Honey, Who Shrunk the Groceries?

Sofia Panuelos | Staff Photographer

A trip to the supermarket is reassuring when you find that you’re following your budget. Yet, while manufacturers aren’t raising prices on your favorite products, they are coming up with clever ways to offset rising costs by downsizing products, which means charging the same price for a lighter package.

Deemed the “grocery shrink ray” by Consumer Reports, downsizing is becoming increasingly popular with the troubled economy.

“In the current economy, consumers have shown a greater sensitivity for price than quantity,” said Robert Mancuso, adjunct professor in marketing at UCI. “In other words, consumers are willing to accept less as long as they don’t have to pay more.”
It started as a simple switch to smaller packaging. However, as consumers are becoming financially savvy and more aware of their scheming tactics, manufacturers are learning how to disguise the fact that their goods are being downsized.

Now, there are indented container bottoms (common among peanut butter processors), thinner plastic bags (especially garbage bags) and fewer or smaller sheets of paper goods (popular with toilet paper and paper towels). There are also “frothier” products, where air is whipped into the product (frequently used in the ice cream industry), so you’re basically paying for a package of air.

Then there are instances where the new, lighter package is the same size, or even larger, but its contents nevertheless weigh substantially less.

More popular products are in on this stealthy marketing ploy. Kellogg’s Froot Loops Cereal have gone from 19.7 ounces to 17 ounces, a 14 percent decrease. Both Breyer’s and Häagen-Dazs Ice Cream have also been put on a diet, as they reportedly decreased by 14 percent and 12.5 percent, respectively. Skippy creamy peanut butter saw a 9 percent shrinkage, while Kraft American Cheese has an 8.3 percent difference, going from 24 slices per package to 22.

Budget-friendly Trader Joe’s has also employed this tactic. Trader Joe’s San “Soyaki,” a teriyaki marinade sauce, recently decreased by an ounce. The chain is still in the process of the swap and both versions of the sauce can be found on shelves.
It isn’t just food products that are being downsized though. Ivory Dish Detergent is a whopping 20 percent lighter and a Dial Bar Soap is now 11 percent smaller. Gillette also reduced the number of razors from eight to six in its larger packages and from four to three in its smaller versions.

Ultimately, though, companies are pressured by facility expenses or the prices of raw materials.
They can’t exactly be judged either. Over the last year, prices of key ingredients have skyrocketed: soybeans cost 80 percent more; wheat is up by 65 percent; corn by 51 percent; eggs by 40 percent.

For what it’s worth, some companies have legitimate reasons for reducing the weight of many of their products by finding methods to improve our lives in ways you never knew you needed.

Tropicana Orange Juice, which was cut from 64 to 59 ounces, fell victim to last winter’s freeze in Florida. The company then drained 7 ounces out of its larger 96-ounce container to create a bottle that pours easier and prevents spillage.

There’s also Nabisco Chips Ahoy, which downsized its cookies 5 percent. A spokeswoman for Kraft Foods told Consumer Reports that the new, smaller package keeps the cookies fresher longer.

Many companies are faced with two choices: either raise the prices drastically or drop the package size.
“More importantly, manufacturers need to conduct marketing research before attempting a quantity reduction or they risk the wrath of consumers and loss of market share,” said Professor Mancuso.

Tropicana’s consumer research found that most people would rather keep it at the same price so they can steady their budget, even though that entails seeing a little less juice. Business administration major Ben Pibulsonggram agrees.

“I’m assuming that the product is something I need and would buy regardless,” he explained. “I’d rather keep the price within my budget. For the company, they would use less to produce, keep sales at the same level and earn a profit. It would benefit both of us.”

Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a nationwide survey last July. Seventy-five percent said they noticed the shrinking package sizes of their favorite goods, while 71 percent acknowledged that it was in an effort to hide price hikes. However, half said that they would prefer manufacturers raise the price and keep the original packaging, including many diabetics and devout recipe followers who rely on very specific amounts.

“I would rather just have the product,” said Emily Rong, a third-year student. “There is a reason why I am buying it. If I need it that much, it would be worth spending an extra couple of dollars than buying two smaller ones and not using all of the second.”

Stephanie Blakeslee feels the same, but for different reasons.

With all this downsizing, how can you continue to stay within your budget and get a good deal?
First, be open to trying different brands, whether it is a popularized one or a store brand.

Minute Maid and Ben and Jerry’s continue to use their respective half-gallon and pint-sized packages. It’s been tooted for a while as a good budget saver, but store brands are just as good and cost a good 25 to 30 percent less.

If you compare the unit price of package sizes on the store’s label, you can also see which brand offers the best promotion.
Buying in bulk or stocking up during a sale might affect one week’s budget, but supermarkets typically sell staples that have a late or no expiration date, like paper goods, soups and cereals, well below cost to attract customers.

Finally, try directly contacting the company. Many consumers have received numerous manufacturer coupons in the mail simply for asking customer service representatives why their favorite products have been downsized.