"A 10% product size shrinkage is equivalent to an 11% price increase, but most people wouldn’t really think of it that way,” a Pitt marketing professor notes.
A mini bottle of Dawn dishwashing liquid, with its signature blue color and cute duck imagery, doesn’t raise many eyebrows. To notice its secret, you’d have to squint: the bottle contains 6.5 fluid ounces, down half an ounce from its 7-ounce predecessor. But the price point is the same.
It’s just one of many recent examples of “shrinkflation,” the phenomenon by which companies covertly downsize the volume of their products without changing the price tag, effectively raising prices without setting off consumers’ alarm bells.
Though shrinkflation is not new, it’s proliferated in response to high inflation, as brands try to retain profits despite higher costs for ingredients, labor and shipping. Inflation climbed to 9.1% in June, its highest rate in 40 years.
Over the past few months, shrinkage has been documented in products from shampoo to toilet paper and breakfast cereal to dog food, according to Consumer World, a consumer advocacy site. A box of “family size” Cocoa Pebbles contracted from 20.5 ounces to 19.5 ounces. Charmin Ultra Soft’s “super mega” rolls shrank by 30 sheets each. Chobani scaled down its flip yogurts, once 5.3 ounces, to just 4.5 ounces.
The bottom line: if your weekly grocery haul isn’t lasting as long as it used to, you’re not imagining it. Shrinkflation could be to blame.
“It’s legal to cut package sizes — just buyer beware,” says Jeff Inman, a professor of marketing at the University of Pittsburgh, pointing out that companies don’t publicize their price increases, either. But Inman acknowledged that shrinkflation can come across as “a little sneaky” to consumers.
“It’s mainly the fact that it’s less noticeable, is the reason they do it,” says Inman. All else equal, he says, “a 10% product size shrinkage is equivalent to an 11% price increase, but most people wouldn’t really think of it that way.”
Consumers are far more likely to notice a price hike than a volume decrease, especially for products they buy often, says Inman. Though both actions result in lower sales, a price increase has four times the negative impact on consumer behavior than the comparable volume decrease would. “That’s huge, right? I really think it comes down to people just not noticing.”
Inman himself has been noticing shrinkflation since the 1980s, when he started spotting slimmed-down candy bars and air-filled potato chip bags. Lately, he’s seen shrinkage across a “broad array” of products due to high inflation.
The downsizing is most common in canned and dry goods, as well as non-food items like paper products, he says. It’s harder to pull off with frequently purchased products or products that come in recognizable sizes, like a gallon of milk or a carton of eggs, for which volume changes are unlikely to go unnoticed. Items sold by the pound, like most produce, are also immune; you can’t exactly shrink the size of an apple, fruits and veggies, so they are prone to price increases instead.
Some eagle-eyed consumers have begun to notice the shrinkage. On r/shrinkflation, a Reddit forum with more than 36,000 members, disgruntled shoppers regularly post pictures of an original product alongside its new, miniature version.
The term popped up for the first time on Yelp in the past few months, according to data from the restaurant review site. Shrinkflation can strike when you’re out to eat, too: Users noticed trimmer portion sizes, especially at lower-cost restaurants serving fast food-like fare.
But if you haven’t noticed the shrinkage in your own grocery cart, you’re not alone; you’d be forgiven for not scrutinizing the net weight of the breakfast cereal you purchase every other week, especially if you’re in a rush. It’s easy to be “on autopilot” while checking items off your list, Inman acknowledged, and the grocery store can be noisy and visually overwhelming.
To cut through that noise, a consumer’s best friend is the per-unit price, says Inman — the smaller number underneath or beside the total price, usually expressed in dollars per pound or ounce. There’s no room to hide with a unit price. If a package has shrunk, the per-unit price will rise even if its total price stays constant, making it a reliable metric for tracking changes over time.
Unit prices can help you make more informed decisions about how to stretch your dollar, Inman advises. For example, if you notice the price per pound has gotten “out of whack,” you’ll know to look for alternatives, like store brands or substitute products, or forego the purchase altogether — but only if you realize the price is out of the ordinary in the first place.
To maximize your dollar, Inman recommends being vigilant about unplanned purchases, which make up about half of most consumers’ grocery items, according to his research. Some of these are what he calls “unrecognized needs,” the items you forgot to put on the grocery list but actually need. It’s the “unplanned wants,” the novelty purchases or indulgences, that can be scaled back to save money, he says.
In short, Inman recommends you “take the blinders off” at the grocery store and be more thoughtful about your purchases. So next time you shop, consider taking note of those per-unit prices, and perhaps think twice before making an impulse buy.©2022 PG Publishing Co. Visit at post-gazette.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.