Does it seem like the tub of ice cream in your fridge is smaller than it used to be? Do the boxes of cereal you're buying seem skinnier? You may be experiencing the effects of "shrinkflation" — a phenomenon that consumer experts say is on the rise.
The cost of commodities, raw materials, and labor are all creeping up of late. In order to offset these higher costs, businesses need to earn more bang for their buck on the products they sell, which gives them three options, says Edgar Dworsky, founder of consumer advocacy website Consumer World. "They can raise the price directly, they can reformulate and make more profit by using cheaper materials, or they can make things smaller."
By employing the third tactic, known as shrinkflation or downsizing, companies can covertly earn more money on their products without consumers noticing, says Julie Ramhold, a consumer analyst at DealNews. "It's a pretty sneaky way to go about raising prices," she says. "People don't necessarily check the unit price. They just may see a company advertising a 'New Look!' and not realize that they're getting less product for the same price."
Read on for experts' advice on how to spot shrinkflation, and ways to avoid overpaying for your favorite products.
Video by Courtney Stith
Shrinking product sizes is nothing new, says Dworsky, who tracks instances of shrinkflation on his website. "I think back to 60 years ago, when Charmin had 650 sheets on a roll of toilet paper. Now single rolls have 66 sheets. They say they're selling double rolls, triple rolls, mega rolls, [but] the super mega roll has 396 sheets of two-ply," he says. "This has been going on forever."
But the tactic becomes more popular during periods of inflation, when companies feel especially pressured to pass production costs on to customers without the possible backlash that comes with price hikes. Dworsky points out that Oregon-based creamery Tillamook recently downsized their family-size ice cream containers from 56 ounces to 48 ounces, in line with the industry standard set by the likes of Breyers and Edy's, who have gradually shrunk their containers down from 60 ounces over the years.
"General Mills is in the process of downsizing family-size boxes of cereal," he adds. "They're taller by half an inch, but ¾ of an inch narrower. If you're lucky, you can see both on the shelf at the same time."
Generally speaking, you won't see two sizes on the shelf at once, and that's why this tactic may have flown under your radar. "Our visual memory isn't good enough to notice that something is half an inch shorter or narrower," Dworsky says.
Plus, companies are willing to go to lengths to trick you into paying the same price for a smaller size. "The classic example is Skippy peanut butter, which sold 18-ounce jars and wanted to go to 16.3 ounces," he says. "What did they do? They hollowed out the bottom of the jar. It stood just as high on the shelf."
You're likeliest to experience the effects of inflation on grocery items, but keep your eyes peeled when it comes to the stuff you use day-to-day, says Ramhold. "It's probably going to be mostly in food products, and to some degree personal and beauty care. Be on guard in the grocery, and also when you're shopping for things you replenish on a regular basis, like body wash, soap, shampoo, and conditioner."
Be suspicious of any new packaging your favorite products might come in, says Ramhold. "The biggest thing is looking for those indicators that something has changed," she says. "If they're advertising 'New look, same great taste,' that may warrant a closer look."
The specific thing you should take a closer look at: unit pricing. "Supermarkets, big-box stores, and warehouse stores will all list the price you're paying per unit, whether it's per ounce or something else," she says. "That's the easiest way to get a feel for how brands are pricing their products."
Short of memorizing what you pay per unit, it's going to be hard to know for sure that your favorite product has been put under the shrink ray. But it may give you the tools to comparison-shop between brands, to make sure you're getting the best deal.
Experts say the trend toward tinier products is here to stay, even if the current bout of inflation is only temporary, as the Federal Reserve predicts. "If prices come back down, you may see some more couponing on some items," says Dworsky. "And you may see re-introduction of bigger boxes or packages. But this time, they'll be at a much higher price."
What's a concerned consumer to do? Dworsky offers three ideas.
1. Check a competing brand
"Someone has to lead the pack," he says. "When Skippy began downsizing their jars, you still had Peter Pan and Jif. If a competing brand hasn't downsized yet, you'll hopefully not be paying more."
2. Go with the store brand
If brands are racing down to a smaller size, the store brand is nearly always bringing up the rear, Dworsky says. "Orange juice traditionally came in a half-gallon container – 64 ounces. Then many brands went to 59 ounces, then 52. You lost two glasses of OJ," he says. "Store brands, in some cases, are still 64 ounces today. They're not fresh-squeezed, but you can still get the full size."
3. Learn your net weights
Dworsky urges shoppers to become "net-weight conscious" by memorizing (or let's be honest, writing in your phone's notes app) what you're paying and what you're getting when it comes to the items you most commonly buy. "Note how many sheets are on your paper towel rolls," he says. "If you don't pay attention to net weight, you're never going to know that you're getting less for your money."
You may think losing a few bites of ice cream or a few sips of OJ is no big deal, but over the long term, it adds up, says Dworsky. "When Apple Cinnamon Cheerios go from 20.1 ounces to 19 ounces, that's a full bowl of cereal you've lost in every box," he points out. "At $4 a box, that's 27 cents you lost. For General Mills, multiply by tens of millions of boxes, and that equals a whole lot of money. It may seem like an ounce or two here or there, but for the manufacturer, this is big bucks."
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