Looking for Inflation? It’s Hiding In Smaller Package Sizes.

Inflation? What inflation?

The fact is, for those who are willing to look close enough, we are actually being confronted by a serious bout of deflation, at least when it comes to the size of the containers sitting on our supermarket shelves.

With prices continuing to rise in the face of the depressed economic climate, manufacturers continue to find themselves caught in a classic dilemma: either raise prices and risk losing customers, or stave off the price increase by shrinking the size of their packaging ever so slightly.

Anybody care to guess which option the company brass most often decides to take when faced with the need to make that kind of lose-lose decision?

The Evidence Is All Around You

Although I can’t prove it, I suspect the majority of manufacturers ultimately decide that a little deception is worth it if it means they can hold back those dreaded price increases.

A recent article on this topic in the New York Times provides plenty of circumstantial evidence. For example:

  • Chicken of the Sea tuna now comes in 5 oz. cans, as opposed to the traditional 6 oz. containers
  • Doritos, Fritos, and Tostitos reduced the quantity of chips in their bags by 20%
  • Tropicana recently dropped their orange juice carton size from 64 to 59 ounces
  • Nabisco’s Premium saltines and Honey Maid grahams have new packaging with 15% fewer crackers

Of course, there are other examples you may already be aware of too.

It used to be that a standard ice cream container held a half-gallon of the stuff. Not anymore. Over the past half-dozen years or so, Breyer’s has seen their package size shrink from a half-gallon to 1.75 quarts before shriveling again to 1.5 quarts.

Meanwhile, if you bother to look closely at the label, you’ll notice that a pint of Haagen Dazs is actually only 14 ounces; it’s been that way since 2009.

Thankfully, Ben & Jerry’s hasn’t followed suit. I just checked my freezer and I see that a pint of my beloved Chunky Monkey is still a 16 full ounces. (Although I guess that isn’t such good news for my waistline.)

When it comes to peanut butter, Skippy shrank their 18 ounce container size down to 16.3 ounces back in 2008. Not 16 ounces, mind you, but 16.3.

Don’t ask me why they didn’t just stick to whole numbers. Maybe they didn’t want to push their luck.

On the other hand, choosy mothers will be pleased to know that Jif peanut butter still comes in the traditional 18 oz. jar.

Don’t Be Too Hard on the Manufacturers

Despite all of these examples, I don’t really think this is a case of manufacturers trying to make a fast buck on the consumer.

Historically, manufacturers have been raising and lowering package sizes in order to keep from raising prices for a long long time. For example, Hershey has been altering the size of their candy bars to account for fluctuating ingredient costs from as far back as 1908.

Between 1921 and 1968 the price of a Hershey chocolate bar held steady at a single nickel. During that time, the weight of the bar fluctuated in both directions from a high of 2 ounces in 1930 to a low of .75 ounces in 1968.

And while you may be annoyed that manufacturers surreptitiously reduce package sizes in order to hold prices steady, they’re not the ones who are instituting the monetary policies that have led to the current bout of inflation.

To be sure, inflation is getting so bad now that I see even TP isn’t immune from package downsizing. In their own study of shrinking package sizes, Consumer Reports found that a roll of Scott toilet paper … excuse me, toilet tissue has 9 percent less paper on a roll than it used to.

Hey, it could be worse; Scott could have tried holding prices down by going from 2-ply to 1-ply instead. Or even 1.3-ply.

Then again, I suspect that type of deception is something most of us would have noticed sooner rather than later.

Photo Credit: jcoterhals

Comments

  1. 1

    Drew Shock says

    OK Len I decided to click on one of your “unloved articles” and give it a look.

    I actually find some of the smaller packaging frustrating. I use to use Smart Balance in the tub instead of butter to make my Christmas cookies which require 4 oz. per batch. I could get four batches out the of the 16 oz. container by using a butter knife and cutting the Smart Balance into 4 equal sections. But they reduced the container to 15 oz. which doesn’t work now. So I just went back to butter which comes in 4 oz. sticks.

    I love Florida’s Natural and Tropicana orange juice but since they have dropped from 64 oz. to 59 oz., I mostly buy Minute Maid (still 64 oz. for now) and have found the taste very satisfying.

    I’ve seen single serving yogurt go from 8 oz. containers to 6 oz. then 4 oz. and I’ve even seen some less than 2 oz. What’s next a single bite yogurt container? It cost more for the packaging than the actual contents, crazy.

    • 2

      Len Penzo says

      It really is crazy, Drew. We may get to single-bite yogurts one of these days! Thanks for giving this post a little attention too. :-)

  2. 3

    says

    I came here from your “unloved article” list, too.

    It seems this method would be less effective now that most stores list the “price per unit” so that people can quickly and accurately comparison-shop. Unless I have a specific brand preference, I buy things based on its price-per-unit, not its size.

    That said, I’m sure loads of not-price-conscious people just look at the sticker price.

  3. 5

    Tails says

    Your premise is flawed. Most of the “foods” you mentioned are not real foods. This is also the case for your sandwich cost comparison. Avoid processed and prepackaged “foods” such as chips, candies, deli meats and cheese. The commodity cost of these items are a fraction of the total cost. The health costs are also significant.

    Rediscover the basics from your youth: vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, and, of course, rice and beans. You can make delicious and varied oatmeal breakfasts, salad lunches, grain and vegetable dinners, and nut and dried fruit snacks. BTW, PBJ FTW.

  4. 6

    Dave says

    Great article, Len, as usual.

    Here’s what bothers me the most about the ever-shrinking package, and I’ll bet most people haven’t really thought about it:

    As the packaging shrinks (and even if only the amount of food inside shrinks, as is often the case with chips in bags), the ratio between the quantity of packaging material required and the amount of food inside those packages is rising. This fact can be proven mathematically, though I certainly wouldn’t do that here. The effect of this is that we are gradually paying more and more for the packaging than for the product inside, which is a price increase of a slightly different kind than is obvious.

    The good news (?) is that eventually manufacturers will have to return packages to a respectable size and just raise the price, or they will have to somehow entirely redesign the packaging. In fact, I have seen the latter occur several times, often when they come up with an entirely new box or maybe switch from a metal can to a plastic pot and an entirely different approach. But eventually, explicit price increases are inescapable.

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