When Kathleen Cassidy goes grocery shopping these days, she notices that while many prices are going up, others stay the same — but there’s little inside.
Take laundry detergent capsules, for example.
“I used to get 40 of those, and now I only get 38,” she said. “It’s kind of hard for the consumer…you don’t get as much for a dollar as you did before.”
Cassidy’s hobby is the coupon, so she pays more attention to prices than the average shopper. The tactic you chose is a real phenomenon known as deflation, where companies reduce the volume or quantity of their products while charging the same price.
“I’ve seen it described as the sneaky cousin of inflation,” said Matthew Philp, professor of marketing at Toronto Metropolitan University. He says companies can make the containers smaller or differently, or put less product in them.
“This is just to hide the fact that their prices are increasing.”
It is difficult to track the change of product sizes
Examples of shrinkage are difficult to identify because stores usually remove old products before replacing them. But Edgar Dorsky, a Boston-based consumer watchdog, has spent years researching examples of product shrinkage.
Dworsky points out two bottles of Gatorade he found for sale in the United States, one containing 32 ounces (946 ml), and the other 28 ounces (828 ml).
“Unless you see them side by side at the same height, you’re going to think you’re buying the same product, but basically you’re paying more than a 10 percent increase in prices,” Dursky said.
He publishes American examples he collected on his website. According to Dursky, both Sun-Maid Raisins and Dove Body Wash have shrunk in size this year. General Mills has reduced the size of cans of cereal by 1 ounce (28 grams).
“One ounce is one bowl, and at about $5 a box, that costs you about $0.25. But think about it from General Mills point of view, how many tens of millions of cans of cereal does General Mills sell in a year and hits at $0.25? That is Significant savings 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 this practice.
Oregon-based Tellamook Ice Cream writes on its website that making ice cream has “simply become more expensive” and that resizing the carton will be “less inconvenience to our fans.”
Deflation is nothing new, but experts say it occurs more often in times of high inflation, such as now, and affects nearly every type of packaged product. “Paper products, candy, chips, snacks, cookies… all of these things have been scaled back a few times over the years, and I don’t think they will ever stop,” Dursky said.
Beware the buyer in the grocery store
Ultimately, it is up to the consumer to try to counteract the downturn. Philip says that 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 ridiculously small font in the price tag but you’ll see…they should provide the unit price, so you can compare more easily,” he said. Quebec is the only province that requires retailers to display a unit price; Other counties are voluntary.
Philp also says switching to cheaper generic brands that don’t change packaging often should be considered. Because deflation can be widespread, he says, it can have a significant impact on grocery bills.
“A dollar increase here or there, and then when you buy an average of 20 to 30 items per grocery visit, then all of a sudden you add up to an extra $30. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but those little things add up.”