April 25, 2006

Milk of Human Annoyance

We drink a lot of milk in the Dr. Momentum household. A gallon every couple of days, almost. For the health conscious in the audience, let me stress that this is nonfat milk. Yeah, I know. Maggie weaned me off 1% shortly after we got married.

Anyhow, I bought some Kellogg’s cereal the other day (we eat a lot of that as well) and was granted the following coupon via the checkout-coupon-printer at Stop & Shop:

Free milk? That’s great! The only problem is that I am a Massachusetts resident.

Why is that a problem?

Because redeeming coupons for milk is against the law in Massachusetts. This isn’t the first time we’ve had useless milk coupons before. Once, Maggie complained to Hood about a bad gallon of milk, and they gave us a coupon for a free gallon to replace the bad one. When nobody would take th coupon we learned about the law.

But this is the first time I’ve has Stop&Shop issue such a coupon in their store — one that we couldn’t redeem there!

I was a bit incredulous. I figured “maybe if they are issuing the coupon, it’s OK for them to take it.” So Maggie called the store.

Maggie: Hi. My husband has a coupon for free milk from your store. Will your store accept it?

Employee: I don’t see why not.

Maggie: How about because it’s illegal in Massachusetts?

Employee: Um, let me check. [Pause] Yeah, we can’t accept that coupon.

Sure, the irony is obvious. They don’t accept their own coupon. But the irony is not what annoys me. Technically, if you read all the fine print, it does say “void where prohibited by law.” It’s up to you to know the law.

What annoys me is the note on the coupon from Kellogg’s telling you that if you buy more cereal, you can get even more of these useless coupons! So, if you didn’t know about the law, and you hadn’t had a chance to try to redeem the coupon, you might go back to Stop&Shop and buy 6 boxes of various cereal in pursuit of what could be $13.47 in free milk (the coupon is supposed to be redeemable for up to $4.49 per gallon). That’s just plain cheesy. A sloppy mistake, but it might well sell a few extra boxes of cereal.

In truth, we eat so much Kellogg’s cereal that 6 boxes of Mini Wheats is a drop in the bucket. But you’re basically being cheated out of $10+ if you fall for this.

Fun Facts!

  • Apparently, the state government has been petitioned to amend the law that prohibits the use of these coupons. See the text of House Bill 3711 here. I believe they are still reviewing the bill, or it is in committee, or whatever happens to such bills before they are voted on.
  • This law only applies to “white milk.” Theoretically, I could use the coupon for flavored milk. A gallon of coffee milk? Maybe I should give that a shot.
  • As a back-up plan, I can always hop in the car, burn some gas and redeem the coupon in another state.

Update

Here is the link to the text of the Massachusetts general law regarding milk control:

CHAPTER 94A. MILK CONTROL

CERTAIN TRANSACTIONS PROHIBITED

Chapter 94A: Section 14. Purchase, sale or distribution of milk below price fixed or below cost; rebates

[…](d) No person shall sell within the commonwealth any milk, or render any service in connection with the sale or distribution of milk, at a price less than the cost of such milk or service, including, in the case of milk sold, the original purchase price thereof, and in every instance all regular direct or indirect elements of cost as defined in section one; and no milk dealer shall evade this prohibition by the use of any method or device, whether by discount or rebate, by barter, by exchange, by free service, by distribution of free milk, […]

My guess is that the reason behind this law has to do with protecting local dairy farms. It prevents dumping cheap milk on the market and undercutting other dairies. Maybe it protects small dairies. But a coupon that can be used on any dairy’s milk should probably be exempted, because it does not favor one dairy over another. I think the law was just written too broadly.

Posted by James at April 25, 2006 9:45 PM
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Comments

"As a back-up plan, I can always hop in the car, burn some gas and redeem the coupon in another state."

If you weren't so close to another state, I would have a snarky comment to make; it would involve complaining about the price of gas, etc.

How odd. I didn't realize it was illegal to discount milk. I wonder if this law has its genesis in the concept that most things that are put on sale are marked up at some point to cover the cost of the sale.

Having worked in retail during the formative years of my life, I can attest to this practice. I once worked for a guy who had two stores in the same small touristy town: one on Main St. and one in a more secluded section. He would take merchandise from the Main St. store, market it up 20%, put a "sale" tag on it with the marked-up price with a line through it, take off 10%, and call it a sale.

People bought. The word "sale" does something to people that shuts down the rational part of their brains.

Posted by: Patti M. at April 26, 2006 8:17 AM

That's a really odd law.

The grocery store up here has Apple Jacks, Corn Pops and Fruit Loops on sale for $0.99 per box this week. You can use the savings on the cereal to pay for milk and gas :-)

Posted by: Jim at April 26, 2006 8:53 AM

There's a law against discounting milk in Massachusetts? Ok, that's freakin weird. Why?

Posted by: briwei at April 26, 2006 11:36 AM

See my update. I think the law is for protecting small or local dairies by preventing cheap milk dumping on the market.

I'm not certain, because it's not always easy (or possible) to see the reason behind a law by reading the law.

Posted by: James at April 26, 2006 12:39 PM

Thanks for the added info. This sounds familiar now. It was enacted, as you suspected, to keep huge milk conglomerates who pool milk from a great many dairies from pricing out smaller, local dairies.

"But a coupon that can be used on any dairy’s milk should probably be exempted, because it does not favor one dairy over another. I think the law was just written too broadly."

I disagree. If this exemption were to occur, small outfits would have to honor your coupon, which they are not only not set up to do.

If the milk from a small, local dairy were available at supermarkets, that might work. Most are not.

If I tried to use this coupon at, say,
the organic farm down the street from my house where they carry a rolling stock of ~20 bottles of milk from a local dairy, they would most likely turn me away. Why? Because each small store like this would have to implement an entire coupon redemption program for what would probably turn out to be fewer than 10 people a month (if that), and that's just not economically feasable.

So whose milk would sell the most with this program? Large dairies or large conglomerate dairies.

Posted by: Patti M. at April 26, 2006 1:18 PM

As far as I can tell, it's a store coupon. Why would "small outfits" have to honor a Stop & Shop coupon?

Posted by: Julie at April 26, 2006 1:26 PM

This coupon is printed out by Stop & Shop to be honored at Stop & Shop, and Kellogg's is reimbursing the cost.

So, no matter whose milk you buy, Kellogg's is paying for it, up to $4.59 per gallon. I don't think your example applies to this specific case.

Kellogg's is a third party, providing money for you to buy your next gallon of milk. The only restriction is that it has to be bought at Stop & Shop, which is the place you already shop because that's where you got the coupon.

Posted by: James at April 26, 2006 1:29 PM

I am inarticulate today, and I apologize.

It is indeed a Stop & Shop coupon. I doubt very highly that they carry milk from local dairies, but I would love to be surprised.

I know my local Shaw's doesn't carry milk from Balance Rock Farm.

Most coupons that I've seen are for supermarkets; very few little shops have the infrastructure to print, distribute, and manage coupon programs.

Supermarkets carry milk from large dairies or conglomerates.

Coupons for milk issued by supermarkets will be for the milk they carry, which is from conglomerates.

Small, local dairies are not part of this equation.

Posted by: Patti M. at April 26, 2006 1:32 PM

Therefore, this law was enacted to help small/local dairies from being priced out of existence.

Some would argue that this is how the marketplace ought to work; survival of the fittest. For the most part, I would agree, but there are times that the little guy needs a little help, and this is one instance.

If we don't help out the small or local farm, what will we get:

- Fewer choices
- Food that may have more chemicals (if local farms are organic)
- More pollution from even more of our food being shipped to our stores (tractor trailers, container ships)
- Farm land being turned into more housing (which has its own issues, beyond losing nice-to-look-at space, like pollution, higher taxes [more homes=more people {driving & polluting}=more kids=higher school costs {larger schools, more staff})

Posted by: Patti M. at April 26, 2006 1:40 PM

Any dairy that does not have milk at Stop & Shop (large or small) is not part of this equation.

That's what happens when you shop at Stop & Shop, regardless of whether you use a coupon or not.

I see the reason for laws protecting local dairies. I honestly don't see this coupon as much of a threat, considering the situation.

In fact, I think that when laws are taken to silly extremes like this, it hurts the original intention of the law far more than the loss of a few sales of gallons of milk. In the long run, you'll get fewer people behind laws protecting the dairies as a result.

Posted by: James at April 26, 2006 1:51 PM

I never even look at the coupons they print for me anymore. I don't want to buy something I don't need or want just because its on sale, and that's generally what those coupons are designed to make you do. Of course, if its something you're already going to buy, that's different.

That being said, store coupon or not, if you normally get your milk from a small local dairy and your cereal from Stop & Shop, this coupon will take business away from the small dairy. Granted, I think that's such a rare case as to be the exception rather than the rule, but it probably wasn't when the law was written.

Personally I buy only Rhody Fresh milk, which is all from organic farms in South County. And it generally is availible at Shaws & Stop & Shops around here.

Posted by: DG at April 26, 2006 2:56 PM

DG, do you know if they were asked to carry the milk from your local dairy? I ask because I wonder if I could interest our local Shaw's store manager in carrying milk from the local dairy that is really yummy (and comes in glass bottles which is the best!).

Posted by: Patti M. at April 26, 2006 3:06 PM

I'm guessing that Rhody Fresh is similar to the milk we buy from Vermont (I forget the name). Still a pretty big operation compared to Balance Rock. They (the vermont milk) buy from a number of small farms and then package it.

DG it's always a good idea to look at those coupons. Nine times out of ten they're junk but they are getting pretty good at targeting what you might be intereted in. often they are similar to products you byuy but from another supplier. Say I normally buy Scott paper towels. they might give me a coupon for Bounty. I really couldn't care less which I buy so that coupon will get me to buy Bounty if it's cheaper.

People like "fixing" things so you end up with laws (and here at work procedures) that are put in place as band-aids (tm) without any real thought to the long term ramifications.

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at April 26, 2006 3:31 PM

The same could be said for the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Just this past week, The Economist ran an article about how unwieldy this law is. They called it a "rush-job hurried through a Congress with its eye on 2002's mid-term elections."

Posted by: Patti M. at April 26, 2006 3:46 PM

We usually shop at Hannaford up here. (They have their deficiencies, like most grocery stores, but everyone gets the sale price without having to present a grocery store card, which is a big plus in my book.)

I never even look at the coupons they print for me anymore. I don't want to buy something I don't need or want just because its on sale, and that's generally what those coupons are designed to make you do. Of course, if its something you're already going to buy, that's different.

Every once in a while, we get a coupon for something that we ordinarily buy, usually it is for a competing product we have no interest in.

Posted by: Jim at April 26, 2006 4:16 PM

So, I could buy local milk with this coupon at your Stop & Shop. That pretty much puts the last nail in the objection to the coupon, as far as I'm concerned.

I feel like reiterating: the annoyance that made me post this was with the fact that S&S and Kellogg's will print a coupon I can't use, and encourage me to earn more useless coupons. It wasn't with the law. We've know about the law for a long time and I actually don't come across milk coupons often enough to care strongly.

However, I also believe well-intentioned laws can backfire. This law, if it prohibits the above coupon, backfires in two ways. First, it frustrates people (needlessly, in this case) which makes it hard to make the case for reasonable protection. And secondly, because you can spend the coupon on any brand of milk, it might actually hurt prevent you from allowing Kellogg to pay for you to buy local milk.

Imagine this simple scenario. You pay around $3.19 for a gallon of milk. Let's say the local milk is more expensive, (let's say $4.19) so you have been hesitant to buy it, even though Stop & Shop carries it.

Kellogg comes by and says "we'll buy you any gallon of milk, as long as it's less than $4.49." You say, "Hmmm. If Kellogg's is footing the bill, maybe I ought to try that local milk."

So you try the local milk and think "you know what - the local milk is pretty dang good! Wish I'd tried it sooner!"

Except for that law. So, instead, Stop & Shop tells you you can't use the coupon. You buy your $3.19 gallon as usual.

Who does the law hurt in this case? I go for the most expensive option when I have a coupon because, why not.

As far as the usefulness of checkout coupons, we pay 10 cents less per gallon at Stop & Shop because of the checkout coupons we use. They've saved me maybe $40 over the last few months.

Posted by: James at April 26, 2006 4:34 PM

So, I guess in MA you have to buy the cow, cuz you CAN'T get the milk for free. :)

Posted by: briwei at April 26, 2006 6:08 PM

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