Is 'Shrinkflation' Growing?

In the 1989 comedy film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, an inventor accidentally shrinks his children and neighbors' kids down to about a quarter of an inch.

Inadvertently tossed out with the trash, they must work their way back to the house. Their journey takes them through a backyard wilderness filled with dangerous insects and manmade hazards.

Today there's another form of shrinking going on. But it's not being done by accident and it's certainly not funny. It's called "shrinkflation." It's becoming more and more commonplace these days.

This combination of "shrink" and "inflation" allows companies to increase operating margin and profitability by reducing costs. While at the same time maintaining sales volume. It's used as an alternative to raising prices in line with inflation. 

Toilet Paper Rolls Shrinking

Among the many grocery items that are shrinking in size but not in price is toilet paper. An example is Procter & Gamble's Charmin ultra soft toilet paper. The 18-count package contains 244 two-ply sheets, down from the previous 264.

The super mega rolls of that brand now contain 366 sheets rather than 396. That amounts to losing the equivalent of about 1½ rolls in an 18-count package.

Consumers are also seeing fewer cookies in a bag and less conditioner in squeeze tubes. As well as fewer liquid ounces in sports drinks and fewer caplets in pain medications. Plus a whole lot more. Or, in this case, less.

This is occurring at a time when Americans are experiencing record levels of inflation. Which is making the situation even worse.

Smaller But Equally Expensive

Even if you're not familiar with shrinkflation, you've probably noticed the results at your grocery store. Many of the food items you buy are getting smaller. But the prices aren't.

Here's an example reported by National Public Radio. Recently a store customer in Somerville, Massachusetts grabbed a "family-sized" box of General Mills cereal. It seemed smaller to him than normal. 

The weight was 18.1 ounces. He then searched near the back of the store and found one of the old family-sized boxes of that same cereal. It was 19.3 ounces.

He took both boxes to the checkout counter where he learned the price was the same. 

Inflation's 'Devious Cousin'

Like many other companies, General Mills had downsized the contents of its family-sized cereal. But the store owner charged the same price as previously. That's why shrinkflation is being called inflation's "devious cousin." 

Turns out the customer in the store that day was a former state assistant attorney general and a longtime consumer advocate. He's been tracking shrinking products for a number of years and publishing the results on his website.

"Downsizing (shrinkflation) is really a sneaky price increase," he said. "Consumers tend to be price conscious. But they're not net-weight conscious.

"They can tell instantly if they're used to paying $2.99 for a carton of orange juice and that goes up to $3.19. But if the orange juice container goes from 64 ounces to 59 ounces, they're probably not going to notice."

Sneaky? Yes. Illegal? No.

To be clear, there's nothing illegal about shrinkflation. For the most part, companies can put as much or as little content into their products as they want to. And charge whatever they want for it.

The demand – or lack of it – will then determine whether or not that company is profitable.

As consumers, we're better off paying attention to what value we're getting for our money than complaining about a shady sales tactic.

But many of us don't. We tend to be gullible. Especially when we're in a hurry to get to our next errand. 

It Starts With Pricing Pressure 

Among the many products identified as shrinking in size but maintaining the same price are chips and salad dressing. Plus ice cream, cat food and baby shampoo.

Examples include a bag of chips shrinking from 9.75 to 9.25 ounces. And a box of crackers decreasing from 16 to 14 ounces. 

Shrinkflation seems to follow price increases in items such as gasoline or grain. Manufacturers face pricing pressure from those increases.

They believe consumers are likely to buy a product for the same price as before, even if it's smaller.

We Need to Be Diligent

In fairness to manufacturers and store owners, they're getting hit with the same inflation consumers are.

They have to do something to remain profitable, and their choices are limited. They can either raise prices or shrink their contents. Consumers aren't crazy about either option. But they don't like being deceived.

Economists are telling us that inflation is here to stay for a while. That probably can't be helped. But we'll do ourselves a favor by comparison shopping more often.

And by keeping one eye on the weight of what we're buying and the other on the price.

Turning the Tables With Batteries

One item that may not be getting smaller in size but does have a short shelf life is AA disposable batteries. They have a bad habit of dying just when you need them most.

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  • Linda Wertman - March 29, 2022

    To the consumers as myself I not only know of more money for a lesser product but also have noticed shampoo, hand soap and dish soap food ect have not only cost at least $1.50 more for less but the ingredients in our products including food have gone downhill a rapid pace. Example of a brand name bread cost $2 more per loaf and also falls apart now. I keep wondering whom is getting the better products. It certainly isn’t US the consumers.

  • Norman StAmour - March 29, 2022

    My first experience with shrinkflation dates back to 1955, when I saw a 69 cent bag of chips shrink from 16 ounces to 14 ounces. I saw more of it in the 1960s when I was a student working part-time in a super market. This is not a new phenomenon.

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