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 production costs continuing to climb, manufacturers 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.
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
Of course, manufacturers know that a little deception is worth it if it means they can hold back those dreaded price increases.
How small have packages become over the years? Quite a bit. Here are just a few examples — both specific and general — to prove my point:
- Ragu spaghetti sauce (Was: 28 oz.; Now: 23.9 oz.)
- StarKist tuna (Was: 6 oz.; Now: 5 oz.)
- Anthony egg noodles (Was: 16 oz.; Now: 12 oz.)
- Country Crock margarine (Was: 48 oz.; Now: 45 oz.)
- Snickers “King size” candy bar (Was: 3.7 oz.; Now: 3.29 oz.)
- Kirkland Signature paper towels (Was: 96.2 sq. ft.; Now: 85 sq. ft.)
- Bounty 2-ply paper towels (Was: 138 half-sheets; Then: 128 half-sheets; Now: 121 half-sheets)
- Ivory dish detergent (Was: 30 fl. oz.; Now: 24 fl. oz.)
- Canned vegetables (Was: 16 oz.; Now: 14.5 oz.)
- Yogurt (Was: 8 oz.; Now: 6 oz.)
- Mayonnaise (Was: 32 oz.; Now: 30 oz.)
- Coffee (Was: 16 oz.; Then: 15 oz.; Then: 13 oz.; Now: 10 oz.)
‘Twas a time when the standard ice cream container was a half-gallon. Not anymore. Breyer’s ice cream tub fell from a half-gallon to 1.75 quarts — then it shriveled to 1.5 quarts. It’s only natural to wonder if 1.25 quarts is just around the corner.
Meanwhile, you may be surprised to learn that a “pint” of Haagen Dazs is now only 14 ounces. Yep; and it’s been that way since 2009. Thankfully, as a hard-core Chunky Monkey fan, I’m happy to report that Ben & Jerry’s hasn’t followed suit. Yet.
Peanut butter fans probably never noticed that Skippy peanut butter 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.
To be fair, manufacturers sometimes increase their package sizes too. For example, Hershey has been altering the size of their candy bars to account for fluctuating ingredient costs since 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.
Then again, when manufacturers increase the package size while holding the price steady, they advertise that information on the label in bold font that’s impossible to miss.
Heck, even TP isn’t immune from the downsizing epidemic. In their own study of shrinking package sizes, Consumer Reports discovered 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. But I suspect that particular deception is something most of us would have noticed sooner rather than later.
Photo Credit: jcoterhals
Drew Shock says
OK Len, 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.
Len Penzo says
It really is crazy, Drew. We may get to single-bite yogurts one of these days!
Paula @ Afford Anything says
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.
Len Penzo says
Yes; I’m positive loads of NPC folks just look at the sticker price.
Your premise is flawed. Most of the “foods” you mentioned are not real foods. 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.
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.
Len Penzo says
Thank you, Dave. Yes, I wish the manufacturers would simply raise the prices. In the grand scheme of things, the smaller package sizes do not prevent prices from rising anyway — they still increase, just not as quickly!
I hate this. Just ask my wife how much I rant against the smaller ice cream package sizes! Not only that, but for items that have been around for decades, such as Campbell’s Soup, this can start to throw off recipes that have been handed down for generations. Many recipes call for “one can of cream of mushroom soup,” for example, but if that can size changes over the years, the recipe fails.
But Tails has it right – if you stop buying pre-made packaged food, this won’t affect you as much. I’ve been making my own ice cream for years now. Not only does it taste better, but I know exactly how much I get each time I make a batch. we also tend to make also all our meals from scratch.
I have also made sure to teach my daughter to check the per unit pricing on the shelf labels.
Len Penzo says
Me too, Shaun. There’s been more than a few times where reduced package sizes have impacted recipes I use. Very annoying.
You can actually see the way this is done. Look at the indentations on some plastic containers, they are getting larger all the time. Sometimes they try to disguise it by touting a new, more convenient package.
I find this shrinkage really annoying when it’s a product that was just right for our family for one meal, and now it’s not enough.
Len Penzo says
My father-in-law was railing about those container indentations this week when I mentioned this article to him.
I see them too. Very sneaky.
Here’s another vote for a raised price, rather than a sneaky trick with the package size. I think home cooks were the first to realize this trend, when our recipes no longer worked. It is beyond annoying to be forced to buy two 14-ounce cans, for example, to get the amount of product I used to find in one 16-ounce can – and then I have 12 ounces of product left over, which often must be stored somehow until I make that recipe again. Very wasteful.
Safeway bag of ICE is one that is going to be on your list. No more 10 poind bag of ice. Its now a 7 pound bag for the same dam price. I dont buy ice there its better too go too the Water and Ice store for ice now. 8 pound bag for $1.00. You save yourself $1.80. It’s lame. Powerade 32 oz is gone its now 28 oz. Same price.
Len Penzo says
Yes, it is crazy. I truly believe most people would just as soon deal with the higher costs and see the package sizes remain stable. It’s not a if they are fooling anyone; and if they it ain’t for long.