Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

My last stand — sort of

The power of wee price tags



His name is Harry. Harry Leslie Smith. Now 92, he is, quote, absolutely one of Annie Lennox's heroes.

A regular columnist for The Guardian — yes, at his age! — he's an articulate, unassuming man self-described as a survivor of the Great Depression, a Second World War RAF veteran, and an activist for the poor and the preservation of social and parliamentary democracy.

And Harry, who splits his home between Yorkshire and Toronto, is on his latest mission. Right now he's travelling across Canada, taking a "last stand" to get we, the people, to take a stand — or, at least, vote and toss out the current Harper regime.

All this aligns with his new book, Harry's Last Stand, whose sober tagline is: "How the world my generation built is falling down and what we can do to save it."

Harry's whole point is he has lived long enough to experience a full socio-political cycle, starting with the Depression when great wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few, followed by fighting for a more egalitarian world during the Second Word War, through the '80s with Thatcherism and Reaganomics, to our current regime where, again, too much wealth lies in too few hands. (To wit, the Oxfam report that the 85 richest people on Earth hold as much wealth as the world's poorest half.)

And so the circle turns.

Not to turn this into a political polemic — don't get me started — or suggest for a minute that I'm even close to a life cycle like Harry's, but his notion about the power and wisdom each of us holds simply through living our lives, unique as snowflakes, got me thinking about what I've seen over my six-plus decades.

Given this is a food column I'll stick to one emblematic topic, but no matter if you're 10 or 110, I encourage you to give it a whirl, too, on whatever topics get you going when viewed through the lens of your own lifetime.

What have we lost? What have we gained?

What could we do better with? And what should we be doing without?

Something small and totally significant

Yes, Gordon Price, long-time politico and director of SFU's City Program, has pumped out urban planning wisdom for years in his blog, Price Tags. It's great, but nothing beats the real thing.

So with my long shelf life, though not as impressive as Harry's, I realize how happy I am these days to find groceries with a price tag right on the product.

Yippee! I dragged home a jar of Polish mustard the other day and lit up when I spied an actual price tag on the lid when I put it on the fridge door next to its near-empty cousin.

"So what?" you say. So lots, I say.

To start, I instantly get a meaningful price comparison, which makes me a more informed consumer. The new jar cost $4.50 while the near-empty jar about to get tossed was $3.95, so I know that the cost of that mustard has gone up by about 15 per cent since the last time I bought it. As long as I can remember when that was, along with a handful of other items and their prices, I have a more personal indicator of cost of living trends, nicely enhancing statistical ones from agencies or government.

Besides the obvious, is it worth buying mustard at that price, the price tag comparison triggers other issues, too. Why has the price gone up so much? Should I shop someplace else? Has mustard been hit by some other factor — environmental, geopolitical or otherwise — so maybe I don't want to buy it any more?

The list goes on, but since the price better sticks in our heads after we've seen it over and over at home every time we use it, the knowledge translates to power. When it's time to consume more we are better armed to make better choices. That includes price comparisons to other stores and analyzing if something "on sale" is really on sale.

Sorry, but I'm not rich and even if I was I'd want to know why an item costs way more at Store X or Y. Right now, unless you have the memory of a 32-gigabyte laptop or keep all your old sales receipts jumbled in a drawer, which no sane person would drag to a store regardless, you fly blind or at least asleep when it comes to pricing.

I recall finding, on the same day, the same item priced 60 per cent higher in one major grocery retailer compared to another. I won't name names to protect the guilty and because I learned years ago when I did a comprehensive grocery price comparison in the Question — something common in those days — I spent days fielding calls from irate store managers wanting to rationalize things.

The thing is that while on-shelf pricing is tough on we customers, it's easier and more efficient for retailers.

In large grocery stores that stock everything from fresh fish and cereal to candle holders and toys, you can find, maybe, 15,000 to 60,000 items.

That's a lot of goods to price, so long gone are the days of the stock boy sitting on his stool in the middle of the aisle, hand-pricing every can and bottle with a sticky-backed price tag or stamp. (Kiss those jobs good-bye.)

The SKU or stock keeping unit with its unique identifier and related UPC (Universal Product Code) bar code on a strip of paper affixed to the shelf behind a hunk of plastic have replaced price tags. I know, I know — any good store manager will tell you this system is key to managing inventory and pricing items fast and efficiently, especially on sale or special promotion items. But at what cost?

Pricing signs are often missing, misplaced and even when they're there, I can't tell you how many cashiers have asked me to fetch the sign from the shelf so they can adjust the price after I've noticed the wrong price on the till display — never, I repeat, never in my favour. Again, I'll not reveal names to protect the guilty, but let's just say it's never happened to me at Whistler.

All of this tag-less world kind of makes us, well, more oblivious. Oblivious to prices. Oblivious to trends. Oblivious to ourselves. And is that a good idea?

Which brings us full circle to that Harry moment.

What have we gained? What have we lost? And how could we do things better?

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who counts Harry among her heroes, too.

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