We have been hearing about the coming rise in the price of consumer goods set to hit us like a wave of price hikes and less bang for your buck. But walk into your local grocery store and things may not seem all that different. That bag of chips still looks and costs the same as it did last month, as does that pint of ice cream and that package of toilet paper. We, as Americans, seem to be relatively untouched by the Cassandra of inflationary spending that is threatening to wreak havoc on our grocery budgets. Everything is fine…just fine.
But take a bit of a closer look and you will start seeing a pattern. While many grocery store items still cost relatively the same, the packaging and volume of the product are decidedly shrinking. A once 16-ounce package of dried pasta still looks the same, but the volume is now closer to 13-ounces. A 15.5-ounce can of corn is now 11-ounces with just a bit more filler for exactly the same price, and toilet paper, while still may be 1000 sheets per roll, has gotten a bit shorter and thinner – making the downsizing virtually imperceptible unless you stack up the older version of the product with the newer inflation-era product. It is the work of the “Grocery Shrink Ray!”
While hardly a new phenomenon, as websites like The Consumerist has been reporting on the trend for a few years now, these instances of food inflation have become more and more frequent over the last few months in anticipation of the coming increase in the cost of raw materials.
As reported in The New York Times, in nearly every economic downturn in the last few decades, companies have reduced the size of some products, disguising price increases and avoiding comparisons on same-size packages, before and after an increase. Each time, the marketing campaigns are coy; this time, the smaller versions are “greener” (packages good for the environment) or more “portable” (little carry bags for the takeout lifestyle) or “healthier” (fewer calories). The majority of these companies break out the shrink ray surreptitiously, secretly hoping that consumers are too preoccupied to really read the labels and realize what is happening. So they stealthily camouflage these price hikes by selling these products in increasingly smaller, or more eye-catching, packages. Why pay more when you could get less?
To be fair, the alternative would be to have these companies be upfront and just jack up the prices to meet the increase in production costs, which would certainly not bode well with consumers. But as it has been demonstrated, consumers are much more reactive to price hikes than they are to shifts in quantity. So the companies are doing it all on the down low to keep consumers relatively happy and not feeling cheated. But the fact is, we are being cheated.
The majority of the products that have fallen victim to the diabolical grocery shrink ray are processed and packaged foods like canned soup, chips, condiments, etc. So if you pledge allegiance to whole foods (as in the quality, not the chain store) you will not likely see this shrink ray in effect, as much as you will witness (and feel) the good old burn of American inflation. Is this deception? And if so, is it warranted? One thing we can be sure of is that when, and if, the economy bounces back, the volume of the packages will not likely readjust to their old glory.