photograph is probably not even edible once they get it ready for the camera. In a Consumer Reports investigation they checked out 7 fast food chains and did photo-to-actual-food comparisons and the results were pretty much disappointing across the board – with Subway actually coming in last. Regardless, this practice of not delivering on what the pictures promise is not going to change anytime soon. It works and no one is stopping anyone from doing it. A spokesperson for the Federal Trade Commission said that, “Truth-in-advertising laws do apply when restaurants show menu items in print and television ads… But the FTC hasn’t pursued any cases alleging that food ads are deceptive based on photos.”
5. Distribute the Sugars
If you are trying to eat healthy the first thing you probably do when you look at a product in the grocery store is check the ingredients. And you would think that, since those labels are highly regulated, there wouldn’t be any trickery going on there right? Wrong! Knowing how bad sugar is for us, many consumers do the “top 3 test.” Meaning, they check to see if “sugar” is one of the first three ingredients. However, what many food companies have been known to do is distribute the sugars among multiple ingredients so that “sugar” itself doesn’t show up as one of those first three items on the ingredient list. Sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, brown sugar and dextrose are just some of the ingredients food manufacturers can use to make sure their product tastes just as sweet as they want it to – but by using multiple sugar-ingredients in smaller proportions none of them make that dreaded top 3! This is a very sneaky move by manufacturers and something all consumers need to be aware of. That is why you should, along with the ingredient list, always check the nutritional information. Because while the sugars may be spread out in the ingredient list, they can’t spread them out in the nutritional facts on the line called “sugar.” Or at least we hope they can’t!
4. Label Padding
Padding is usually used to protect people from injury, but when food manufacturers partake in the sneaky business of label padding, they are definitely not taking the consumers safety into account. In fact, it is quite the opposite. With the growth of the healthy eating craze, the companies making not-so-healthy foods have been feeling left out and feeling the hit to their bottom line as fewer people are purchasing their products. Well, what is a food company to do? Well, they could just make healthier products. Or they could label pad their less-than-healthy products with a bunch of healthy ingredients in such small amounts that their health benefits are basically insignificant. So don’t be fooled by all the berries, herbs and superfood claims that some of these manufacturers make about their products and make sure you actually see where in the list of ingredients they are (ingredients are listed in order of their proportions from greatest to least). So, kale, or the like, as the last ingredient on the list is pretty much like not having it in there at all as far as the nutritional benefits are concerned. If it looks like junk food and smells like junk food and tastes like junk food… it’s probably junk food.
3. Milk in the Back
Have you ever noticed that the milk is always at the back of the grocery store? Now, ask the manager of the store why that is and they may say something about how that is because the back of the store is where the delivery trucks arrive and having the fridges close by makes the most sense. Ok sure, that sounds good. But the real reason, and probably the bigger reason, is because milk, along with eggs and a few other items are staples of most homes and are on most customers shopping lists when they enter the store (sometimes they’re the only things on the list). However, if you have to walk all the way through the store to get to the milk, eggs and butter, that means you will be passing by lots of other products on your way there and back to the cash. Making it more likely that you will pick up a few more items – whether they were on your list or not. You might see a sale you didn’t know about, an idea for dinner, some brand new item you didn’t know you wanted until you saw it, a new flavor of your favorite chips that has a big “limited edition” tag on it (so obviously you have to buy it and try them immediately). So the more time people spend in the store the more money they are likely to spend.
2. Bigger Shopping Carts
If you only have a couple items on your shopping list then grab a basket, or even better, just carry the items in your hands from the shelves to the check out. Just don’t use a shopping cart! The basic premise behind this one is that if you have room for more items you are more likely to buy more items. But if you already have your hands full with a couple items, then impulse buying that mega-box of Fruit Loops, the frozen pizza that’s on sale and that 6-pack of Mountain Dew that you really don’t need will be much harder to do. It will become a crazy balancing act just trying to get to the check out line without dropping everything. Since the 1970s, cars have gotten smaller but the shopping carts have gotten bigger – about three times as big in fact. And while most grocery stores offer two sizes of carts (big and small) you have probably also noticed that there are way fewer small ones available forcing more people to grab a big one. Pretty sneaky isn’t it!
1. Aisle and Shelf Placement
It might not look like it to the average eye, but everything in your grocery store has been designed to make you spend more money. From the color-scheme to where in an aisle the product is placed. You see, while women tend to browse grocery stores, men are more likely to do, what has been called, the “boomerang effect.” Unlike a man with the television remote who feels the need to click up and down through every channel barely stopping to see what is playing on any given one – a man in a grocery store will often walk in, go get what he came for and walk back the exact same way to the check out. To somewhat counteract this “boomerang effect” grocery stores tend to place the biggest brands and products in the middle of ailes. That way, no matter what direction a shopper enters the aisle they have the furthest to walk to get to said products. But aisle placement isn’t the end of it. Where an item is placed on the shelf is also done very much on purpose. Stores will generally place the more expensive and higher profit margin items right at eye level so those are the ones you see first and most often – putting the less profitable stuff at your feet or on the top shelf where you are less likely to look all the time. So the next time you are in a grocery store remember to look up and look down – there might be some money to be saved there.