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Bill Schmick: We've all come down with a bad case of shrinkflation

Virus Outbreak-Toilet Paper

Notice fewer sheets in your roll of toilet paper? Shrinkflation is very real, writes columnist Bill Schmick.

By now, you may have noticed that something doesn’t look quite right on your grocery shelves. Could be that bag of chips, or maybe that roll of toilet paper, seems to have shrunk? Let me assure you it is not your eyes — we have all come down with a bad case of shrinkflation.

Shrinkflation, according to Wikipedia, means “a rise in the general price level of goods per unit of weight or volume, brought about by a reduction in the weight or size of the item sold.” I must admit that, until recently, the shrinkage that has now become commonplace in most grocery stores and supermarkets, thanks to a generational high in the inflation rate, went largely unnoticed in my weekly food shopping.

Most shoppers are, like me, in the sense that we tend to be price sensitive. The explosion in prices has caught my attention, and I have written about it at length. It’s not hard when it seems a pound of ground beef today now costs as much — or more — than a pound of sirloin steak did a year ago. But while I may keep track of the price, I don’t usually notice the size or weight of the container, at least until recently.

My ignorance is commonplace among many consumers. We fail to realize we are paying more for some of our regular purchases since the price appears to be the same. That is because companies are reducing sizes on countless products, while keeping prices the same.

I use a certain brand of mouthwash, which arrives from Amazon automatically every few months. This month, I noticed the price has skyrocketed, while the size of the bottle was reduced by one third. I was shocked, angry, disappointed. Needless to say, I canceled my automatic delivery.

I admit, my major weakness in shopping (especially for food) is that I do not bother reading the fine print on the size or weight of a product. Unless the size of the container has drastically changed, I usually don’t notice — until now. I mentioned toilet paper, but all kinds of paper, from tissues to paper towels, are not only going up in price, but also contain fewer sheets per package.

After decades of stable prices, the highest inflation rate in decades has companies scrambling to keep customers happy, but at the same time survive rising costs across their product lines while staying competitive. As an illustration, when my favorite company brand of almond milk reduced their container size while keeping its price the same, I switched to a competitor’s product that offered better value.

“Family Size” can also be a concept you might want to re-examine. The average size of a U.S. family has been increasing, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. My assumption was that when I buy a “family size” package I am getting a discount off the price because I am buying a larger portion of something. That is no longer the case in many supermarkets. The price might be the same, but the amount of product you get has been greatly reduced. Buyers beware.

In a world of escalating inflation, depending upon the company, profitability is being squeezed dramatically. Stock market investors are parsing through income statements, looking to sell stocks in those companies that are having difficulty passing rising costs onto consumers. Equity investors are looking for profit margin expansion, not contraction.

Many corporations have three options: raise prices directly, take a little bit out of the product in separate shrinking waves and hope customers do not notice, or reformulate the product with cheaper ingredients.

Bounty paper towels, Doritos, Wheat Thins, Gatorade, certain brands of vitamins, among other well-known products, have all experienced shrinkflation in 2021. Many more have jumped on the bandwagon this year, as inflation continues to climb.

Downsizing products isn’t cost free, however. Shrinkflation needs to be worth it. In many cases, reducing the weight and/or number of items in a product may require redesigning product packaging. That, in turn, may require purchasing the machines to make it. Business managers need to make cost analysis decisions on whether to spend millions of dollars to invest in new machines, approve new designs, and wrestle with supply chain issues just to make a package slightly smaller. Reducing the number of chips by five in a 9.25-ounce package of potato chips or shrinking a 4.1-ounce tube of toothpaste to 3.8 ounces may not be worth it without significant price increases tacked on as well.

I may not like it, but quietly downsizing products is legal in the U.S. Companies can generally price and package their products whenever and however they want. It is my choice whether to buy it or not.

Selling less of their product in the same packaging for the same, or even higher, prices without telling me borders on unethical in my book, but in the end, it is my responsibility (and yours) to remain an informed consumer, even more so in a world of rising inflation.

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