Hidden price increases at the grocery store

“Look at this,” Kris said yesterday when she returned from grocery shopping. She held up two yogurt containers for me to see.

“So what?” I said. “Black cherry yogurt.”

“Look closer,” she said.

“That one's smaller,” I said. “Did they change the container size?”

“Yes,” she said. “But they didn't change the price.”

The Incredible Shrinking Yogurt

I've received several e-mails lately from readers noting the same thing. They go to buy a product they've been using for years, only to discover that the container has shrunk. The price hasn't changed — only the packaging. Reader David Cox, for example, wrote with the following anecdote that mirrors our own:

We went to the grocery last night and one of the items I wanted to get was yogurt. The store always seems to have their brand of yogurt on sale @ 10/$5.00. I was about to scoop up a bunch, when I noticed that they had redesigned the packaging with pretty new colors, but the package seemed a bit smaller. On closer examination, it was.

The new size was 6 oz. of yogurt, while the old style had been 8 oz. The price per package hadn't changed, but the package now contained 25% less product. I thought it was very tricky of them to leave the big sales sticker on the shelf (10/$5.00!!!) just like we were used to seeing, without any thing to warn you of the repackaging. I guess they would claim it was obvious, but it still seems a bit tricky to me.

Is it tricky? I don't know. I understand that manufacturers need to make a profit, but when they reduce the container size instead of raising the price, it does seem a little sneaky. It's as if they're unwilling to raise prices directly, so they take a circuitous route.

Standard Operating Procedure

I recently had a conversation with a friend who knows a great deal about this subject.

You see marketing stories like this over and over,” Freeman told me. “Fabric softeners cut the sheets from 40 to 36 — same size box and same price. Ketchup switches from a glass bottle to a smaller plastic bottle and the price stays the same. Some companies mess with cap and lid sizes as a way to increase consumption. Want a bottle of laundry detergent to run out faster? Then increase the cap size slightly. (Many people use a capful per load.)”

Freeman then pointed out other ways companies subtly manipulate spending. “Think of the famous lather, rinse, repeat instructions on shampoo. Like you really need to do that. Same things happen with chips, cereal, and on and on. Just consider: maybe a box of cereal hasn't gone up in price much in the past decade, but I guarantee you that the average box size has certainly decreased.”

Another friend, Jeffrey, chimed in: “I always wondered why, if the cost of packaging is so expensive, do cereal companies reduce the amount inside the box but the leave the size of the box alone?”

“They also do this with cereal bars,” Jeffrey said. “A while back, General Mills came out with Fiber One bars. The box is the same size as all the other boxes but there's only five bars in the box, not the standard six bars that are in every other box. Nature Valley does the same thing with their family size box of granola bars. You open the box and only half of the box has product. It's the same thing as lying but it's disguised as ‘marketing' so it's okay.

Savvy Shoppers

Again, I'm not sure it's lying, but it's obvious that shoppers don't like to be duped this way. But both David's e-mail and Jeffrey's comments reveal they don't appreciate being tricked. They'd rather have the same package size but see the price increase. I would, too.

Food inflation is a hot topic in the United States right now. I think we're all beginning to realize that the things we love cost more. But some of us would rather pay the increased price than have manufacturers try to hide the inflation with packaging.

For more on this subject, take a look at Nickel's thoughts on product packaging. He observes that suggested portion sizes are increasing even as package sizes are decreasing. You may also be interested to read about unit pricing in the GRS archives.

More about...Food

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jeffrey strain
jeffrey strain
12 years ago

Sometimes they do even worse – the other day I went to buy some cereal that I usually get and it was in a bigger box but a smaller amount was in it. How’s that for marketing tricks.

I really dislike it when they do this while saying it’s “new and improved” or somehow “better”

Lauren
Lauren
12 years ago

I’m also not sure if they’re lying, but it’s definitely something customers can’t feel comfortable with. I’m sure the company will have a feeling like, “It’s ok until someone will notice” and that’s not right.

Katie
Katie
12 years ago

The great blog Consumerist calls that the “grocery shrink ray” and it’s happening all over now. They were on NPR the other day talking about it.

Funny about Money
Funny about Money
12 years ago

This is something Consumer Reports has been grousing about for years. No doubt we’ll see more of it as the costs of food and transportation rise. Interesting about the cap sizes! I hadn’t thought of that…but of course. I’ll get an inexpensive plastic measuring cup to use with the detergent after this. Shampoo twice? Well, of course a guy doesn’t have to do that. But if you’re a woman with hair that’s much longer than a man’s and you use a lot of styling products (conditioner, mousse, gel, spray), it actually takes two shampooings to get all that gunk out.… Read more »

Nick
Nick
12 years ago

Wegmans, my favorite of favorite grocery chains recently posted an explination of the “grocery shrink ray”.

Consumerist also posts on this topic on occasion.

http://consumerist.com/5029914/wegmans-grocery-store-admits-that-the-dreaded-grocery-shrink-ray-exists

waves
waves
12 years ago

That’s why you always look at the unit pricing, not the sale price (super markets update the unit price when items are on sale). You won’t get duped then.

Traciatim
Traciatim
12 years ago

Everyone is complaining that companies are being evil profit suckers . . . What they don’t say is that consumers have ALL of the power in these situations. It’s completely simple, when a company pull this stunt, buy a different brand. All of a sudden this will stop happening. The dollar is the only vote that counts these days, stop being a sucker and show them what you want.

Miranda
Miranda
12 years ago

We’ve noticed this as well in our shopping trips. I especially noticed it with the Fiber One bars, since I get them regularly. It is frustrating. Also, they are doing it with ice cream. They do 1.5 quarts instead of a half gallon now.

Frugal Dad
Frugal Dad
12 years ago

A family member pointed out that her favorite cereal boxes were slimmer (but the same height) so they had less product inside each box. Looking at them faced in a row you couldn’t tell the difference…pretty sneaky. I’m all about shopping by unit price.

Atticus
Atticus
12 years ago

Edy’s ice cream also did this. It’s very sneaky.

Lynn
Lynn
12 years ago

This could really bite you if you have a recipe that calls for an amount that used to be one container’s full, and now will call for one and part of another. Not only do you have to buy two, paying twice as much, but depending on the contents, you might never use the leftovers. (Think ricotta cheese and lasagna)

Jesse
Jesse
12 years ago

I agree – if you’re going to complain about the cost of packaging, I’d rather pay a higher price for the packaging as to pay the same price and get less. Of course, I’d RATHER that the serving sizes were smaller AND the price was smaller, but hey, we can dream, right? *smile* As far as laundry cap sizes go, I’ll have to agree, I’d not thought of that, and getting a cup to measure a standard amount is a good idea – anyone have any idea how much one should use for a BIG load of laundry in a… Read more »

Alicia
Alicia
12 years ago

I noticed that a couple years ago on Dannon plain yogurt. What amused (and annoyed) me one time was my local Giant Eagle had a sign on the yogurt shelf saying “new low price” and the price was in fact, higher than the previous price. Ridiculous.

Dentar
Dentar
12 years ago

I despise it when I buy toothpaste to discover 30% air in the tube. Now THAT’S cheap!!

joetaxpayer
joetaxpayer
12 years ago

I may be showing my age here, but I remember a standard can of coffee being one pound. The price went up and down, but the can price *was* the price per pound. More recently, I noticed a brand of ice cream dropping in container size from 1/2 gallon to 56 oz. Yet, this same brand is always on sale, buy one get one free. I attribute some of this recent activity to adjust single serving packages (like the yogurt) to try to get the calorie count to some target number. Maybe 100? I find it curious when a soup… Read more »

Jenzer
Jenzer
12 years ago

I second Lynn’s comment about the effect of changing packaging sizes on recipes. My husband often has friends over to help with projects on our property, and we make sure to feed them well while they’re here. When a box of my favorite pasta shrank from 16 ounces to 14, I needed to re-jigger my spaghetti and baked ziti recipes to ensure there’d still be enough volume of food to feed a bunch of big hungry guys.

Bet Campbell’s would hear a bunch of whoopin’ and hollerin’ if they shrank the can size on cream of mushroom soup.

Dan
Dan
12 years ago

News Flash: The cost of EVERYTHING is going up. It’s getting impossible for the manufacturers to maintain margins with the rising cost of fuel, grain, etc. They have a choice, cut the pay of CEO’s, or bleed the consumer…and from this article, which do you think they are taking? Want to fight back? Get off the packaged food ride and shop at food co-ops. Bulk bins are always what they are. The price may increase, but you know exactly what you are getting. Makes the price per pound calculation a moot point…it’s always by the pound. You’ll save money…and the… Read more »

artist
artist
12 years ago

It’s annoying that they think we’re really that ignorant. I’ve shopped the unit pricing stickers since they’ve been forced to use them. My complaint lately is with the grocery stores. The new marketing ploy is to group a variety of products & say any 10 for $10. or $20. Or two for $5.00, etc. It used to be that even if you only bought one of two or eight of ten, you got the sale price. Not anymore. If you don’t buy two, you pay full price on one. A gallon of milk in the brand I prefer is almost… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda
12 years ago

Re: Laundry Detergent Caps

My mom has been harping on me for years that laundry detergent caps have been getting bigger and bigger.. Have you seen the size of the caps on laundry detergent you buy at Costco? My husband and I have been using an old cup my mom had that is probably 10 years old. There’s a huge difference!

Mary
Mary
12 years ago

Re: Unit Pricing Paying attention to the unit price of items prevents you from being “tricked.” The price per unit, which is standardized for each product (ounce, square foot, etc) is right in front of you each time you pick up a product. You may have to do some math in the aisle to figure out which item is actually less expensive, but it’s worth it. Paper towels and toilet paper is sold in “mega-rolls” and such, but if you look at how much you pay for how many square feet of product your getting, it can be quite enlightening.… Read more »

Aaron
Aaron
12 years ago

Dangit, I was just at Winco and bought Lucerne yogurt. I was reading the unit price on the shelf tag, not the size, and I just did the math. Unit price on the shelf tag was still for the 8oz. Guess I need to go back to taking my calculator with me.

Alison Wiley
Alison Wiley
12 years ago

Sorry, but I have a dissenting voice this time. I don’t feel sorry for myself — or for other Americans with good incomes — about higher food prices. Our record levels of obesity indicate that we haven’t handled inexpensive food very well. I do admit, though, that eating less is challenging.
For a fun and unconventional approach to losing weight, see my article http://www.diamondcutlife.org/the-very-best-diet/

cmadler
cmadler
12 years ago

@Mary: Price per unit is NOT standardized by product. I have often found when shopping for paper towels (to use your example) that some packages will use square feet as the unit, some will use “towels” as a unit (where 1 towel /= 1 square foot), and some multipacks will use “rolls of towels” as a unit! The math is always doable, but it often takes several calculations to convert items to comparable units.

Kevin
Kevin
12 years ago

“I especially noticed it with the Fiber One bars, since I get them regularly”

Regularly. Heh.

Steven
Steven
12 years ago

Arm and Hammer now procaims “half the size, same number of loads” and the 100 oz bottle is now 50oz and the price is $2.00 more expensive. I noticed the trick to getting the 32 loads out of the same number of ozs is fill the little cup a quarter full.

elisabeth
elisabeth
12 years ago

Since I’m trying to avoid weight gain (and ideally lose weight), I haven’t been totally unhappy to see smaller sized “single serving” items like yogurt, even at the same price…
Also, Lynn @11 says this could be a problem for recipes, but, in fact, there’s usually wiggle room. One can use an ounce less ricotta in lasagne and not miss it, and that’s true of a lot of recipes, don’t be afraid to experiment with cutting fat, sugar, and salt amounts in recipes, you may find you prefer healthier versions.

Karen Putz
Karen Putz
12 years ago

I find myself having to calculate cost per unit in creative ways when it comes to Kleenex, paper towels and toilet paper. Those “giant” and “mega” sizes are quite misleading.

Justin
Justin
12 years ago

Unit pricing is not standard across the shelves. Some sizes of an item at our kroger will be listed as price per ounce, while some will be listed as price per pound. Others will be listed as price per Gallon and price per ounce, depending on size of the container for the same product.

Sasha
Sasha
12 years ago

I noticed a few years ago that yogurt started changing size. First Dannon was 6 oz, and then every other brand started. I have to search for a yogurt that’s 8oz, because 6 isn’t enough for me. I also think that it’s not just cost with the yogurt, it’s also calories, like those over-hyped 100 calories packs.
The real way to be frugal here is probably to buy the big cartons of yogurt and scoop out individual servings.

Aimee
Aimee
12 years ago

Not that shrinking product sizes doesn’t hit my wallet where it hurts, but perhaps this isn’t a bad thing.

America is suffering an obesity epidemic. We also spend a significantly smaller portion of our incomes on food than people in the rest of the world – where obesity is less of a problem. If food is more expensive, people consume less and fewer people suffer from obesity.

Maybe smaller size containers and high prices will help people get a handle on what an actual portion size is. After all, money is one of the great motivators.

Kevin
Kevin
12 years ago

I remember my engineer father a few years ago was involved in designing the shape of ice cubes. What is important about the shape of ice cubes you ask? Seems that fast food restaurants and bars wanted to displace the most beverage dispensed while maintaining the appearance of a full glass! Sneaky yes, but that’s what he was paid for. Those 100ths of an ounce displaced and multiplied by millions adds up to big bucks.
It’s all around us, just follow the money!

Dan
Dan
12 years ago

@ artist: “”Many rural communities don’t have access to coop bulk food. Years ago one of our groceries offered it & didn’t maintain them in a sanitary fashion (you can’t just dump more new product in the bulk barrel on top of existing product).”” That is true, but if you dug a little deeper, you might be able to find something. http://www.coopamerica.org/ And a link on starting your own: http://www.cgin.coop/public/food-coop-info/start-a-food-coop And one for buying in bulk on-line: http://www.frontiercoop.com/ In the small town I grew up in, many of my friends in the rural areas got together and ordered in bulk,… Read more »

Eber
Eber
12 years ago

Here in Brazil, this started happening a few years ago. Everyone got pissed with that.

And this huge amount of complaints from everyone made the government create a certain rule.

If a product is going to have its size reduced, they are obliged to write in the box something like this:

“new amount: 200 ml, reduction of 10% (220 ml to 200 ml)”

And that sorta helped.

FranticWoman
FranticWoman
12 years ago

My mother told me about this sneaky trick over 20 years ago. I think it seems shocking now because it is happening all at once. She also always told me to use less detergent than called for because “they just want you to buy more”.

I would prefer a price increase instead of the “incredible shrinking ray gun” because I’ll have to buy more often now; I’d prefer to have a good size amount available so I don’t have to increase my shopping trips.

The Financial Philosopher
The Financial Philosopher
12 years ago

Perhaps there is a silver lining: The shrinking economy is also shrinking the size of our meal portions, the size of our cars, the size of our wardrobes, the size of our homes, and so on…

It may also be shrinking our net worth but perhaps it is simultaneously increasing our net HEALTH…

“The first wealth is health.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Kent (The Financial Philosopher)

Matt
Matt
12 years ago

About laundry detergent – the biggest family size containers have started to shrink in favor of more “concentrated” liquid. That’s great for store space and transportation costs, but many people will still use the same amount they are used to for one load of laundry.

The new containers have a new measuring cap as well. It’s smaller for sure, but instead of being cylindrical, the markings are evenly spaced on a slope-sided cup. That means going from 1 to 2 is actually more than double the amount of soap.

John
John
12 years ago

I noticed Breyer’s Ice Cream did this awhile back. Not only did they shrink the size, they raised the price at the same time. Sheesh

Adrienne
Adrienne
12 years ago

I think the outrage is a little off the mark here. Companies (esp. packaged food companies) are having to deal with a large amount of cost increases (gas, commodities, etc.). They have 2 choices – raise prices or decrease sizes. The fact that they often choose to decrease sizes is because of the CONSUMER. I’ve done a lot of consumer research for companies and let me tell you that even a small price increase can result in a dramatic decrease in sales (esp. for items where consumers are really price sensitive – like detergent). Companies are only responding to consumer… Read more »

Jane
Jane
12 years ago

My husband and I just had this exact conversation after my last trip to Costco. Putting my 6 pouch pack of chicken breasts into the freezer, I noticed that they were all 2 breast pouches. Previously three had been 2-breast and three 3-breast pouches. The price was ofcourse the same. I’m fighting back by splitting the chicken breasts in half lengthwise when I cook them. Frankly you’ll never find chicken breasts that big in Europe anyway, so as expats we’re used to smaller portions. I also realise that without a political vote here, my most effective voice is my money.… Read more »

Susy
Susy
12 years ago

I have read that companies do that because consumers would rather pay the same price for less product that more for the same amount. I have noticed toilet paper rolls getting smaller (width wise) and shorter. I always buy in bulk when I find it on sale. I had a old package in the basemen that was for double rolls of Quilten Northern, it had 440 sheets in each roll and fit across the dispenser. Last package I bought of double rolls has 352 in each roll and didn’t fit all the way across the dispenser. There’s not much we… Read more »

Project-D
Project-D
12 years ago

This is really nothing new, Andy Rooney did a piece on changing coffee container sizes back in ’88, then again in ’93, then again in 2003, it’s easy to find by googling it.

Really, I’d imagine it’s been going on forever, Time magazine did a piece about the changing size of Hershey’s nickel candy bar back in 1962. In fact, Hershey kept the bar a nickel while changing the size until they discontinued it in 1968. People noticed it then too commenting “Hershey is packaging a nice razor blade now.”, according to the article.

Chris
Chris
12 years ago

UNIT COST!!!! Always check this, as you have recommended in the past, and it will alert you to true changes in the price or the size.

Jason
Jason
12 years ago

I’ve noticed that bars of soap like Zest have been shaved at the sides to make the bar more slim in the middle so it runs out faster.

cherie
cherie
12 years ago

Let the buyer BEWARE! I don’t understand when people are constantly anthropomorphizing [no, I don’t know if it’s spelled right – such is life] corporations. A corporation is a legal entity – a fictional being. It doesn’t have a heart. It doesn’t care about you. It cares about making money for it’s shareholders. If it doesn’t do that then it is failing in it’s reason for being. Think of it more as a machine and you’ll stop feeling tricked by ‘Good old Betty Crocker’ and realize you have only yourselves to blame if you’re duped. If you were going to… Read more »

Matt
Matt
12 years ago

I’ve noticed that the size of the packaging has gotten a bit smaller and I’ve noticed the price going up on some products. But what really baffles me is one chain will carry a cereal for say 2.99 on sale and that same cereal is going for 4.29 in another. Buyers have to be conscious of what they buy.

As the saying goes ‘Buyer beware’.

Debi
Debi
12 years ago

It’s nice that some stores display some sort of unit price, but it’s spotty at best. That’s why your best weapon against this is a calculator!

As far as cereal boxes looking about the same size… the cereal companies compete for “face time” on the shelf and arrange with grocery stores for placement. Walking down the cereal aisle is just walking through a commercial!

Dan
Dan
12 years ago

“”Perhaps there is a silver lining: The shrinking economy is also shrinking the size of our meal portions, the size of our cars, the size of our wardrobes, the size of our homes, and so on…

It may also be shrinking our net worth but perhaps it is simultaneously increasing our net HEALTH…””

Bingo. As the NYTimes said in the Book Review section re: “The End of Food”…

“Eating Beef is the new Driving a Hummer.”

Eat less, mostly plants.

It’s cheaper, better for the environment, and better for your waistline.

TosaJen
TosaJen
12 years ago

I’m sure I’m repeating something, but I think part of the marketing game employed here is that noone wants to be the first to raise prices. It’s less obvious that you’ve jacked up your prices if the volume of product is smaller in a package that looks the same as the competitors. I buy many items in bulk now, so unit pricing has become a habit — thank goodness. I have enough relearning to do with all the other things rising in price. I don’t like to think about how much money we lose every time we let produce go… Read more »

Justin
Justin
12 years ago

Maybe the lack of moving to the metric system is being driven by the food companies. If everything was metric it would be even easier to calculate unit prices between different sizes. Considering the US is one of three countries that don’t use it, with the other two being Burma and Liberia. What great company to be in.

Eric
Eric
12 years ago

When I told a friend of mine yesterday that I worked in marketing, he immediately called me a name under his breath. “Manipulator.” I asked what he meant, and he explained that, to him, “marketing” was synonymous with “molding people” and lying to sell product. In the case of making subtle changes to packaging and not changing price, product managers are, in fact, “manipulating” their customers. We’re used to buying a specific box of cereal bars and getting 6 bars inside. Finding that they’ve only packaged 5 but kept the same price is frustrating. As is finding a smaller portion… Read more »

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