Growing the shrinking: Same price, less product

Eliza Thaxton shops with her mother LuAnn Thaxton at Bowman's Market in Kaysville Feb. 8,...
Matthew Hatfield/Standard-Examiner file
Story by Patricia Sabatini
(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/SHNS)
Mon, Feb 28, 2011
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Like many people, you probably have your favorite brands at the grocery store, confidently reaching for some of the same familiar products week after week.

But how sure are you they haven't changed?

While you may not have noticed, more products are quietly getting smaller, even as prices stay the same, a recent report by Consumer Reports found.

Take Tropicana and Florida's Natural orange juice. Both shaved their contents from 64 ounces to 59 ounces, a nearly 8 percent difference. Or Hebrew National hot dogs, which slipped from 12 ounces to 11 ounces, also shrinking 8 percent.

In all, Consumer Reports identified 10 popular products whose packaging was recently downsized. The biggest change was for Ivory dish detergent, which fell from 30 ounces to 24 ounces, a 20 percent decline.

Manufacturers see package downsizing as a way to cope with rising costs without having to raise prices. Orange-juice makers blame the shrinkage on last winter's freeze in Florida, for example. Tropicana told Consumer Reports that research showed people preferred to get a little less juice to keep the product within their budgets.

Some shoppers, however, see the maneuver as just plain sneaky.

Manufacturers try to hide the changes with little tricks: indenting the bottom of containers, for instance, a favorite move among peanut-butter processors, or whipping ice cream so that people pay for air instead of ingredients, Consumer Reports says. Even shrink wrap is shrinking, as some makers have made their plastic wrap thinner, the magazine says.

Manufacturers say downsizing helps keep the price the same, which they must do to avoid losing business to cheaper alternatives. Naturally, they would rather not advertise that people are paying the same but getting less.

The practice seems to be picking up steam, Consumer Reports says.

So what's a shopper to do?

It's hard to detect subtle changes in packaging, especially because relatively few products come in standard sizes. And some products come in such a range of sizes -- Oreos, for example, come in more than a dozen package sizes -- it's hard to know when one of them changes.

Still, Consumer Reports offered some tips to help lift the veil:

-- Look at different brands. Not all manufacturers downsize. Minute Maid still sells its orange juice in half-gallons. Ben & Jerry's still packs its ice cream in pints.

-- Compare unit price. Look at cost per ounce, per quart, per pound, per sheet. Store promotions change, making one size or another cheaper from week to week.

-- Try store brands. Private labels often are 25 percent to 30 percent cheaper than name brands, and often are just as good.

-- Stock up and save. Supermarkets sell paper goods, cereal, soups and other staples at or below cost as loss-leaders on a rotating basis. Stock up until the next sale.

-- Buy in bulk. Warehouse clubs offer low prices on large sizes.

-- Contact the company. When Consumer Reports asked customer-service representatives why a product had been downsized, they often offered coupons as an apology.

Food, Groceries
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