WASHINGTON (TheStreet) -- Hey shoppers, thanks for returning to stores and spending more. Here's a little something less for your trouble.
The Consumer Confidence Index increased slightly last month after a steep decline in March nearly offset several months of resurgent consumer sentiment. Consumer spending, meanwhile, inched up 0.5% from March to April while total sales from February to April were up 8.1% from the year before, according to the Census Bureau.
Much of those gains are thanks to consumers paying more to get less. Gas prices alone accounted for a 21.8% sales increase at the pump since last April, even though average gas prices have started a slow slide from nearly $3.97 two weeks ago to $3.85 today.Still, Consumer Reports says prices at the pump combined with the rising cost of certain commodities could increase food prices by 3% this year.
Retail sales are up 0.5% from a year ago, but Consumer Reports says consumers are spending about the same on shrinking packages. The consumer group found that the standard size of Pepsico's (PEP) - Get Report Tropicana orange juice shrank 7.8%, to 59 ounces from 64 ounces; packages of Kraft (KFT) cheese shrank 8.3%, dropping to 22 slices from 24 slices; and Haagen-Dazs shrunk its "pints" of ice cream 12.5%, to 14 ounces from 16 ounces.
Even before the downsizing, however, manufacturers and retailers had plenty of ways to make the consumer waste money on products or packaging that gave them either no added benefit or even made them pay extra for nothing. The following are five of the most egregious examples of products that make you pay a whole lot for very little:
Exactly what's the draw to foaming hand soaps, beyond their little bubbles? As The Consumerist found a few years back, that's about it.
Customers who've tried to refill their "foaming" dispensers with regular liquid soap have discovered they have a tendency to gum up the works. When those same customers add water to that same liquid soap by a nearly 5-to-1 ratio, suddenly they have "foaming soap."
It would be bad enough if consumers were paying the same amount for regular hand soap and its watered-down counterpart, but Consumerist found that foaming soap refills cost roughly 2 cents per ounce more than regular liquid soap -- or $1 more per 50-ounce refill. Through TheStreet's own findings, even generic brands of foaming soap such as East Coast-based Stop & Shop's CareOne carry a 3-cent-per-ounce premium over regular liquid soap. Our advice: Pick up a refillable foaming soap dispenser at Amazon (AMZN) - Get Report , Bed, Bath & Beyond (BBBY) - Get Report or your store of choice and make your own refills for 20% of the price.
Whipped cream cheese
Whipped cream cheese is yet another product that basically forces the consumer to pay for air. Yes, that's the key difference in whipped cream cheese: Someone whipped air into it so you wouldn't have to.
On the surface, this doesn't seem to be such a big issue. Kraft, the maker of Philadelphia Cream Cheese, sells 8- and 12-ounce containers of whipped and nonwhipped varieties for the same price. The problem is the container itself: While regular cream cheese can be bought in 8-ounce foil-wrapped blocks for 14 cents less per pound, the whipped cream cheese's delicate nature requires a container for its very survival.
If paying a premium for air in your schmear doesn't excite you, it's a lot less costly to pick up blocks of cream cheese and whip them either by hand or with a mixer and place it in a reusable container. For extra credit, pick up some scallions and blend them into your whipped cheese yourself. The 50 to 69 cents they'll cost per bunch is still less than the 80- to 85-cent per-pound premium Kraft and Breakstone's charge for throwing them into them mix beforehand.
Back in March, Men's Health put the hurt on Pepsico's Frito-lay onion-flavored cornmeal rings, Funyuns, by noting that the contents of their 6.5-ounce bag were equivalent to little more than an ear of corn. Men's Health's assertion was that, based on the $1 price of an ear of corn, a $4 bag of Funyuns should cost roughly $1.25 and that Funyuns' bag size was lighter than Frito-Lay's standard for Ruffles potato chips (9.5 ounces) and Doritos tortilla chips (11.5 ounces).
But why make an inept corn comparison (much of that ear's not edible and the kernels that are in no way equal the contents of a Funyuns bag) when you can just go for that pesky unit price? At $4 a bag -- the going rate for standard-size Frito-Lay products -- a 6.5-ounce bag of Funyuns commands a whopping 61 cents an ounce. Compare that with an 11.5-ounce bag of Doritos that has the same price tag but costs 35 cents an ounce. That 9.5-ounce bag of Ruffles, meanwhile, goes for 42 cents an ounce.
We'd love to say all puffed snacks share the blame, but a 9.75-ounce bag of Cheetos starts at $3, or 32 cents an ounce, and even a bag of cheese puffs at the 6-ounce size made by Pennsylvania snack maker Bachman retails for $2.50 -- or 40 cents an ounce. Lightweight snacks shouldn't have such hefty price tags.
In light of airline liquid restrictions, travel sizes are nice to have around. Beyond that, however, they're squeezing the consumer in the name of convenience.
The evidence is in the travel-size section of your local CVS (CVS) - Get Report , where a 2.7-ounce tube of Procter & Gamble's (PG) - Get Report Crest Whitening With Scope Minty Fresh Striped toothpaste sells for $2.29, or 85 cents an ounce. Meanwhile, a 6.2-ounce tube goes for $3.49, or 56 cents an ounce. It's a similar markup for a 3.2-ounce $1.99 "travel size" bottle of Johnson & Johnson's (JNJ) - Get Report Listerine; its 62 cents per ounce is more than triple what a consumer pays per ounce for a 34-ounce, $6 bottle of the same product.
It's just foolish when the Container Store, Amazon and other outlets sell reusable, TSA-compliant "travel sized" containers for toiletries and simply transferring some products from one vessel to another accomplishes the same end for much less.
We can also hope the TSA will get around to canceling its travel restrictions on liquids and gels, a move agency officials were "confident" would come by the end of 2009.
When there are so many options for filtering water, so many means of transporting it and so many reasons against buying it, why are you still going through pallets of bottled water?
Aquafina is Pepsico's filtered tap water, Dasani is Coca-Cola's (K) - Get Report filtered Atlanta tap water. Both cost more per bottle than you'll pay for 1,000 gallons from your municipal water supply this year. Roughly 10% of that cost pays to filter your water. The rest pays for the flimsy plastic bottle, the rigid plastic cap and the tear-away paper label.
Even travelers limited by airport security liquid restrictions have wised up to the absolute dimwittedness of buying a $3 bottle of water in the terminal. SmarterTravel editor Anne Banas says one of the top money-saving tips on her site comes from travelers who bring empty water bottles to the airport and fill them at fountains or sinks once they're through security. Worried about the water quality? Why is it that hikers have managed to figure out how to filter water from mountain streams -- which, contrary to popular opinion, are filled with traces of animal excrement and other poisons that can actually kill you -- but the average bottled-water drinker still can't figure out how to work a filtered pitcher or water-filter bottles?
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