Consumer Vigilante…

By Simone Demers Collins, PHEc

I love meandering through stores and markets, looking for a bargain, a time-saver, a unique use for traditional gadgets, or simply exploring the marketplace in search of something new. So yesterday, with a little time between appointments I wandered into a unique little gift shop in Toronto.  This place has proven to have wonderful finds in the past – and this time was no exception!

But what I found did not result in the ching-ching of my credit card – but rather the bristle of the increasing need for consumers to think before they purchase. My first ‘find’ was a clear plastic bottle with a hole-filled infuser centred top to bottom; the label read: “Make your own flavoured oils by placing your favourite fresh (or dry) herbs in the infuser and filling the bottle with oil. Within days you will have flavourful oils to use in your favourite dishes!” Or salmonella poisoning – if you don’t remember that oils are anaerobic – which means that any moisture from the herbs can’t evaporate without heating the mixture, and could cause the herbs to spoil and wreak havoc with both the oil and your stomach.

Then, I came upon one of the new fryers that require only a tablespoon of oil for making healthier French fries. I know a lot of people who’ve received these as gifts in the last couple of years, so they are not new. But when I read the instructions I was struck with how few Fries each batch made – even with portion control one batch would not feed a family of four, never-mind kids or teens who could make a meal of potatoes and catsup…

It became really easy at that point to start speculating as to what consumers should consider before making any new purchase. Professionally, earlier in my career, I would have said:

  • Can your budget afford it?
  • How often will you use this item?
  • Do you currently own something else that is similar or that could be used to meet the same objectives of this item?
  • How do consumer groups/organizations rate this item?

But today, I’d also ask the following:

  • Are the materials used appropriate to the final use? For example, pot holders that are so thin they’ll burn hands; silicone baking pans that are wobbly when filled and spill from the counter to the oven; dish towels that are too small to hold and wipe a plate at the same time, etc.
  • If it’s to be used with food, are the methods recommended going to yield a safe product? This applies to the flavoured oil dispenser mentioned earlier, but also to marinating dishes that suggest food be left at room temperature for 1-2 hours, etc.
  • Will this item meet our household’s needs at this time? This includes food yields that are too small to feed a family as much as 6L slow cookers when you’re cooking for one or two.
  • What’s the country of origin of this product? Can I trust the source – that the plastics are food safe? that the fabrics may be clean as recommended? that the 10-year suitcase warranty offered covers more than replacing the name plate? Etc.
  • And finally, how is the product contributing to environmental waste? Is the packaging excessive? What will I do with it when I’m finished using this item – can it be recycled? Passed on to someone else? Or simply add to the landfill.

It’s true that my consumer choices, my available income to spend, and my ‘needs’ are much greater than my mother’s and my grandmother’s. But with these choices, I should remember that I need to be as vigilant with my purchasing decisions as they were with their budgets.  Happy meandering…

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Simone Demers Collins is a professional home economist, living in Edmonton Alberta. She has her own consulting business which focuses on media, marketing, public relations & project management. Follow her daily at@learncanola.