Teaching Consumer Skills

My son offered me a piece of Bazooka the other day. I hadn’t chewed any since high school and I was curious. Inside, a Bazooka Joe comic was still wrapped around the gum, and the joke was as lame as ever. The gum seemed smaller, the color was wrong, the flavor was changed. Nostalgia? In part, I still mourn the passing of the 25 cent quarter-pound Baby Ruth I used to buy at Saturday football games, but we all recognize we’re paying more for less these days.

I thought, here’s an opportunity to combine math and consumer education, and maybe social studies as well. “Let them eat cake,” erroneously attributed to Marie Antoinette, is nonetheless a sentiment connecting food and social class. Kids are recognized by marketers as a profitable demographic or class. The Five Cent War, (2003) documents a 1947 Vancouver children’s revolt against a 3 cent price hike on candy bars. The kids went on strike, and their candy strike grew until insinuations of communist influence nipped it.

When I searched the Web for data on food and home product packaging and price changes, I found articles with specific instances but no organized consumer database. To me, this lack is an oversight, but then hindsight is always clearer. I wish I still had my 1959 Yankee baseball cards. Consumer Reports, The Consumerist , and Mouse Print are the best I was able to find. Maybe you and your students will have better luck.

Some product changes are recent enough that if I checked my shelves I could compare container sizes and prices. I found a half-used box of beignet mix with a use-by date of October 1998. There’s no price on the box, but I discovered that it’s still sold in the same 28 ounce box. Cans of tuna and tomatoes, bags of chips, boxes of cereal are all better prospects. Many of us rely on unit price information to make purchase decisions, but the speed of packaging changes have raised questions about the accuracy of unit pricing.

Students could develop their own databases by comparing products on home and supermarket shelves. Pricing might prove a problem. Barcodes have replaced price stickers making the task harder. There are barcode readers online. I tested the Free Online Barcode Decoder on a soup can UPC, but the decoder gave me nothing that I recognized as price information. Perhaps someone more tech-savvy will have better luck.

Even if each student investigated only one item, a class could compile an interesting picture of the changing consumer environment. The Rising Cost of Candy – A Brief Study of Hershey Prices is an ideal example. It’s unrealistic to expect to find long run data easily, but even short run data will provide experience in research, graphing, and consumer history. And an eye-opener.

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