Frugal shopping – taste and expectation

Yesterday I was reading You are not so smart by David McRaney. On p252, he talks about two experiments conducted at the University of Bordeaux in 2001, wherein people were tricked into tasting a wine which was not what they thought it was i.e. white wine disguised as red wine and cheap wine disguised as expensive wine. In both cases, although the participants were tasting the identical drink twice, they had two very different tasting experiences based on their expectations.

On the face of it, you could interpret this to mean that people will enjoy more expensive, branded items more, because they expect to enjoy them more, and that’s bad news for frugal shoppers. However, there are two ways that you can turn this around.

First, work on your own expectations. If you can persuade yourself that branded items are the same as generic items but with different boxes, you’ll find it easier to buy the generic, cheapest items and still have a comparable experience. Recently I wanted to buy some lemon drink-for-cold sachets. The branded product is Lemsip, priced at around £3.29 for 10 sachets. Boots also did a “Boots pharmaceuticals” version, sold in a box designed to look pretty similar to the Lemsip box, priced at around £2.59 for 10 sachets – a saving of £0.70. Looking at the two items, I was quite willing to accept that the Boots product is probably very similar to the Lemsip product, but priced lower because Boots spend less on advertising than Lemsip do. In that case, I would expect the products to perform similarly. However, I then noticed that tucked away on another part of the shelf, Boots had a “Value Health” version priced at £0.69 for five sachets, therefore £1.38 for 10 sachets – a saving of over 50% against Lemsip and almost 50% against Boots pharmaceuticals. Even given the much plainer and cheaper looking Value Health box, my first thought was that there must be another difference in the Value Health product which made it much cheaper to produce: different ingredients, less of the active ingredient.

According to the packaging, both products contain Paracetamol 650mg per sachet. Both contain the following ingredients, presumably in the same proportions as they are listed in the same order: sucrose, sodium citrate, citric acid, tartaric acid, sodium cyclamate, asorbic acid, starch, natural colour (E100) spray dried lemon juice, lemon aroma. 
Now, it may be that the Value Health sachets weigh only 4g while the Boots pharmaceuticals sachets weight 5g, and that the Boots pharmaceuticals sachets contain more sucrose or more lemon aroma. But they both contain the same amount of the active ingredients, and knowing that, I expected that the Value Health sachets  would do the same job and was thus able to save over £1.
Second, if you know that other people will be fooled by their own expectations, you can work to minimise that. When I got home, I put the Value Health sachets into an old Boots pharmaceuticals box, since my husband is more inclined to prefer branded products. If you have people coming to eat with you, and you know they always shop at Waitrose, don’t tell them everything on the table is from Asda SmartPrice, at least until they’ve said “This is delicious, where did you get it from?”. I’m going to try this myself when serving people with soy milk. Previously, I’ve said “I’m afraid we’ve only got soy milk, I hope it’s ok for you” which has probably set them up with an expectation that they won’t like it. Now I’ll try something like “We have soy milk, I prefer it to cow’s milk in tea”.
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