Thursday, July 17, 2008 11:00

Consumer Prices: The Grocery Shrink Ray

Products such as the shampoo pictured above are shrinking in quantity, while maintining the same price tag.
Products such as the shampoo pictured above are shrinking in quantity, while maintining the same price tag. (Luke Collins)

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Ben Popken
Editor, consumerist.com
Thursday, July 17, 2008; 11:00 AM

Is that half-gallon of ice cream feeling a little lighter? Is your shampoo running out sooner than it used to? You may be a victim of the "Grocery Shrink Ray."

Ben Popken, editor of The Consumerist, was online Thursday, July 17 at 11 a.m. ET to talk about the "Grocery Shrink Ray," a force which he says, "is shrinking how much product you get while keeping the price the same."

The transcript follows.

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Ben Popken: Your eyes aren't playing tricks on you, products really are getting smaller. We've seen reductions across the supermarket aisles, from ice cream, to orange juice, to paper towels, to cereal and more. Manufacturers have to pass on the increased costs of oil, wheat, and other basic commodities, but instead of doing it with a price increase, they're shrinking the products and keeping the price the same. Is this just business as usual, or a deceptive sales tactic?

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Olney, Md.: Why is the product content shrinking yet again? These 48 oz ice cream containers are such a rip off. I just got used to the 56 oz containers, and now the ice cream manufacturers are selling us even less.

I know these are inflationary times, but I'd rather pay more for these products than pay still more for less. Do the manufacturers think the American consumer is just plain stupid, or just doesn't notice?

Ben Popken: They figure that decreasing the size while keeping the price the same is the least disruptive way to pass on costs. Most consumers walk down the supermarket aisles in a zombie haze, scooping products off the shelves based on what their stomach tells them, not using a shopping list or looking at unit costs. They will, however, notice if the price tag is different. It's all about keeping people on the same routines. So if your question is, do they think we're stupid or just don't notice, it's a little of both.

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Arlington, Va.: Ben, I first noticed the "grocery shrink ray" when I went to buy Breyers ice cream last week and realized it had shrunk down to 1.5 quarts, yet was still being sold for $6.59 a carton (buy one get one free, that week, so really 2 for $6.59, but still!). It was kind of depressing but my only thought was, "Oh well, what can you do?" So my question to you is: what CAN we do? Anything? Or are we just stuck with the inevitable shrinking of products?

Ben Popken: There are three antidotes to the Grocery Shrink Ray.

1. Sometimes there's a few of the older, larger sizes left on the shelf. Root around and you might find one.

2. Make sure you're comparing unit costs when comparing products. Which leads to

3.Buy based on best value. Reposition your thinking; instead of identifying yourself as "I'm a Corn Puffs guy, I've got to have my Pops," rationalize your thrift by saying, "I'm a money-saving guy, I've got to buy the best deal." Be more willing to brand jump.

4. Bonus antidote: No one is going to like this answer, but we can also tighten our belts along with our wallets and eat less!

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Arlington, Va.: Buy in-season local as much as you can, through farmer's markets and local co-ops. That saves transportation costs for mangoes flown from New Zealand to your plate.

Ben Popken: This is a great suggestion. Another thing people can do is buy a share in a local farm and get fresh produce at your door every week.

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Noticed in Alexandria: I have noticed that my toilet paper and paper towels do run out sooner then before, but how do you know when these shrinkages occur and how do you get more bang for your buck?

Ben Popken: Besides just memorizing or putting into a spreadsheet all the data, a tell-tale clue is if the packaging changes. Either bigger, smaller, or is in a new form, or it sports a new feature. Like Tropicana OJ and its new "easy-pour lid." They rolled that out at the same time as they decreased the OJ by 7 fluid oz. They're hoping the product change will disguise the shrinkage, but you can use it as a sign that you're looking at a victim of the Grocery Shrink Ray.

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Falls Church, Va.: What are some of the products you've found that are shrinking, but staying the same in price? Is this just happening at the grocery store or elsewhere -- like cleaning supplies at Target or bags of potting soil at Home Depot? I'm curious as to how far-reaching this tactic has become.

Ben Popken: Here are a few examples of products that have shrunk:

Bounty: 60 towels to 52 towels

Science Diet dog food: 17.5 lbs to 12 lbs

Purina dog food: 20lbs to 18lbs

Glad trash bags: 96 bags to 80 bags

Tropicana OJ: down 7 ounces

Edy's Ice cream: 1.75 quarts to 1.5 quarts

Dial soap for men: 4.5 oz to 4 oz

Skippy: 18oz to 16.2 oz

Brawny paper towels: 110 sheets to 88 sheets

Frito Lay chips, various brands: 12 oz to 10 oz

Faultless Spray Starch: 22oz to 20oz

White Rain shampoo: 19.95 oz to 18 oz

So far it seems limited to supermarkets, although as you can see, it's not just limited to foods. It is just limited to the U.S. at the moment. I've not heard of it specifically at Target, but have heard of it at Walmart. I predict it will spread.

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Maryland: They think this is the least disruptive way to pass on costs? Bull hockey. They have to incur costs for redesign of the container, the labeling, etc. Plus, they have to adjust their manufacturing lines. If they kept everything the same and added cost to the product, they'd have to actually -- GASP -- justify the increase to the public.

Ben Popken: Agreed. It's the least disruptive in terms of consumer backlash. That is, until we start noticing.

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Recipe wrecking:: What gets me about these new "standard" sizes is that they make cooking and shopping more difficult for those of us who make our grocery lists based on what we need for specific recipes. Sizes have been standard for such a long time that most recipes will call for 8 oz of yogurt, for instance. Previously, grabbing a single serving of yogurt did the trick. Now, 8 oz cartons have shrunk to 6 oz and I have to decide whether or not it's worth it to buy two cartons or just to wing it. Frustrating!

Ben Popken: Yes! That's another hidden downside. Lots of recipes are getting messed up. If you want to hear a funny take on it, listen to this (http://tinyurl.com/35ddk3) message ostensibly left on the Jimmy Dean customer service line, complaining about how the size of their sausage was decreased -- "How you expect to feed two girls and two grown men on a 14oz piece of sausage...."

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Serious question: Is this really something to get particularly upset about? All companies face inflation problems, their raw costs are going up and that inevitably leads to price increases. So they either raise prices, or keep prices the same and shrink the amount. Why do you view the latter as more egregious than the former?

Ben Popken: The problem is that they're doing it in a sneaky way, hoping no one will notice. Consumers need to be aware anytime their purchasing power gets taken away from them. I'm just ringing the klaxon so that they are. This is a big deal, and we've seen shrunken products in 30 percent of the supermarket. Multiply that across a year's worth of groceries and across America and that's a lot of money consumers are losing out on.

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washingtonpost.com: Here's a link to the message Ben mentioned: Jimmy Dean Customer Service Line.

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Toronto, Ontario: Do you think that cooking frugally is a lost art? I heard someone complaining that frozen dinners had gone up a lot in price, but they're a dumb thing to buy in the first place.

Ben Popken: That is a good point, one sort of "benefit" of the Grocery Shrink Ray and the economic downturn in general is that it's forcing us to take a good hard look at a lot our accepted eating and purchasing habits, which, as it turns out, may be wasteful or bad for our health.

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Rockville, Md.: The question is: when will we start to see products shrinking and prices going up? Seems like that's not too far down the line and at that point we'll really be getting less for more! Or have you already started to see that happening?

Ben Popken: For now the prices are staying the same, although a few have had a shrink and a price increase at the same time. If the economy doesn't get better, we could very well see price increases on our already shrunken goods. How long? Anyone's guess is as good as mine.

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Curious: Have any companies responded to Consumerist after being called out on your site regarding their shrinking products?

Ben Popken: No, although sometimes our readers have written to the companies about the shrunken products we've featured. Their responses, spinning the shrinkage like they're doing us some huge, innovative favor, are nothing short of hilarious. The recent one for Faultless Spray Starch (down 2 oz) is great.

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Portland, Ore.: I went to the grocery store and got nine bags of groceries and four bottles of pretty good wine (no 3-buck chuck for me) for about $50. I do it all by coupons and being choosy about where I shop. I've found my favorite grocery store accepts competitors' coupons and you can shop their sales. Works for me!

Ben Popken: Coupons are back in a big way. There are also lots of sites and resources online for trading and sharing coupons and coupon codes that savvy shoppers should take advantage of.

Slickdeals.net

Fatwallet.com

Dealhack.com

retailmenot.com

To name just a few.

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Overfilled Pantry is now shrinking: I always used to purchase food I wanted to eat right then. Today, we eat what is in the cupboard, beets, string beans, pork and beans. Some of these items I purchased Feb 2008. Before I go shopping in the stores, I go shopping in my cupboards. In fact, we may be having beans and franks tonight!

Ben Popken: I feel you. I think I blew dust off one of the cans of beans I had for dinner the other night!

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Maryland: Farmer's markets are good or buying local produce, but you are kidding yourself if you think this is a cost savings measure. Their goods cost as much if not more than the grocery store products.

Ben Popken: I think the reason why Farmer's markets and local produce appeal to people is not that they are saving money from their pocketbook, but that they're savings costs to the system overall, and supporting agriculture that takes less of a toll. I agree, it's a bit fuzzy, but some people are really into it.

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When did this start?: When did you (or your readers) first start noticing this trend? Wondering how long I've been mindlessly buying stuff at the grocery store without realizing that I am likely being stiffed...

Ben Popken: Product shrinking has gone on all the time, but it seems to have kicked into high gear this past year. Our first Grocery Shrink Ray post was Nov 2007.

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Illusionists: In his widely publicized book, "Mindless Eating," scientist Brian Wainsink talked about how appearances can shape our hunger or our over-eating. For instance, when you drink juice out of a tall skinny glass, you feel like you're getting more juice than you do when you drink out of a low squat glass. Yet the low, squat glass usually contains more juice in reality. Maybe companies are trying to use those tactics against us -- making things look bigger or the same via packaging while stealthily reducing the volume.

Ben Popken: I don't doubt it. There's lots of minds and money behind the trend.

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New Orleans, La.: Sour milk: another effect of the gas crisis?

This is a bit off topic, but over the past two weeks, I have ended up with two gallons of milk, purchased at different stores from different dairies, that went bad before their expiration date. When we asked for a refund at the second store, the manager noted that they had gotten several complaints about sour milk lately, which was unusual for the store. The manager wondered whether truck drivers were turning up the thermometer on their refrigerator system or skipping it altogether to save gas.

What do you think of his theory?

Ben Popken: A few months ago I started to notice my milk was going sour a lot faster too. I thought it was just me. Another possibility is that older milk that would normally be thrown away was getting put into circulation. Around the same time, some friends gave us some free groceries from their coop and in the batch was a carton of organic milk. It lasted so long, several weeks. Since then, we've switched to organic milk and find that it's much more durable. Something we should look into on the site.

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Aging Baby Boomer: This isn't the first round of shrinkage. I'm old enough to remember when tuna fish came in a 7-ounce can! Then 6 3/4, then 6 1/2....

Ben Popken: Right, someone told me the other day there was a big round of shrinking in the '50s. Anyone else remember those times?

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Spray Starch: I thought the PR letter from the Spray Starch company was hilarious. They claim that the new (smaller) package is more eco-friendly as it uses less steel. OK, but it was 22 oz and it's now 20 oz -- how much steel, and transportation cost, etc. does it take for the extra 11th can everyone has to buy to get the same amount? The general rule of thumb is that because the packaging costs money, we should buy as big as possible, and they're trying to claim it's better for the environment? Wow.

Ben Popken: If you love company responses to consumer letters, you should check out a site called minortweaks.

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Arlington, Va.: It is really deceptive when they use the same size container and put less in it. At least if they shrink the size of the container you know there is less there. They just count on no one noticing.

I complained to the yogurt companies when they first reduced sizes. Dannon went from 8 to 6 ounces a couple of years ago. So I stopped buying theirs and stuck with Breyers until they did the same thing. Dannon claimed that consumers actually wanted 6 ounces instead of 8! And Breyers claimed that because they added some chemical to the product (that made it a lot less creamy and good in my opinion)it was new and improved -- so I wasn't paying 25 percent more for the same product, but rather for a new product. In the case of this particular reduction you are getting 25 percent less product for the same price! It is outrageous. So I just buy whichever one happens to be on sale that week. They seem to take turns being on sale from week to week.

Ben Popken: The excuses some of these companies have come up with are pretty laughable. One potato chip spokesman said that they needed to reduce the amount of chips per bag because the chips were going stale.

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Takoma Park: Why are groceries shrinking while Big Gulps and other fast food products are notoriously supersized?

Ben Popken: Probably because portion size is their big selling point. However, Arby's has shrunk some items on their menu. I haven't heard of it at other fast food places. They might be just waiting it out, have giant storehouses of product to work off of, have long-term contracts that guarantees them the larger size at a fixed price, have the industrial buying power to demand their supplies at a certain price, or are simply "eating" the costs.

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Bethesda, Md.: Shrinking toilet paper is annoying, but shrinking food is even worse. When a recipe calls for two cups of something and, suddenly, a formerly 2-cup item is now only 1.75 cups, it's often difficult to adjust recipes for these changes. And who wants to buy two of something just for the missing ounce or two?

Ben Popken: You're going to have the old hotdog package and buns paradox, or have to bust out the calculator. Either way, it's a headache for cooks.

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Reston, Va: I've noticed a couple of restaurant chains have tackled the issue of smaller portion sizes. Long John Silvers takes a not-so-subtle jab at McDonald's shrinking Mac. In the other ad, I think it was TGIF. They claim that the customers have been asking for smaller portions.

Recently, I've noticed that the fast food chains have been adjusting their menus by dropping side dishes or the soft drink from their meal packages and charging the same price. For instance, Chick-Fil-A dropped the cole slaw from the sandwich meal. Another tactic in recent years is to charge a much higher price for the soda drink and allow the customer free refills. This turns out to only benefit the sit-down customer.

Ben Popken: Yes, shrinking portions are happening in restaurants too. Textbooks in hotel and restaurant school have charts showing the profit you get from a keg of beer when you serve it in different size glasses and with different sized heads. Consultants are going around to chefs and showing them how if you skewer shrimp before boiling them they straighten out and look bigger, so you can get away with buying smaller ones.

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Ben Popken: It's obvious that the Grocery Shrink Ray is hitting everyone in the gut, and the wallet. Manufacturers have the right to pass on costs, but consumers have the right to get pissed off about it. The question is whether most Americans will notice, and if they do, whether they just grin and bear it, or change their eating and purchasing habits. If you want to read more about the Grocery Shrink Ray and other issues affecting consumers, check out my blog at consumerist.com. Thanks to everyone for participating in today's discussion, and thanks to my good hosts at the Washington Post for having me.

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washingtonpost.com: And if you're looking for some more money-talk, tune in at noon ET for Color of Money with Michelle Singletary .

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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