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Mullins: Beware of incredible shrinking packages

Richard Keiger was dutifully changing the roll of toilet paper in his bathroom when he noticed something very odd about his Charmin. The new roll looked a lot smaller.

Not smaller around (as in total paper length) but narrower, left to right. Wondering if he was hallucinating, he found an empty paper roll from before and compared them. Yup, the new roll was narrower by almost an inch. He sent me a photo.

“If my math is correct this is equivalent to almost a 6 percent decrease in product and could add a healthy amount of money to their bottom line,” he wrote me recently. “This kind of trickery hurts the consumers because if the product is smaller they should at least share the windfall profit with the consumers.”

Yes, there are far crueler calamities befalling humankind right now. War, exploitation, disease. But as we each wage our own personal battles against an often-cruel world, one of the most straightforward steps is simply to save money and do what we can to fight back.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, way back in 1744 wrote on the topic of financial stewardship, with this advice: “Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.”

Shrinking products, I bet, would probably bug good old John W. The whole foundation of frugality and budgeting rests squarely on the presumption that buying fewer things or picking cheaper versions will save you money. Alas, after researching a slew of grocery stores, I’ve found at least three manifestations of shrinkage going on that undermine that presumption.

Manifestation One: Straight-up shrinking products. My favorite example of outright shrinking is Ocean Spray cranberry juice. One day, a standard bottle was 64 ounces. Then, 60 ounces. Same price on the shelf, by the way.

Consulting The Tribune’s list of 30 representative grocery items, I found at least four that come in smaller packages since we started tracking prices more than four years ago: Orange juice dropped from 64-ounce cartons to 59. Jars of mayonnaise and peanut butter have both dropped a few ounces, and a standard 11.3-ounce pack of Folger’s coffee is getting harder to find. It’s a wonder a gallon of milk is still a gallon … or is it?

Manifestation Two: Different varieties, same price, but different weights. Take Wheat Thins for example. On the shelf at Publix, there are more than a half-dozen types and flavors of Wheat Thins, all priced the same on the same day — about $2.89, depending on the week. But take a close look. The boxes are the same size, but the quantity inside is different. Some are 8.5 ounces, some an ounce or two larger. So, when you feel like switching from “Original” to “Zesty Salsa,” you may think there’s no real difference in your grocery bill. You’d be wrong.

My own mother-in-law noticed this example at Target. Their standard Up & Up brand tissues come in several types, all priced at $5.09 for a four-pack. But the “Ultra Facial” has 75 tissues, while the normal, non-ultra has 80. A slight but bald-faced difference you’d only see by inspecting the fine print.

Manifestation Three: Different stores, different sizes. Wal-Mart has a pack of Folger’s coffee priced at $3.68, while Sweetbay has the (seemingly) identical one at $3.99. You’d think Wal-Mart’s was way cheaper. But unless you look closely, you won’t see that Wal-Mart’s pack of Folger’s is 10.8 ounces, while Sweetbay’s is 11.3. By my math, that means the weight-adjusted price is really $3.99 at Sweetbay and $3.85 at Wal-Mart. Still cheaper, but not as much as it first seems. Unless you have time to run an Excel spreadsheet in the grocery aisle, you may never notice.

Pick up a tub of guacamole lately, and I bet you’ll notice the bottom of the package is domed upward so the package looks bigger but holds less guac. Holy guacamole, indeed!

You’ll also want to check which bag of sugar you buy. More stores now stock the 4-pound bag, instead of the 5-pound common several years ago.

When I ran all this past my friends and colleagues, many had the same response. “Doesn’t the government say there’s basically no inflation? That sounds like hidden inflation to me.”

Short answer. The Feds take it into account. I checked with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which compiles the Consumer Price Index, and they use two basic methods to measure inflation, surveys and direct price checks. With orange juice, for instance, they check in person and “prices are converted to a price per ounce, so package size changes are reflected,” said Sharon Gibson, an economist with the bureau. They’ve been doing that basically forever. Not sure if that makes you feel better about buying a smaller O.J. carton, but there you go.

So, what do the food companies have to say for themselves? When I wrote about Ocean Spray’s smaller bottles several months ago, the company noticed and sent this response: “Ocean Spray reduced the size of its 100% juice bottles due to the rising cost of bottling materials and the juice concentrate from that line. They evaluated a variety of factors and ultimately reducing the bottle size made the most sense for the business and consumers.”

Make of that what you will, but sadly, this kind of shrinkage has been creeping into stores for some time.

Consumer Reports back in February 2011 tallied 13 shrinking packages, including Ivory liquid soap, Tropicana orange juice, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Classico pasta sauce.

Even the patriotic Kraft “American” cheese package shrank, from 24 slices to 22. What would Francis Scott Key say to that one? “And the rockets red glare! Shrinking cheese over there! Gave proof grocery night, that your doubts were proved right!”

Lest anyone think this is just a U.S. issue, TheFrugalCook blogger in the United Kingdom in March 2012 noticed smaller sizes of red wine vinegar bottles, and readers erupted with their own examples.

Now that I’ve seen shrinkage first hand, I have my eyes on everything. Last week, Mini Wheats were on sale at Publix, so I bought four boxes of a few different types to stock up. But — wait a minute! The new Cinnamon Roll flavor box was ever so slightly narrower. Sure enough, it was smaller by an ounce. So consider yourself on notice, Kellogg’s. I have my eye on you.

In other retail, restaurant and trend news around town:

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Brace yourselves, Olive Garden fans. A bright new day is about to dawn. The location at Westshore and Boy Scout boulevards is scheduled to have a full, public opening on Monday. From the number of people who ask me for updates on that site, I sincerely hope the restaurant has a trainload of bread sticks and salad ready.

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The political campaign season is heating up, in case you haven’t noticed the barrage of political patronage announcements and overt advertising. Now you might see different TV commercials than the house next door. Dish Network and DirecTV teamed up to launch a joint project for house-to-house targeting of TV commercials. Exactly how they target each house isn’t disclosed, but if you’re a swing voter, you might see very different commercials than a hard-core Democrat or Republican. It’s a big step for the satellite companies, which are more known for mass broadcasting than street-by-street service.

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The Target data breach saga continues, and here’s your latest update. Target ran into one problem with all its apology emails lately: Its own email address. Many of the messages have literally been coming from the address @Target.bfi0.com. Many people rightly suspected the “bfi0” oddball address just might be a scam itself, and some of my own relatives have asked if it’s legit. (It is.) But Target will now change that email address to the more straightforward @email.target.com. This also means you’ll need to check your spam pile for any more announcements they have on data breaches.

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We bought a little Roku TV box a while back so we could stream Netflix and other things into our Bill Clinton-era television, and it’s been a great workaround until getting a real “smart” TV. It’s a lot like Apple TV, Google TV and others — it streams online video onto your screen. Now Roku is making a big jump forward. They’re teaming up with discount TV brands Hisense and TCL to make TVs pre-loaded with Roku as an app. I’d look for lots more FrankenTV projects like this in 2014 as more companies figure out ways to reach your eyeballs without going through a traditional “cable” TV box.

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