Your shopping surprises

CLAIRE ROGERS
Last updated 12:23 18/11/2012
Your shopping surprises

PRICEY: They may seem simple but cost a small fortune.

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They may seem simple but cost a small fortune. Claire Rogers looks at five products that leave a bigger dent in your pocket than you might think they should.

SAFFRON

Masterfoods Saffron 0.5g: $9.79 at Countdown online, $11.47 at Hastings New World.

If you've shelled out about $10 for what seems to be a thimble-full of saffron at your supermarket, you won't be surprised to learn that it's the world's most expensive spice.

Mark Tyro, co-director of Hawke's Bay's Terrazza Saffron, says a huge part of the cost is having to hand- harvest the flowers because the variation in their height meant mechanical separation of the flower from the plant without doing any damage is "virtually impossible". Saffron ideally needs to be picked and processed on the same day, with the picking season from early April to mid-May.

"It is extremely time-consuming. For every hour it takes to pick flowers it takes two hours separating the stigmas from the rest of the flower. Even for an experienced picker, you're looking at 21/2 grams of saffron per person per hour."

Terrazza mainly supplies "premium" saffron to restaurants and specialist foodie retailers such as Moore Wilson's in Wellington, and retailers sell it for between $24 to $28 for half a gram.

It has about 30 part-time growers around the country, producing 21/2 kilograms of saffron a year. He guessed New Zealand growers together produced less than 8kg a year.

A half-gram of good quality saffron was likely to last the average home user about 12 months, he said. Supermarket suppliers import cheaper saffron, much of it from Spain.

PINE NUTS

Tasti Pine Nuts 70g bag: $5.33 at Hastings Pak 'n Save, $5.69 at Countdown online.

Bulk pine nuts $9.50 for 100g at Hastings New World.

Another costly cooking ingredient, pine nuts are the edible seeds of a particular species of pine tree.

Lee Paterson, operations manager at Marlborough's Pinoli, said the company supplied gourmet food suppliers including Auckland's Sabato with pine nuts from the European stone pine tree, Pinus pinea.

It took him 15 years to get to the point where his trees were producing 10 cones per tree - it takes 65 cones to make a kilo of pine nuts - and once the cones were picked it took three to five months to dry them out before the seeds were separated and processed.

He has 14,000 trees producing pine nuts. They will take another 30 years or so to become fully producing and "viable", and have a life of about 300 years.

"When I'm 110 it should be quite good," he said.

Pine nuts in supermarkets were generally Chinese pine nuts (Pinus koraiensis), which had a stronger "pine" taste than the European version - which was nuttier, Paterson said. Pinoli pine nuts sell for about $100 to $120 a kilo.

RAZOR BLADES

Gillette Fusion four cartridges: $24.98 or $6.25 each at Pak 'n Save Hastings

Gillette Venus four cartridges: $15.59 or $3.90 each at Countdown online

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Schick Hydro 5 six cartridges: $25.19 or $4.20 each at New World Hastings.

The cost of razor blades has been making headlines in Britain for years, with critics variously estimating the margin made on cartridges - reported to cost just cents to make - to be about 1000 per cent and even up to 4000 per cent.

Hawke's Bay's Mike Peachey got so fed up with the price of razor blades - at $18 to $24 for a set of four quality cartridges - that he decided to import them himself. He found similar quality razors, and even after the United States manufacturer Personna, Chinese distributor and Peachey take their respective cuts, sells them through his website razorblades.co.nz for half the normal retail price.

He charges $9.90 plus $2.50 for shipping for a razor and three five- blade cartridges. Four replacement cartridges also sell for $9.90. Customer feedback has been that his ones are as good as those of his rivals.

Single-blade disposable razors could be bought bulk at wholesale for 5 cents each, but five-bladed razors were more expensive, he said.

"A lot of R&D goes into razors, but if you look at the price I'm paying for my razors that would suggest there are some big margins somewhere."

Gillette declined to comment on pricing strategies but Jennifer Woodward, Procter & Gamble corporate communications manager, said prices reflected a range of factors including distribution and research and development, in which it invested heavily.

"For example, Fusion technology is the result of more than eight years of scientific study and technological advances."

SUNSCREEN

Cancer Society 400ml SPF30+: $22.59 or $5.65 per 100ml at New World Hastings, $23.99 or $6 per 100ml at Countdown online.

Nivea Sun Sunscreen 400ml SPF30+: $23.49 at Countdown online.

If you think $25 for a bottle of sunblock is steep, you're not alone. Christchurch dermatologist Dr David Hepburn said recently the price of sunscreen was getting out of reach.

Cancer Society chief executive Dalton Kelly said its sunscreen complied with Australasian sunscreen standards, even though there were no requirements for it to do so. "We couldn't do it cheaper and meet the Australasian standard, the product must do the job in New Zealand with our very strong UV levels. Making it effective is the number one thing."

He said the price of its sunscreen could be "reasonably low" if it were loaded with different, cheaper chemicals, but those chemicals would be more irritating to skin.

The society has opted for a product with a minimum amount of chemicals "at a reasonable price".

It sources quotes from four contract manufacturers in Australia annually, uses a distributor to get the sunscreen into New Zealand and into supermarkets, and uses the "small" margin it makes on sales to run the SunSmart Schools Accreditation programme.

No-one was making an unreasonable margin, he said. "If you look in other parts of the world, we're all charging about the same, we're all buying the ingredients from the same international sources."

PRINTER INK

Hewlett Packard 920 Black Officejet Ink Cartridge: $42.99 at Noel Leeming

Canon BCI-6BK Black Ink Cartridge: $35.99 at Dick Smith

It's been described as "the other black gold", and in 2003 technology website PC World reported that at US$22 per quarter ounce printer ink was more costly by weight than imported Russian caviar.

Consumer New Zealand chief executive Sue Chetwin said printer ink was "a rort", with printer manufacturers selling printers "cheap as chips" but then tying consumers into buying their really expensive ink.

"If you buy generic printer inks rather than ones related to your printer they're much cheaper.

"But if you don't buy the recommended printer product then there's no warranty on your printer. They've got you caught there, but the reality is the generic ones are just as good."

Hewlett-Packard spokesman Grant Sweeney declined to disclose the costs of making printer ink or the margin HP received, but said it invested significantly into research and development for its printing products.

"HP scientists carefully select specific dye chemistry combinations to deliver the best image quality, image permanence and durability."

Turning to lower-cost or generic ink cartridges could be risky, he warned, and consumers would "ultimately pay the price for inferior prints" - through added costs due to compromised quality, performance and reliability.

Brother also declined to disclose its "commercially sensitive" costs and margins for printer ink, but spokesman Mike Smith said it believed its ink was competitively priced.

- Sunday Star Times

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