When Kathleen Cassidy goes shopping these days, she’s noticed that while many prices go up, others stay the same, but there’s less inside.
Take laundry detergent pods, for example.
“I used to be 40, now I’m down to 38. It’s kind of tough on the consumer…you don’t get as much bang for your buck as you used to,” a- she declared.
Cassidy’s hobby is couponing, so she pays more attention to price than the average shopper. The tactic she adopted is a real phenomenon known as shrinkage, where companies reduce the size or quantity of their products while charging the same price.
“I’ve seen it described as this sneaky cousin of inflation,” said Matthew Philp, professor of marketing at Metropolitan University of Toronto. He says companies can make containers smaller or have a different shape, or put less product inside.
“It’s just to hide the fact that their prices are going up.”
Changing product sizes are hard to keep up with
Instances of shrinkage are hard to spot because stores usually empty old products before replacing them. But Boston-based consumer watchdog Edgar Dworsky has spent years looking for examples of shrinking products.
Dworsky points to two bottles of Gatorade he found on sale in the United States. One contains 32 ounces (946 ml), the other 28 ounces (828 ml).
“Unless you saw them side by side at the same height, you’d think you’re buying the same product, but essentially paying more than a 10% price increase,” Dworsky said.
He publishes American examples on which he collected his website. According to Dworsky, Sun-Maid Raisins and Dove Body Wash have both shrunk in size this year. And General Mills has reduced its cereal boxes by one ounce (28 grams).
“An ounce is a bowl, and at about $5 a box, that costs you about $0.25. But think about it from a General Mills perspective, how many tens of millions of boxes of General Mills cereal sells- it per year and multiplied by $0.25? That’s a big saving for the manufacturer.”
CBC News asked Gatorade and General Mills about their packaging. General Mills did not respond and Gatorade was not immediately available for comment. However, others have been more public about the practice.
Oregon-based Tillamook Ice Cream wrote on its website that its ice cream “just got more expensive to make” and that changing the carton size would be “least disruptive to our fans.”
The contraction isn’t new, but experts say it happens more often in times of high inflation, like now, and affects nearly every type of packaged product. “Paper products, candies, chips, snacks, cookies…all of these things have been reduced multiple times over the years, and I don’t think it’s going to stop,” Dworsky said.
Buyer beware at the grocery store
Ultimately, it’s up to the consumer to try to counteract shrinkage. Philp says doing the math to determine the lowest price per milliliter or gram is the best defense, although it’s not always an easy task.
“It’s in a ridiculously small font on the price tag, but you’ll see…they have to provide the unit price, so you can compare more easily,” he said. Quebec is the only province that requires retailers to display the unit price; the other provinces are voluntary.
Philp also says to consider switching to cheaper generic brands that don’t change packaging as often. He says that because the contraction can be widespread, it can have a big impact on grocery bills.
“A dollar increase here or there, and then when you buy an average of 20-30 items each time you go to the grocery store, all of a sudden it adds up to another $30. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but those little little things add up.”