The Telegraph
Monday , June 18 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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Weight and watch

If you have sometimes wondered why that packet of potato chips feels lighter every day, or why that cake of soap tends to finish faster these days, the reason is simple. Rather than jack up prices, many manufacturers have simply reduced the weight of their products. You are paying the same amount for the packet of potato chips all right, but you are getting far less for it than you used to.

Most consumers do not bother to check the weight of the product on the package. And so, manufacturers figure, they’re lulled into believing that while the price of most things are going up, that of this particular product has remained static. It’s consumer psychology, pure and simple, feel the manufacturers, and hence the market has been flooded with fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) products that bear unconventional weights like 47g or 88g and so on.

However, come November 1, manufacturers will no longer be able to resort to such subterfuges to ensure brand loyalty. That’s when the Packaged Commodities Rules (PCR), 2011, come into force. The rules stipulate that manufacturers will not be able to market products with non-traditional weights. They will be required to only sell products in standard weights such as 25, 50, 100 and multiples of 100 (gm / ml), and so on. The ruling came into effect on April 1 this year but the food ministry has given FMCG companies till October 31 to put this into action.

Needless to say, both retail sellers and manufacturers are quite miffed with the move as they feel that standard weight, and hence, enhanced pricing, will prompt many consumers to stop buying the product altogether. As Bikram Hela, a general store owner in central Calcutta, affirms, “Biscuits of all leading brands are available in irregular packaged weight. This is the case too for soaps, detergents and tea packets. Once standard weights are made mandatory, sales might get affected.”

It’s not just Hela. Big FMCG manufacturers make the same point. “Our experience tells us the consumer looks at value outlay rather than a specific weight. Therefore, we feel there is merit in continuing with non standard grammages to cater to the needs of these consumers,” says Vikram Grover, vice-president, marketing, Tata Global Beverages Limited.

Adds an HUL spokesperson, “The changes proposed by the government to the Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Rules, 2011 will adversely impact the operations of small and large businesses across various industry segments. The notification, which disallows the flexibility of packaging in ‘non-standard’ sizes and weights, would affect not just industry but also consumer interests in several ways.”

Besides, says the spokesperson, the reach and extension of many FMCG products in “bottom of pyramid” markets or in semi-urban and rural areas, will also be hit.

The basic argument of retailers and manufacturers is that what consumers really care about is unchanged price, rather than standard weights. “There are several customers who prefer soaps, shampoos and detergents which are available in unconventional weights as it fits their budget. Now they might just skip buying these products,” says Hela.

Consumer activists beg to differ. In fact, most have hailed the government’s move as it brings in transparency. They argue that with standard weights consumers will at least not be duped into thinking that they are continuing to get the same value for their money. “Sometimes you may feel good about a product if its price does not go up. But the fact is that you are actually getting less and less for the same price. Some potato chips, for example, have continued to be Rs 10. But you are getting fewer and fewer chips in the packet. It is not good to be kept in the dark and be under the illusion that the price of the product has not increased. Hence the move by the government to prohibit packaging in non-standard weights is welcome,” says consumer activist Jehangir Gai.

Agrees A.M. Mascarenhas, secretary of the Consumer Welfare Association, Mumbai. “The move to bring about transparency will empower the consumer and help him understand the actual price of a product.”

Activists like Mascarenhas argue that manufacturers really do not need to be apprehensive about the new packaging rules as they are unlikely to impact them in any major way. “Someone who has to buy biscuits will still buy biscuits, even if the prices rise,” says Mascarenhas.

“In fact, packaging in standard weights ought to be easier. Since the consumer finds it difficult to calculate the price of products with non-standard weights, he is often unable to compare the prices of similar products and find out which is cheaper or costlier,” says Gai.

With the ruling about to come into effect, most FMCG firms are, of course, preparing to gear up for it. “Our understanding is that discussions on the legislation are going on. Tata Global Beverages will, of course, fully comply with the final government decision. We welcome the legislation on large pack sizes,” says Grover.

And while consumers may not like the price increase that standard weights may bring in its wake, at least they will cease to be kept in the dark about how much bang they’re getting for their buck.