overthinking: count on it

On the shopping list said “paper cups,” so I dutifully picked up the BJ’s MegaPack of three ounce cups for the bathroomdispenser. It wasn’t until I left them in the bathroom that I noticed what the package said: 738 cups.


I’m used to seeing nice round numbers. I would never have blinked at 700 cups, and I’m pretty sure in the past I’ve seen 960. I approached my Patient Husband.

He said, “That’s six stacks of 123.”

Now here’s the thing: if you’re going to do that, why wouldn’t you have six stacks of 125 and a nice even 750?

We laughed for a while, imagining some executives saying, “Those people at Dixie are selling 725 cups for $9! We’ll show them by giving just a little bit more!”

There has to be some reason for this weird number, either a manufacturing limit or a human one. From a marketing perspective it makes no sense, and considering that they’re being sold in bulk at the warehouse stores, I can’t imagine it’s a competition problem. BJs doesn’t have an alternate brand of three ounce cups to choose.

But human nature — think about it for a moment. There’s got to be someone, somewhere, who counts the paper cups in the package to make sure she hasn’t been ripped off, and they wouldn’t hesitate to phone the company for a voucher or bring back a package that had only 732 cups.

Okay, so now we think about this. The machines are stacking the cups in six even stacks, which are then bound in a plastic bag. Someone counting cups would probably count one stick and multiply by six, and as long as the stacks were about the same height, they wouldn’t notice if one stack had one cup more or less.

Now let’s say that when doing them in bulk, the cup stackers aren’t always 100% accurate, maybe because a cup gets crushed in the process or some cups stick together. It wouldn’t be out of keeping for the occasional stack to be missing one or two cups.

So you set the machine to bag six stacks of 125 cups, but you tell the consumer there are six stacks of 123. At less than a penny per cup production cost, the company doesn’t care. The majority of people aren’t going to notice the uneven number, and those who do will just think, “How bizarre.”

But the cup-counters will either count a full stack and think to themselves WOW, they got a bonus 12 cups, and feel terribly smart…or, if they find a short stack, that stack can be missing up to two cups before they feel shortchanged.

It’s funny, but I can’t think of any other reason to sell a 738-pack.


  1. blueraindrop

    i’m more of a “bag of cups is half empty” person.

    given the way most other products have been going lately, it was probably 750 cups… but they figured out that by removing a few from each bag the customers would never notice and the bag would look exactly the same and the extra cups eventually add up to some crazy large number on company profits.

    2 cups per stack disappear now… then 2 more later… then maybe 3 more the next time. Usually seems to be the reason why things are in slightly less than an obvious number for most products… the 14.75 ounce product was formerly a pound, and they don’t want you to notice it still isn’t.

    1. philangelus

      The big trick was teaching people to buy “a can” of coffee rather than “a pound” of coffee. Once they got us into that mindset, they could change the amount in the can based on market price and no one ever really noticed.

      Except that nowadays, with gourmet coffee, the “pound” is back in vogue. 🙂

  2. cricketB

    They do that with roast chickens here. First they shrink the chicken from 1kg to 900g to 700g — all for the same price. Then they increase both size and price — bigger chicken, same cost per pound. Then they start shrinking the chicken again. The cycle takes a year or two. Or they throw a few extras into the meal-deal when they increase the price, as a temporary special, so you stay in the habit.

    Cream cheese, now, is even more fun. Sometimes 500g is cheaper, sometimes 2x250g is cheaper. At least they’re on the same shelf. Lunch-packs of juice and fruit cups are in the “lunch” aisle. Seeing as I haven’t found a leak-proof container for fruit salad or juice (kid backpack level of leak-proof), it doesn’t affect me too much, but it’s still a trick.

    Most of the odd sizes in Canada are soft conversions. Use the 1lb can from the States and label it 454g.

  3. Monica

    Jane, you’re making my head hurt.

    1. philangelus

      **blush** Aww, thank you. The geek in me got a little frisson of joy.

  4. Nikole Hahn

    You sound like my husband. Are you and he related to “monk”? LOL. I don’t have any answers for you. I guess it’s one of those mysteries of the universe. Maybe we should get the presidential nominees to have a debate about it? LOL.

    1. philangelus

      It’s that inner geek. 🙂 The geek is never satisfied with an unsolved absurdity.