A Sucker Born Every Minute in the Spice Aisle

Everybody knows the famous quote from P.T. Barnum: "There's a sucker born every minute."

I'm one of those suckers.

The other day Laura was making a recipe from her Indian cookbook and she asked if I'd like her to grind up some extra coriander. "We should never buy ground coriander at the grocery store any more. We have a lifetime supply right here." She reached into her big secret bag of Indian spices and pulled out two packages of coriander seeds, 600 grams in total (about 21 ounces), which, together, cost about $4.50.

Needless to say these coriander seeds were not purchased in the grocery store spice aisle--as Casual Kitchen readers know, the grocery store spice aisle is a corporate conspiracy that exists for no reason other than take willingly captive and credulous consumers and rudely separate them from their money. Laura long ago got smart: she buys all her spices at an Indian grocer.

We also have a little $18 spice grinder, and Laura used it to grind up enough whole coriander seeds to fill a just-emptied 1.25 ounce jar of McCormick ground coriander. It took two minutes.

Okay. Let's do some math and find out how much of a sucker I've been by buying ground coriander in a standard grocery store--in total contravention of my very own recommendations here at this blog.

* At our grocery store, it costs $7.99 to buy that 1.25 ounce jar of ground coriander.[1]
* Laura's 21 ounces of whole coriander seeds = 16.8 x 1.25 ounce jars.
* 16.8 jars of grocery store ground coriander at $7.99 per 1.25 ounce jar = $134.23.

In other words, Laura paid $4.50 for spices that would cost $134 in the grocery store.

And here comes the part about me being a sucker. I was paying a markup of more than 2,900.00% for a spice. (!!!!!) [math: 134.23 / 4.50 = 29.88 or 2,988%]

I get queasy just thinking about it.

Stay out of the grocery store spice aisle. It's an oligopoly designed to overcharge you. And they do it because they can.

Instead, find another source away from this totally non-competitive market environment, like a local ethnic food market. And if you can buy your spices in whole form, all the better: they'll be cheaper still and they'll last forever.[2]

My example of spice industry exploitation is interesting to me (uh, and hopefully to you too, dear readers), because it basically involves me acting out of convenience while not thinking. However, another consumer might easily argue, "Heck, does the eight bucks I wasted on 1.25 ounces of coriander really matter? Really? What's the big deal?"

Well, on one level, it's not a big deal. It's only eight bucks. But then again, doing things on a small level trains you for detecting and avoiding exploitation on a much larger level. Furthermore, it trains us in the healthy exercise of throwing creativity--rather than money--at a problem.

And even on this small level it isn't really that small: there's enough value in Laura's $4.50 worth of whole coriander seeds to pay for six spice grinders, which we could use to grind up any other whole spices we might purchase, which will help us further escape the clutches of the spice cabal.

Back to P.T. Barnum's quote about suckers. Everybody knows this quote, but rarely do people enjoy finding out that they're the sucker. That phrase is always for somebody else. Right? Which is why it's always painful to figure out that you've been a sucker who's been getting needlessly separated from your money, for years, for no real reason. Easier just to argue that it's only eight bucks, and eight bucks doesn't really make a difference.

READ NEXT: What's Your Favorite Consumer Empowerment Tip?
And: Recipe: Saag Murgh (Chicken with Spinach)

[1] This 1.25 ounce jar of ground coriander used to cost $6.99, but in recent years McCormick has jumped on the organic bandwagon, and so they've added both the magic word “organic” and another dollar of price premium to their already overpriced product. Lovely.

[2] Another scam about spices is the idea that they "fade" over time and thus need to be thrown out every so often. In some places you will even see recommendations to throw out "old" spices after as little as six months, something that is scandalously, criminally false. Of course the spice industry would love for you to throw out and re-buy all your spices every six months.

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Stuart Carter said...

I know we have spoken before about my adventures in the restaurant supply store with regard to spices. I simply won't buy spices from general grocery stores because they are so grotesquely overpriced.

Let's not even mention "Never Knowingly Underpriced" Penzey's...

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