Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Power of a Price Tag

Two bulbs, one price.
It all started because of the rain this morning . Emese complained that it is too dark in the dining room where she usually works from home – and no surprise so, with  only one out of three bulbs in the large Tiffany-styled lamp above the table actually working.  So there I was, on an urgent errand to bring home light bulbs from the corner CBA. Trivial as it sounds, I found there two types of plain light bulbs – a fancier Eco “Save 30%” one, and a more generic looking bulb. Shame on my green consciousness, I immediately reached for the later, expecting it to be cheaper. These simple bulbs do not seem to last long anyway, so it makes little sense opting for a fancy one is all that I can say in my defence. But to my astonishment both bulbs appeared to cost the same: a discouragingly expensive 629 HUF, that is slightly over EUR 2.

This made me take a closer look. The first bulb is packed and labelled as Emos Classic Eco Halogen and is produced in the Czech Republic. The second one has generic packaging with no brand name, no energy saving label, and no 'Eco' sign and is marked as produced in Hungary.  All other functionality parameters of both products are exactly the same. Both items are sold for the same price - although positioned in separate shelves, with different price tag codes, but one and the same product name:  'Emos Eco', and an identical end price of 629 HUF.

A nearby shop attendant assured me that what I see  is not what I see, and that in spite of all visible differences, both products are Eco Emos Hallogen,  as indicated on the shop's price tag. With Emese desperate for light, I bought both of them and made sure to carefully collect the payment receipt where the products clearly appear under the same name. First thing I did at home was to take a photo of all this mystery. Second, I wrote to whose contact pages are impressively accurate, with the names and emails of responsible officials. Presenting myself as a free-lanced journalist and blogger covering consumer and environmental advocacy issues  for a number of websites and mainstream media in Hungary, Bulgaria and other EU countries, I described the issue and inquired photo attached:

  • could Emos confirm that the two products are indeed the same, in spite of the different information on the package;
  • if so, please explain briefly the discrepancies in labelling; or
  •  if not so, please explain the possible reasons for such misleading product placement and the actual origin and price for the second product?
The reply arrived almost instantly – and this is where I really start liking Emos. Mr. Gergely Gurály, Managing Director of EMOS HU Kft, in charge of business activities with CBA, called this a “strange case” and confirmed right away that the second product is not one of Emos’. He kindly promised to inquire with the shop owner. Helpfully, he also passed on a comment by Emos’ Country manager for Slovenia and Hungary Mr Michal Novotný: “on the other side we see that they sell other bulbs than ours” – the other side standing for the Czech headquarters, apparently.  Some fifteen minutes later Mr Gurály reported that the store’s owner was first of all “very sorry for this inconvenient situation,” and will be checking what could have happened, because “it is very strange for him as well, as they are using BARCODE readers, and these are different products with different EAN.” EAN is the long barcode number on every product, I learned.
Instead of just leaving it there, to what may easily turn out to  be a sheer price tagging mistake in the shop, I dug out the box of the the second bulb from the paper-recycling bin (yes, the lamps were already shining above happy Emese’s laptop) and gave it a more thorough examination. This is when  I noticed the tiny print on one of the parts that could only be seen after a consumer already opened the box. It reads: GE Hungary Kft, and a street address. Bingo! Equally well hidden on the other cover of the box I spot a tiny index: 13188445 SBOX 42W HALO A/CL/E27 240V BX 1/10 GR. Each of these letter and number combinations supposedly says something about this product.  Yet I could not find it in GE’s online product catalogue. To be sure no stone was left unturned, I submitted an inquiry through GE Hungary’s web contact form  with one simple question: how much does this bulb normally cost? For if it is in fact cheaper than the other, then the wrong price tag in the shop works in fact against GE’s generic looking product – everyone would prefer a more superior looking Emos bulb for the same price I suppose.  

Before GE could have responded, a third message arrived from Mr Gurály, conveying the owners’ explanation that the matter was of an administrative failure in the shop’s IT system, whereby the staff attached the EAN of the Hungarian (GE product) article to the EMOS article product card as a secondary EAN.  The shop owner reportedly asked for my apology, and is willing to pay me back the price difference – which is fair enough. So apparently my original suspicion that a cheaper product is tagged with a misleadingly high price was confirmed. I would suggest that CBA could also instruct their staff how to handle customers’ inquiries more carefully, but this might be too much to wish for I suppose. So this is where this story ends, pointing at how easy it is for a retailer to shift the marketing of a product one way or another – and suggesting an interesting line for further inquiry into the impenetrable secrets of marketing and retail. For now that  think about it, this is not the first time that I come across products tagged for retail under different names.