(Dis)Honesty in Business


The Wall Street Journal had a story this week about how many firms take advantage of what is known as “nonfunctional slack fill”. This is just a fancy way of saying that there is less in a package than meets the eye. Other commonly used terms include “weight-out” and “de-sheeting”.

One example the story gave was of McCormick’s black pepper. McCormick’s cut the amount of pepper in its tin can by 25% (from 4 oz. to 3 oz.), keeping the price about the same, and using the same size tin as before. While the amount of pepper is labeled on the front of the package, it screams “deceptive business practice” to me.

A McCormick spokeswoman is quoted as saying, “Our priority was to maintain the integrity and quality of our product while avoiding significant increases in the price of a favorite everyday ingredient.”

How is selling 25% less pepper in the same packaging at about the same price not a significant price increase?

Slack fill is a way for companies to raise its prices, without appearing to do so. And while many companies may do this, it doesn’t make it acceptable. Slim Jim and Axe deodorant are facing lawsuits for similar practices.

I would love to be at the meetings where such decisions are being made, to see how they justify such decisions. I would also like to ask them if they (1) think their moms would notice the change in “nonfunctional slack fill” and (2) if they think their moms would approve of such business behavior.

My guess is that the answer to both questions would be no. I understand the idea behind “buyer beware” but if someone has been buying McCormick pepper for years in the same size tin can, why should they be expected to check to see if the company has decreased how much they are now putting in that same tin can. Obviously the companies are hoping that consumers don’t notice the change, and if they do, they can claim that it is labeled on the can how much pepper it contains.

Just because such business practices may be legal, it doesn’t make them right.

Sounds like a job for Superman Ralph Nader.

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