From produce aisle to checkout lane: All things grocery in Washington

Is your food shrinking?

May 23, 2011 - 04:31 AM
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If the price of your regular jar of peanut butter jumped, would you notice? Possibly. What if the jar lost a couple of ounces? Probably not. That’s exactly what manufacturers are banking on when they narrow a jug, take a few chips out of the bag, or put a dimple the size of a golf ball in the bottom of a jar.

In a time of high costs and cautious customers, the tactic saves a company money without raising prices or too many eyebrows. This month, a survey found that 84 percent of consumers believe that grocery prices have risen in the last three months. Just 50 percent of the same pool believe packaged food sizes have gotten smaller.

Could that mean that prices really have gone up and package size hasn’t changed? Considering how common package-size reduction is and how hard it can be to detect, that doesn’t seem likely. More likely: Customers more easily see a price tag on a shelf than they can feel the weight of a tub of margarine in their hands.

How widespread is this sneaky shrinkage? Take a look at what’s in your pantry. Anything with a weird number of ounces (my sweet toasted oats cereal says 12.3) probably means the manufacturer shaved a bit off the product at some point. Industry analysts have put the percent of all affected goods at 30.

Occasionally a big-name producer gets called out for downsizing. In 2008, Skippy skimmed 1.7 ounces off it’s 18-ounce jar—about a 10 percent reduction in peanut butter with no change in price. The year before, General Mills reduced the size of 20 of its 23 cereals. Kellogs did the same shortly after.

Just this March, Pepsico announced it would be reducing the most popular size of Tropicana orange juice by about 8 percent while keeping the price the same. The gallon size will get a price hike later. A spokeswoman blamed freezes in January, which destroyed more than four percent of Florida’s orange crop this year.

Tropicana was in the news just a few years ago when it reduced its 96-ounce container to 89 ounces. The new package featured an altered easy-pour lid and arguably more attractive design, but it also offered less orange juice for the same amount of cash.

With the rising price of gas hitting the food industry hard, it would behoove customers to pay attention to those little numbers on their groceries. Manufacturers are counting on the fact that you won’t.

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