Target: Buy In Bulk, Get Screwed

Reader Justin was shopping at Target when he noticed some interesting pricing going on in the cotton swab aisle. Remember, the bigger package isn’t always going to save you money.

Justin says:

I really think Target hates people with poor math skills. The consumerist has shown us how terrible Target’s “Price Cut” and 2-for-1 deals can be, but now it appears that Target has a holistic approach on retail suckiness with regularly-priced items.

My wife and I spotted these gems yesterday at the Target in Sugar Land, Texas (see attached, apologies for iPhone photo quality). While it may appear from the price tags that these are different brands of cotton swabs, they are indeed the same brand (Target’s generic brand).

500 Cotton Swabs for $1.94 (0.388¢ per swab), or, if you buy in bulk, 750 Cotton Swabs for $3.69 (0.492¢ per swab). Wow, that’s a savings of -27%!

Target is edging closer to Wal-Martitude in my book of awful.

Not all states have unit pricing laws, so if yours doesn’t, you might want to bring a calculator with you when you shop. It might seem weird, but if it saves you money — who cares?


Edit Your Comment

  1. Ash78 ain't got time to bleed says:

    Target always seems a notch above Walmart in quality and cleanliness, but a notch below them in pricing and POS accuracy. It’s like if IKEA were run by K-Mart :D

    • theblackdog says:

      @Ash78: I shudder at the thought of an Ikea run by K-Mart.

    • AlteredBeast (blaming the OP one article at a time.) says:

      @Ash78: Haha, very true!

      Last time I was at Target, it was clean, bright, busy…but I had to drag this large item around (I didn’t grab a cart >_< ) all around the store looking for a price checking machine that actually worked.

  2. nicemarmot617 says:

    Oh come on, you don’t even need a calculator to see through that one. It’s simple mental math to see that 50% more cotton swabs shouldn’t cost almost twice as much.

    • ajlei says:

      @nicemarmot617: Yes, but it’s nice to know just how much more you could be paying for those swabs. Plus, it’s not “simple mental math” to everyone, just some of us.

    • lordargent says:


      Reading the descriptions on the tag, are those even for the same brand/style of cotton swabs?

      Maybe ‘white paper’ means the sticks are paper (vs plastic).

      Maybe ‘Target Cotto’ means target branded swabs vs a different type.

      • chuck0008 says:

        @lordargent: It’s a good thing that the OP didn’t mention that they are the same or anything. If he did, you wouldn’t appear to have much of a grasp on that whole reading comprehension thing.

  3. Plates says:

    It is a convenience charge.

  4. pollyannacowgirl says:

    I would never think it weird to see someone in a store with a calculator.

    Sometimes I feel like the consumer is the Road Runner and the stores are Wile E. Coyote. Always trying to trick us…

  5. Urgleglurk says:

    We have fairly good mental math skills, but we still take a calculator and read the signs closely. Caveat emptor and all that.

    • Jason Foster says:

      @Urgleglurk: EXACTLY. while i appreciate the posts about this practice, it is YOUR (mine too) job as a consumer to shop for yourself.
      i run a shipping/mailing store and i get so tired of having to explain to people why i’m more expensive than the post-office. coming to me and complaining about prices is like going to the 7-11 and wondering why a loaf of bread is 4 bucks.

  6. alexburrito says:

    “Justin says: I really think Target hates people with poor math skills. “

    No, Target LOVES people with poor math skills!

  7. chickee510 says:

    I’m a grocery clerk for Kroger. I am amazed at how often I see this occur, in every aisle, every night. For instance we sell Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese, single pack (12 oz I think)for 82 cents, the “Family Size” Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese (which is same size as 2 singles, 24 oz) sells for a whopping $2.79, so you’re paying $1.15 more than if you just bought 2 singles. Kraft also sells their famous 5 pack box of mac ‘n cheese, which is on “sale” for $4.20, but really you’re paying 10 cents more (plus extra plastic packaging) than if you just bought 5 single boxes. The five packs sell out every day.
    I thought about leaving little notes next to the price tags, pointing out the differences, but I don’t think my management would appreciate that, plus “a customer made my paycheck possible”.

    • Ash78 ain't got time to bleed says:

      @chickee510: Does Kroger still have the “rings up correctly or it’s free” policy?

      I always loved that. I no longer have one locally, but Publix does the same thing. I find that stores with policies like that have a lot of incentive to get it right the first time.

      • tbonekatz says:

        The Krogers in Texas do. I get something free just about everytime I shop. Most of the time they don’t fix the price right away, so I go in several more times and get more. Not in the same day, but within a week or two.(Try to get a different CSR though, after the third time they tend to catch on.)

      • chickee510 says:

        @Ash78: I know we’re supposed to do that, but it’s not “advertised” as much as it used to be. There used to be stickers at every register to remind the customer, but they’ve magically disappeared. I think only the die hard Kroger shoppers will ask for the “Scan Right Guarantee”. Plus, I live/work in a college town; the rich kids here don’t care what they’re spending. When they came back from winter break, we sold out of the $9 pasta sauce, no cheap Ragu for them!

  8. t0ph says:

    Contrary to what the tipster says, I do not think they are tags for the same product. I wonder if he scanned the item on that scanner-price-checker-thingy?

    • t0ph says:

      @PerpetualBoredom: I meant same brand of product. sry.

    • LastVigilante says:

      @PerpetualBoredom: What I’m thinking is that they are different cotton swabs. Perhaps the difference between the ones with the paper sticks and the blue plastic sticks. I recently shopped for swabs and noticed a difference between the two and wondered why one would spend more money for one version over the other, as if it changed the effectiveness of the swabbery.

      • Rob Weddle says:


        My thoughts as well. I hate to blame the OP, but unless there was specific SKU matching, I’m skeptical. I’m ALWAYS checking SKUs on the shelf-tag against the package, (Target and elsewhere) mainly because I just don’t trust the stuff to be stocked correctly half the time.

      • Gilbert Tang, Jr. says:

        @LastVigilante: It could be just me, but there is a dramatic difference in the quality of cotton swabs.

        I simply cannot use anything but Q-tips. The rest are either too brittle of stick, or have such little cotton that the stick scrapes your ear — which can also happen when there is a sufficient quantity of cotton but it’s packed extremely hard.

        I call the latter condition self-puffing.

        Eventual (if not already) grocery shrink ray notwithstanding, I cannot see myself every buying another brand.

  9. Saboth says:

    Man, that’s funny. I was at Target last night buying cotton swabs! They didn’t carry (or have in stock) the 750 count though. What I did notice was the 300 count was like $1.70, and the 500 count was $1.94. My wife just grabs the cheapest of everything, or if something says “on sale”. I was like “look hun, you are almost getting 2x the amount for like .15 more, this is obviously the better deal.

  10. Graypark says:

    I understand the brand of both items is the same, but are both items exactly the same? The 500ct swabs are listed as “white paper”. Could the 750ct swabs be the plastic ones? They price marker isn’t clear on that matter. I’m just offfering that as a possible reason for the disparity in unit pricing. Maybe not an apples to oranges price comparison, but possibly a red delicious to honey crisp one?

  11. oneliketadow says:

    Life hates people with poor math skills, like major bank CEOs.

  12. Eric Rhoads says:

    I am not sure why this is news exactly. This has always been something to be wary of for as long as I remember. Also, having worked in retail at one point, pricing such as this isn’t always a “screw the dumb customer” mentality but simply a supply chain issue.

    Also, most cell phones already have a calculator built in if your that phobic of looking like a nerd with a calculator.

  13. Anonymous says:

    You’ve always got to do your math. Same goes for Publix’s Buy-One-Get-One-Free sales. Sometimes they’re a terrific deal (especially if I can find two coupons to accompany the purchases!) Sometimes, with things like spaghetti sauce, it’s a better deal to buy the house brand rather than do the BOGO on a national brand.

  14. Karita says:

    I see this happen all the time on regular-priced items at Wal-Mart. Specific examples I can think of right now are toilet paper (whatever the generic cheap soft kind is) and Nutty Bars. I’ve learned to be careful, as they are sneaky.

    I saw this with allergy medicine last night at Walgreens. Though in this case, the smaller size was on sale, and the larger size was full price.

  15. Brian Kolis says:

    There have been many a time when I’ve gone into buy razors at target and 2 of the 4pks of blades were less than the 8 pack of the same blades. Sometimes there’s more than a dollar difference. lately though they’ve been roughly equal

  16. gameraboy says:

    Thank god New Jersey has per-unit pricing laws. I rarely see these pricing tricks since it’s readily apparent which is the better deal with the labels used in New Jersey. Scary to see how much things cost though, some cosmetics have a $777/pound unit price!

  17. dave23 says:

    Sometimes the store is not trying to screw the customer. I have worked in a wine store where the customer would ask why the 1.5L bottle costs more than 2x the 750ml. The reason is: because I sell more of the 750ml, I buy more of the 750ml and get a better discount for buying it in bulk and I pass the savings on to my customers. While I still offer the larger size for the customers who want it, that size does come at a premium. If this is the case here, I suppose that the only way to satisfy Consumerist readers is to raise the price of the 500 pack of ear swabs to $2.49. There…happy now?

  18. revmatty says:

    I see this at Target as well as both grocery chains I frequent (Dierbergs and Schnucks) all the time. Basic math skills, people.

  19. Raekwon says:

    Bulk packages are the new SALE signs. They make you think you are getting a deal when you may not be and they move even more product than a simple SALE sign would. It’s a win win for the manufacturer.

    Next up: Circuit City’s New Bulk Product Super Liquidation SALE!!!!!

  20. paladrache says:

    Tipster here. The picture doesn’t tell the whole story. I swear up and down that they are the same brand. Target has a dedicated section of Target generic cotton swabs, 500 ct. packs below and 750 ct. packs above. Both packs were the “White Paper” shaft variety (no blue or white plastic). I’m pretty sure that the difference in label can be attributed to poor cut and paste skills when the product information was entered into the database.

  21. esp13 has a pony named Steve says:

    I keep reading “their screwing us, they think we’re dumb, kill them all”. In this case I would assume that either they are two different products or different distributors, hence the odd price difference. I never understood why stores would price say a 12 oz item for $1.98 and right next to it price the 24oz size on sale for $1.99. Why not drop the other a little bit. Anyway, it seems that most of us on here already know to check per unit pricing, now lets just teach the not-so-well informed.

    And BTW, I only buy Q-tip. the plastic stems are to flimsy and other brands don’t have enough cushion.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Different products.

    End of discussion.

  23. robdew2 says:

    Psst. I will let you in on a secret.

    This is not consumer activism. This is boring, silly and pointless.

    “Check prices carefully”. Yes we get it. We actually already knew that. Quite some time ago.

  24. LJKelley says:

    This is so pointless… we seem to have this story like every month with pictures from Target when other stores do it as well.

    I always check prices carefully at stores, and could it possibly be that the manufacture gave a better discount on a few count boxes because they had a huge surplus and they weren’t selling well (since everyone used to be buying larger boxes that were cheaper). And before they can change their manufacturing they need to get rid of those surplus small boxes?

    In addition these pictures hardly prove they are the same brand as well…

  25. paladrache says:

    Tipster here. I swear up and down that they are the same brand. Target has a dedicated section of Target generic cotton swabs, 500 ct. packs below and 750 ct. packs above. Both sets are composed of “White Paper” (no blue or white plastic). I’m pretty sure that the difference in label can be attributed to poor cut and paste skills by whoever entered the product information into the database.

  26. Claytons says:

    Another deceptive pricing strategy Target uses is the “end-cap bait and switch.” Target regularly caries the same or similar products on both end-caps and isles, but will almost have two separate prices. You naturally assume the isle was a tad cheaper or the same, as you would assume the buy 2 bulk was cheaper than buying one. Not the case at Target. They also routinely sell similar products in different quantities to make the “which is cheaper” math a little more time consuming. The next time you go to Target, find every display you can with AA batteries and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. Oh, and bring a calculator. It’s probably the nerdiest thing I do, but I always bring a calculator to Target and it saves me a lot of money.

  27. Mr-Mr says:

    Every time I see of these “potential deals” I whip out my cellphone and get the calculator going. All these retailers try to screw you with their tricky math.

  28. jim @ Change Jar Savings says:

    There is always a way around unit pricing laws. Just list one item’s unit price by the pound and the other by the ounce. The store followed the law. I see this all the time in WalMart in WI.

    Hamburger is sometimes by the ounce so you cannot tell it is more expensive than the store down the street selling by the pound.

  29. Anonymous says:

    I noticed that a few weeks ago, no news there. I agree with other comments that this has little to do with consumer activism. Anyone reading this blog would most likely be capable of determining the unit price (without a calculator for that matter).

    I noticed some comments claiming that the q-tips were a different product… um no, they are both Target brand and cottom swabs aren’t the only item I’ve seen priced that way during my Target excursions.

  30. Anonymous says:

    I see this at Target ALL the time. If you must, bring a calculator with you if you are going to buy a “bulk” item. It is frequently more than buying smaller sizes.

    Why is it that stores like this that sell items by volume do not have to abide by the same shelf lableing as grocery stores which show the price per oz?

  31. synergy says:

    I don’t think they hate people bad at math, I think they take advantage of the fact that people don’t bother to learn math as they should. It makes more money for them, the bottom line being their ultimate concern.

  32. __Ken__ says:

    Not that I want to defend Target (or any store for that matter) but… are these really the same thing?

    One says COTTON SWAB WHITE PAPER and the other is TARGET COTTO[N] so I’m assuming they are a different product.

    Are we compairing things like the cheap plastic garbage ones with the Q-tip like ones?

    To me there is a difference. I wouldn’t even take the cheap plastic ones if you gave them to me. They don’t work for cleaning my ears.

  33. Justifan says:

    lol i noticed those a while back, i found it odd as well:)

  34. Bs Baldwin says:

    I was buying extension cords at target over the holidays, their 3 pack cost more than buying the 3 cords individually.