Shrinkflation is here: We're paying higher prices for smaller products

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Shrinkflation: How manufacturers increase their profits but keep product prices ‘familiar’

Family gatherings are about connecting, sharing and, of course, eating that dish you love so much. Maybe in the summer, it’s grandma’s peach cobbler. And in the fall, it’s dad’s pumpkin pie.

But if you’ve noticed that, over the years, the cobbler tastes a little less peachy and the pumpkin pie, well, isn’t all that pumpkin-y, don’t rush to blame the chef. The real culprit: “product downsizing,” said Mary Bach, an independent consumer advocate. It’s appropriately termed “shrinkflation.”


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Shrinkflation occurs when a manufacturer reduces the amount of a product in a single unit, whether it’s fewer squares on a toilet paper roll or less pumpkin in a can. So, if you inherited a pumpkin pie recipe from one of those famous family gatherings, Bach said, be wary if it calls for “a can” of pumpkin. The can of pumpkin you’re buying in the store now probably has less pumpkin purée than it once did.

“We’re all creatures of habit,” Bach said. “We just grab things off the shelf because we’ve bought it before, and we simply think it’s going to be the same when it’s not necessarily.”

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As consumers face painful and historic inflation rates, Bach calls the simultaneous shrinkage of products a “double whammy.” Any increase in price is compounded by a smaller product, making the increase in the per-unit price even higher. The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the Consumer Price Index using per-unit prices, so size is accounted for in inflation estimates. Shrinkflation isn’t a new phenomenon, Bach said, but it has become more frequent in recent years, as manufacturers look to make up losses from covid-driven facility shutdowns and supply chain issues.

What isn’t happening: upsizing. Manufacturers seldom increase product sizes, according to Edgar Dworsky, a consumer attorney and founder of Consumer World and who documents examples of shrinkflation on his website, Mouse Print.

What they will do, however, is use the original size and rebrand it as “party” or “family” size.

For example, in the 1960s, a toilet paper roll had 650 single-ply sheets. Now, the largest roll the brand sells has 366 sheets of double ply, Dworsky said. Eventually, the product becomes too small, so the company reintroduces a more expensive “triple” or “mega” roll. The irony, of course, is that a “super mega roll” of toilet paper has almost 300 fewer sheets per roll than the same product in the 1960s did.

“If you habituate shoppers to buying by word, by name of the size rather than the actual size, you can get away with murder,” Dworsky said.

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Though it usually costs money for manufacturers to change a product’s packaging, downsizing is about increasing profit margins So even if the new, smaller size comes with a price reduction, it won’t be proportional to the size reduction; that means consumers end up paying more for what they get. Another cheaper route: Manufacturers keep the packaging the same and simply reduce the amount of product in it (think opening a large box of cereal only to have to reach halfway down to get to the actual bag).

What manufacturers are banking on is that consumers are paying more attention to the price tag on their items than the quantity. “They know consumers are price conscious, but they’re not as net weight conscious,” Dworsky added. Dworsky said the best answer he ever got from a manufacturer as to why it downsized its product was, “We wanted to keep the item at ‘a familiar price.’” But despite manufacturers’ best efforts, consumers are taking notice of their products shrinking.

In 2017, when a subreddit dedicated to instances of shrinkflation began, the discussion really took off, putting companies on the defensive. The subreddit features photos of half-empty chip bags and time-series photos documenting shrinking bars of soap and other products most people use.

The annoyance is palpable in user comments on social media documenting shrinkflation.

In the subreddit, a person posted a photo of two laundry detergent containers, noting the package boasted the same number of loads despite a 10 percent decrease in fluid ounces. Another post from a different person showed a video of a disappointed toddler receiving two pieces of fruit snack in a freshly opened pack. And in a Twitter exchange, one consumer asked a popular coffee brand how a 7.5 ounce reduction in grounds would produce the same 400 cups — to which it responded that a “new, roasting technology” made “lighter-weight coffee grounds” that would produce the same number of cups.

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As of Monday afternoon, two manufacturers had not responded to Grid’s requests for comment, and one stated that it would continue with its “strategy of not responding to this multi-industry issue.”

It’s not always about size.

Those shrinking grocery and convenience store items may also have cheaper ingredients. Bach pointed out that most ice cream, which used to come in half-gallons and is now mostly sold as 1.5 quarts, has changed so many ingredients that it’s no longer legally recognized as ice cream. The Food and Drug Administration requires manufacturers to describe the new configuration as “frozen dairy dessert.”

Once one brand figures out what it can do without consumer backlash, other brands follow suit, making it more difficult for consumers to ensure they’re still purchasing the same amount and quality that they used to. Bach noted that even some premium brands carry frozen dairy dessert.

“You shop around, you pay more money for something that’s more premium, or you go without,” Bach said. For her part, Bach is willing to pay a premium for real ice cream, noting that her 8-year-old granddaughter can tell the difference between frozen dairy dessert and the real deal.

Correction

An earlier version of this story misstated the size of previous ice cream containers. This version has been corrected.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

TOPICS

Inflation