The cost of food goods during the pandemic increased. But you may not have noticed it, as many everyday products have the same price as before. Don’t be fooled—clever packaging shifts might have you getting less product.
It’s a tactic called “shrinkflation.” It’s a boon for sellers, but unpopular for consumers. As Steve Reed, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) explains, shrinkflation is a strategy used by consumer product brands and grocery stores “implicitly increasing the price of an item by slightly decreasing the amount or quantity in a package.”
Reed said the BLS doesn’t have any evidence on why this happens and cannot speak to the motivation or strategies of the sellers, but “the conventional wisdom is that the reason this is done is that it is less noticeable to consumer than sort of an explicit price increase.”
Besides changing quantities, another deceptive trick is reduction in the size of the product sold for the same price. Smaller crackers or cookies in a box. Or narrower toilet paper squares.
Another tactic is a change in ingredients that puff up the product with cheaper contents. Again, this results in manufacturers paying less to produce an item while the consumer pays the same price or more.
A little history
Shrinkflation is not new—it’s been used by marketers for decades. Edgar Dworsky, a consumer advocate in Boston and the founder of ConsumerWorld.org, says the practice can be traced back to the early 1900s. As vending machines could not be reconfigured to accept, say, a nickel and a penny when prices increased, the solution was to reduce the size of the product in the machine.
Why is this is happening now? According to the Wall Street Journal, “…pandemic recovery is buoying sales but leading to higher costs for ingredients, packaging and transport.” Therefore, companies use it as a method to offset costs.
Check out this list showing how companies hide rising costs by shrinking the size of everyday products, from paper towels to ice cream or even your pet’s food.
General Mills shrunk its “family size” cereal boxes from 19.3 ounces to 18.1 ounces—a drop of nearly 10%. Source: National Public Radio
Quaker is in the process of removing 20% of the pouches in some of their instant oatmeal packages. Whereas you used get 10 servings in a box, now you only get eight. Source: Mouseprint.org
GV (Walmart) naturally hickory smoked bacon 16 ounce size has been reduced to 12 ounces, and went from $0.246/ounce to $0.27/ounce. Source: Reddit
Powerade Sports Drinks: You get 12.5% less per bottle, or about 3.5 bottles less per case. Source: Reddit
Coca Cola, which owns the Gold Peak tea brand, is in the process of downsizing their bottles from half a gallon (64 ounces) to just 59 ounces. Both bottles were on sale for $2. Mouseprint.org
Wendy’s small drinks are actually small now. Source: Reddit
Tillamook, a creamery in Oregon, announced that it was reducing its family size container of ice cream from 56 ounces to 48 ounces because of higher costs for ingredients like berries—while keeping the price the same. Source: CNN
Not-so-Great Value ice cream: What happened to my strawberries? No more big chunks! (Same with cookies and cream where I used to get whole cookies!) Source: Reddit
Frito-Lay shrunk regular bags of Dorito’s from 9.75 ounces to 9.25 ounces. Both are currently for sale at Target for the same price. Source: Target
Tubs of Pringles are different weights depending on the flavor in the U.S., but at Walmart they all cost the same. Source: Walmart
Boxes of Wheat Thins sold at 1 pound, or 16 ounces, in 2020, but the crackers now only come in 14-ounce boxes. The price was $3 for both boxes. Source: CNN
Keebler’s Club Crackers: 20% less crackers per pantry pack—each serving inside now comes with 16 crackers instead of 20. Source: Reddit
Hershey cut down its 18-ounce pack of dark chocolate Kisses by almost two ounces. Source: The Washington Post
A two-pack of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups used to weigh 1.6 ounces. Now it’s just 1.5 ounces. Source: Confectionery News
Cadbury changed the shape of its famous Dairy Milk bars—and changed the size of them, too. The individual pieces now have rounded edges and contain nearly 10% less chocolate than before. Source: BBC
Mondelez, owner of Swiss chocolate company Toblerone, which makes distinctively triangular chocolate bars, reduced the weight of its bars by 25% by adding more space between each piece—but reversed the decision two years later after public outcry. Source: BBC
Walmart Great Value Paper Towels dropped from 168 sheets per roll to only 120, while the price stayed the same. Source: The Washington Post
Hefty’s mega pack went from 90 bags to 80 bags, at the same price. Source: The Washington Post
Charmin toilet paper originally had 650 sheets per roll. It now only contains around half of that—and even its “Mega Rolls” and “Super Mega Rolls” don’t have as many sheets as the original. The sheets have reportedly gotten smaller, too. Source: NPR
If your Dial body wash seems to run out more quickly, it is not your imagination. Bottles recently lost almost 25% of the contents, going from 21 ounces to only 16. Source: mouseprint.org
The Costco Paper Towels pack was downsized from 160 sheets on the roll to 140. So you basically lost a roll-and-a-half from each package. Source: mouseprint.org
Some of Royal Canin’s cans of cat food now weigh 5.1 ounces, down from 5.9 ounces—but they still cost the same. Royal Canin, a subsidiary of Mars, said that it had reduced some product sizes because of “unprecedented demand” for pet food during the pandemic. Source: The Washington Post
Doggy sugar tax: Pedigree reduced the size of Jumbone dog treats and charges the same price. Source: Reddit
So what can you do to make sure your weekly household shopping budget goes as far as possible? Here’s how to fight back.
Check Product Labels. Consumers, even those already price-conscious, need to focus on comparing products using unit pricing. Otherwise, it may be difficult to recognize which product will actually be the best value.
According to wikiHow, “The unit price is the cost per quantity of item you’re receiving. The quantity might be per item or per unit of measurement, such as ounces, grams, gallons, or liters. To calculate the unit price, simply divide the cost of the product by the quantity you’re receiving or check the store’s shelf label. Then, compare the unit prices of 2 or more packages of the same product to see which is the better value.”
Shop online. Even if you’re good at basic arithmetic and quick number crunching, it can take quite a bit of your time while you’re traversing store aisles. You might feel less pressured and find it easier to shop online, when you can compare prices without feeling rushed.
Don’t be a brand slave. If the products you are used to buying aren’t giving you the value for your dollar that they used to, switch to a competitor’s brand or the store brand. If you absolutely must have a particular brand, buy it after the celebrated day—like Halloween—as shops normally will then reduce prices.
Look for sales. Train yourself to hold out for sales before making a purchase.
Bulk up. There are certain things you can buy in bulk to try and offset rising costs. For example, meat products, which Consumer Reports says are seeing some of the biggest price hikes right now. Just make sure it makes sense for you and your family’s needs and that you use it up before it expires.
It feels sneaky—because it is sneaky
Is shrinkflation a fad? According to The Motley Fool, “While inflation may peter out as supply chains that were halted during the pandemic manage to catch up with consumer demand, shrinkflation probably isn’t going anywhere.”
One of the most frustrating things about shrinkflation is the ways retailers intentionally camouflage what’s going on. While the practice is not against the law, it definitely angers consumers that end up feeling duped. The lesson? Pay close attention to what you’re buying so you don’t get taken for a ride.
Resources: CNBC Television, MoneyTalksNews, CNN Business, The Washington Post, Len Penzo dot Com, The Motley Fool, Business Insider