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Supermarket Surprise: Smaller Servings, Same Price

Out of toilet paper so soon? Who the heck ate all of the Haagen Dazs? Why is this grilled cheese sandwich less cheesy than before?

Complaints like these – household staples getting used up faster; food not lasting as long -- are becoming more common.

No, members of your household aren't being wasteful or taking extra helpings of dessert. Those boxes of pasta, rolls of paper towels, jars of pesto and packages of hot dogs really are getting smaller. But manufacturers hope that you haven't noticed.

Same look, less filling!
A recent Consumer Reports investigation found that the amount of dish detergent, toilet tissue, and first aid spray in those same old containers has shrunk as much as 20%.

Slimmer pickings at the supermarket

Product

Old size

New size

Difference

Tropicana orange juice 64 oz. 59 oz. (7.8%)
Ivory dish detergent 30 oz. 24 oz. (20%)
Kraft American cheese 24 slices 22 slices (8.3%)
Kirkland Signature paper towels 96.2 sq. ft. 85 sq. ft. (11.6%)
Haagen Dazs ice cream 16oz. 14 oz. (12.5%)
Scott toilet tissue 115.2 sq. fit. 104.8 sq. ft. (9%)
Lanacane first aid spray 113 grams 99 grams (12.4%)
Chicken of the Sea salmon 3 oz. 2.6 oz. (13.3%)
Classico pesto 10 oz. 8.1 oz. (19%)
Hebrew National franks 12 oz. 11 oz. (8.3%)

Source: ConsumerReports.org

Blame it on the rising costs of producing these goods, such as raw materials, energy, and facility costs, say manufacturers. As their expenses rise, they've got to find ways to make up the difference: Either charge more for the product, or give less of it to you for the same money.

The latter strategy -- charging the same amount for less-generous servings -- is the safer bet: Studies show that shoppers are more sensitive to price increases than product volume decreases. And manufacturers go to great lengths to get you to overlook the downsized items in your shopping cart.

Packaging tricks that throw you off the scent
Getting you to overlook the fact that there's one-fifth less detergent in that Ivory bottle is all about subtle tweaks in presentation. To disguise downsizing, manufacturers do everything from indenting the bottom of the container to whipping pockets of air into the same old ice cream container.

As I pointed out in "5 Mind Games Stores Use to Make You Spend," be particularly wary if a company comes out with a new container that is taller than the previous version – a taller, skinnier Tropicana carton, for example. It's a classic bit of visual trickery at work: We tend to notice changes in height more than changes in girth.

It's unlikely that the downsizing trend will be reversed. Your best strategy is to pay attention to per-unit pricing – the real measure of how much you're paying for the actual product, rather than the new packaging.

More ways to save on everything on your shopping list:

Fool.com columnist Dayana Yochim is able to calculate the per-unit price on any item in less than 30 seconds. If only they gave medals for that. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (9)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2011, at 2:07 PM, chuckg17 wrote:

    OK, so what else is new? Safeway has been doing this for years.

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2011, at 6:07 PM, xetn wrote:

    This is an example of classic price inflation and an attempt to hide the inflation.

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2011, at 7:18 AM, wjcoffman wrote:

    Wonder how much more manufacturer's would save if they went ahead and downsized the packaging, too?

    Did the Consumer Reports investigation include generic, or store brand, products? Wonder if those packages are containing less or costing more or no change. Another Fool article included PG's performance saying they didn't do well last quarter (if I'm remembering correctly). The article included something about consumers having more spending money and if that was so then PG shouldn't have done poorly. I'd suggest the consumer doesn't have more spending money and the store brands are selling better than branded items. Especially if we're getting less for our money from those sneaky brand-name products.

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2011, at 9:03 PM, OlGranma wrote:

    This has been happening for quite a while now. A new "trick" I have found is that supermarket are purposefully shorting certain items in order for you to buy more expensive brands. I have written to some brand companies telling them how much I love their products. In return they have sent me coupons off their items, so that when I find them, I go out and buy a lot of them. Never know when the store will decide not to stock that item.

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