If you have noticed recently that your roll of toilet paper is running out sooner than it used to, or that a baking mix that used to make 15 cookies now makes only 12 — even though you’re paying the same price you always have — you aren’t alone.
According to consumer advocate Edgar Dworsky, when a manufacturer’s bottom line is pinched, the company must find a way to keep profits up. “They have three choices: Raise the price, but consumers notice and risk unhappy customers; they can reformulate with cheaper ingredients; and the third option is to do an inconspicuous price increase by making the product smaller but [keeping] the same price,” he says. Most choose Option 3, because it’s so subtle that many people don’t notice.
“Dawn dishwashing liquid downsized the soap in its smallest bottle by one-half ounce, but kept the same bottle and UPC code,” says Dworsky, who tracks examples of shrinkflation on his Consumer World website. “And Tresemme’s large black bottles of shampoo have shrunk from 32 to 28 ounces.”
Sometimes the change is small. Annette Economides, co-author of “Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half” and co-publisher of the Money Smart Family website, notes that some bags of Doritos contain 9.25 instead of 9.75 ounces (that’s about five fewer chips) for the same price.
Consumers have little to no recourse, but there are things we can do while shopping to limit how much shrinkflation affects our grocery bills. Some tips are simple; others require a bit more time and effort.
Focus on unit pricing. If a product is at a familiar price, you may not notice that it is smaller or that the quantity has changed. Examine shelf tags for the price per ounce, pound or sheet. Or check the product label for its net weight. Different coffee brands may be in the same size can but may range from 10.5 to 16 ounces, Lempert says.
Be aware of the size. Don’t haphazardly grab items from store shelves. For your favorites, remember what the package looks like, Dworsky says. If you don’t look, you won’t notice. A box or bottle may appear the same until you compare it with a similar product and see that it’s shorter or not as deep.
Watch for sales. Comb store fliers, and take advantage of deals and digital coupons. Then make your purchase at the retailer with the best price. To save the most, you may have to shop at multiple supermarkets. The good news is that, in many communities, there are several grocery stores within a few miles of one another.
Take stock. Review your pantry for items you buy frequently, and note the price and number of sheets or net ounces on a list you can reference while shopping. Then double-check the amounts at the store. If an item has downsized, search for a comparable product that has not.
Let go of brand loyalty. Don’t turn up your nose at store brands. They usually are the last to downsize, they typically cost 20 to 30 percent less than major brands, and their quality is equal to or exceeds the name brand. “Look at the ingredients and nutritional information,” Lempert says. “Odds are, if they are identical, you will be satisfied, and store brands typically have a return guarantee.”
Don’t be duped by labeling. Watch for the words “new and improved.” “What has improved is the company’s bottom line,” Dworsky says. Simply changing the packaging and adding the word “new” may mean that your favorite laundry detergent now cleans 96 loads instead of 100. Or manufacturers may change the shape of the bottle to camouflage the reduced amount.
Another trick is labeling, such as calling cookies or cereal family- or party-size. Sure, the package may be larger, but these terms don’t necessarily mean you’re getting a better deal. And even family- or party-size items are subject to downsizing. “If you focus on the words on the packaging versus the net weight, you will keep buying the same product thinking you are getting the same amount as before. Instead, buy by weight,” Dworsky says.
Shop clearance items. Clearance racks are great places to find nonperishable goods that have been reduced in price because stores are overstocked or the product is being repackaged. And don’t overlook the clearance sections in the produce and meat departments, Economides says, especially if you are planning to use the product that day or the next.
Put in the time. Many people devote hours to finding the best deals on Black Friday or during other hyped sales events, but they don’t give the same attention to grocery shopping. That’s a mistake, Economides says. “I walk every aisle, because you never know what the store is getting rid of because they bought too much, and they put it on sale. I call it capturing savings.”
Denver-based writer Laura Daily specializes in consumer advocacy and travel strategies. Find her at dailywriter.net.