/ Shopping

Are shrinking products a sneaky way of increasing prices?

Supermarket trolley

You might remember our debate about smaller creme egg packs. Well, there’s more. Not only have we uncovered a host of other everyday shrinking products, the sun’s at it too…

You might have missed it due to cloudy weather (at least we did in London!), but this morning the sun’s rays shrank into a total solar eclipse. And it’s not the only thing that’s been shrinking.

We discovered 13 shrinking supermarket products in our latest investigation, using data from the independent shopping website mysupermarket. Some had shrunk by as much as 50g! For example, a pack of Birdseye vegetables was 8% smaller, but still cost £2. And a bottle of Cif was still £2 in Asda, even though it had had a 7% reduction.

You can check out the other shrinking products in our online gallery, or by turning to p20 of the April issue of Which? magazine.

You all seemed to notice

Our Facebook fans have also been spotting shrinking supermarket products. Wendy’s been on the case for a some time:

‘Nearly every product has shrunk in size – I noticed 12 months ago.’

Belinda has noticed shrinking too:

‘Chocolate has definitely shrunk, be it bars or packets of chocolate products. Packets of crisps seem to be a little on the meagre side too!’

Why are products shrinking?

When we contacted food manufacturers about their shrinking products, some said this was due to economic factors. Heather, who commented on our Facebook page, seems to agree with this explanation:

‘The cost of raw materials eg. sugar ,flour chocolate oil etc went up in recent years. So ask yourself this question: smaller but same price or same size higher price?’

However, we think shrinking products can be a sneaky way of putting up costs for customers. Though WImpsh on Twitter saw a silver lining:

Why do you think products are shrinking? Would you prefer the same-sized product at a higher price?

Stewart M says:
21 March 2015

Tropicana Creations have reduced in size from 1litre to 850ml. In Tesco it is even sneakier. They are doing a 2 for £3.50 offer and include the 1 litre cartons of grapefruit and orange juice.

Then add to the insult the text is still the same identifying a 200ml portion would be one of your five portions of fruit a day. So you are left with a 50ml at the end or you reduce your porition size to get five portions out of the carton.

“Fruit juice should not be part of your five a day, says government adviser”
“Fruit juice has as much sugar as many soft drinks and should be removed from five-a-day guidance, says obesity expert”
And what has happened to this advice from 2014….

I agree. Even unsweetened fruit juice can contain a lot of sugar. It’s better to eat the whole fruit, which will help limit the amount we consume and will probably provide more fibre.

Eating a couple of portions of fruit and as much vegetables as possible should be the message.

I think Topicana Creations are a cunning way of using up left-overs from various tanks in the fruit juice production process by concocting some unusual combinations and presenting them as a premium product at a higher unit cost [i.e. same price, less volume].

Lessons in production economics and marketing in one sentence. Very good John.

Today I tried to use a Tesco voucher when buying a carton of Tropicana fruit juice and was told at the checkout that the voucher only applied to the 1ltr and over sizes [it was in tiny print which I had not noticed]. Yet the cartons are exactly the same size as the previous 1 ltr packs and I don’t think the store staff have realised that there is less product in each carton. Like Stewart, I was a bit annoyed to find that I couldn’t get five glasses of juice out of the box. It’s not part of my 5+-a-day, it’s just that I can’t function first thing until I’ve had some pineapple juice. There must be something in it that oils my spring.

Stewart – I notice that Tropicana have changed the portion volume to 150 ml re are now five and two-thirds portions in a carton. So the smaller pack now contains more servings! More bamboozlement!

In itself, reducing portion sizes is not a bad thing but not to disguise a price hike.

I am more likely to notice a product’s reduced size than its increased price. Manufacturers are not doing themselves any favours, as I don’t think that consumers are particularly price-sensitive to small percentage changes in supermarket prices, whereas the reduced size of a product can be more noticeable.

I don’t know if this is true, but I believe that decreasing the amount is rather dishonest compared with a price increase.

By remembering unit prices of products we buy regularly, we can spot both price rises and smaller packs.

I agree, Wavechange. I wouldn’t mnd so much if indeed the reduced quantity did come in smaller packs but so often they keep the pack the same [with less in it] or reconfigure the packaging completely to confuse customers. I agree with Diesel [below] on the desirability of standardisation in weights and volumes of identical products; failing that keep up the pressure for accurate unit pricing clearly displayed.

Disappointed by anti-climax of eclipse due to cloud occlusion; subscription cancelled.

I watched the eclipse and did have some good views between the clouds. I was expecting a total eclipse but I was disappointed to see only a 90% eclipse, or thereabouts. Short changing the public is reaching astronomical proportions.

Too right. Supermoon also absent so disappointment doubled. Buy two, get nothing – it won’t catch on. Discount demanded next time.

I used to pass Luke Howard’s house in London every day on my way to work; he was the namer of clouds. As a noted meteorologist he would, I expect, have had a name for Friday’s poor performance.

Surely there should be standardised packaging – or at least standardised wieghts for products. One of the major advances in civilisation was establishing common weights and measures across a country. Just because it comes dressed in a pretty package should not be an excuse for non-standardised weights.

I accept that there may be a small variation allowance for industrial packing but it should be a very small allowance and monitored for frequency of unders. Heavy penalties for repeat offenders.

If instant coffee can be sold in 100, 200 and 300g jars then perhaps we should push for other products to be sold in the same way.

My attention was drawn to the ‘New Pack’ for Cif Stainless Steel Cleaner because it was too tall to fit on the normal shelf. On comparing the new package with the old one, I find that the amount has been decreased from 500ml to 450ml. Thank you Unilever. Perhaps Her Majesty the Queen was not impressed because the New Pack no longer carries the Royal Warrant.

I thought the Orb and Sceptre were lacking in lustre these days; now we know why. P’raps she switched to Cillit Bang! for a cleaner regina patina.

It’s Cillit Bang, John. Including an exclamation mark would make the name of the product too distinctive.

I am a lttle saddened to see in the magazine that Which? is apparently becoming inaccurate – and this is also shown in the media who use the Which? media pack.

The primary example in the magazine article is Surf
2kgs gives 25 washes
1.61kgs gives 23 washes

mathematicallt speaking, and unless reformulated, the new pack will give you 20 washes.

What the packaging appears to do is delude savvy consumers that it does 23 washes by having the claim writ large at the top of the paxkage. :
” Freshness that last and lasts 23 washes”

So not only mathematics, but use of English, and comprehension,all appears to be failing. Do I remember a thread on trusting business …… perhaps and media?

Research shows that in fact they do mean 23 washes but do not believe in punctuation. In the magazine page 20 it does mention the dosage per wash has changed but this is written vertically in 2mm script.

If it has not been re-formulated the 2kg version would now give 28.5 washes . I have no doubt someone may be able to find the fact …

Interestinly the 90 wash version of this smelly powders at Tesco’s is only £12 which is a stonking £1.91 kg compared to the £2.83 per kg if you buy the 45 wash version – simply put you pay £3 for the extra 45 washes. The 23 version is currently at half price and only £1.56 per kg. so £6.44 for 92 washes if you stock up.

The downside I think must be for those people who suffer from a perfume semsitivity – apparently around 5% of the population according to actionagainstallergy.co.uk.

I wonder if this problem has been tested for with wash impregnated clothes.

A report featured in @theguardian.com – Is our food shrinking – Homa Khaleeli – 21st Jan 2013 makes interesting reading and highlights some of the psychology behind this topic. For example “Brands can get a double whammy from shrinking products because if they go back to their original size they can trumpet this as 10% extra free.” Also Consumer Marketing Professor Vince-Wayne Mitchell talks about the JND (Just Not Noticeable) syndrome used by food producers.

Unfortunately we had too much cloud coverage so watched the eclipse on TV.

On weights.

It seems clear to me that deliberately making weights to odd amounts different to other manufacturers is simply a bamboozlement activity to stump shoppers.

One of the great advantages of metrication was to simplify and make it easy to do the maths. I automatically check even when the supermarket provides the figures just in case they have screwed up. Not to the penny you understand just a quick approximation.

I think a lot of anxiety would go from shopping if you could be comfortable that the size you buy will alwasy be true. That when you compare Brand B cornflakes with Brands A and C you only then have the cost and the taste proposition to worry about. None of this 350gmds vs 487 gms vs 425gms.

I do wonder if the variable content amount at awkward numbers has lead to the vast majority of shoppers abdicating from considered shopping and just relying on what they always buy. One up to the marketeers then as they reduce the size.

Inflation – the shopping basket is part of the inflation index. If products are shrinking and pricing stays the same then inflation is being hidden, in the case of the products you feature around 7 to 10%.
Is there something here to investigate as it partially helps explain why cost of living isn’t improving? Product prices are static but we are having to buy them more frequently.

For statistical purposes and inflation indices, shopping basket comparisons are based on unit prices.

Alex – You refer in the Intro to the May 2015 Which? magazine.

I am fairly sure the article this Conversation is linked to is in the April edition [pp20-23].

I am glad to see that the out-of-step publication calendar catches the writers out as well as the readers sometimes!

The article in the April Which? reveals the tug-of-war between the maufacturers and the retailers, neither of which will reveal the true nature of their wholesale trading terms [for commercially confidential reasons which are understandable]. Apart from better packaging or changed recipes, the justification trotted out for a weight/volume/quantity change is often undisclosed “economic factors”. I am wondering when the positive economic factors like falling road fuel costs, cheaper energy, low interest rates, and stagnant wage growth will start to feature in their pricing calculations??

I might need to correct myself. Apparently the cost of a weekly grocery shop is down by 7% over the last year having fallen by 1% in March 2015.. According to the mySupermarket Groceries Tracker the cost of a basket of 35 items now costs £87.80, down from £88.59 in March. The same basket cost £93.95 in March 2014. Irrespective of which particular economic factors gave rise to it, this is a significant fall in the cost of foodstuff and household essentials. It begs the question why companies feel the need to introduce price rises sneakily by tinkering with the pack sizes.

Whoopsie 🙂 Tweaked the copy to say April issue.

Grocery competition must be getting very tight at the moment. We find the amount that we have saved by shopping at Tesco or Sainsbury [against other stores] is next to nothing whereas a year or so ago it was £1-5 with each shop. The major stores’ price-match schemes have virtually ground to a standstill.

With Asda, Morrison, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, every Lidl helps!

Brilliant John! But don’t forget Aldi other price match schemes at Aldi!

Who decides to shrink pack sizes, is it the supermarkets or the manufacturers?

Supermarkets control nearly everything we consume. They have closed or taken over nearly all small local shops as they can’t compete.

We have heard they refuse to pay farmers more for their milk. Do they also dictate what they will pay for other products so the manufacturers have no choice but to reduce sizes?

I think the supermarkets are far better informed as well as more intuitive on customer trends than the manufacturers and that they genuinely believe they can both manipulate customers as well as wrong-foot their competitors. It’s not a big stride from that to see them arranging with the manufacturers of the leading lines for different pack contents to be introduced to confuse shoppers around a price adjustment. The manufacturers can hardly refuse to cooperate [or collude] given the retailers’ buying power and market penetration [a threatened shelf repositioning is probably all it takes to get them to toe the line]. In the minds of retailers every product has a ‘price point’ and the product has to be adjusted to fit it until a step-change occurs in the price versus value perception. Equally, every shopper has a ‘basket budget’ and the big chains are tuned into this with a frightening degree of acuity [this is the value of loyalty cards]. Up until now the pack price has been more prominent on shelf labels than the unit price; perhaps it’s time to reverse this – or at least make them equal.

Thanks for the examples – looks like we’re going to have to return to the subject!

Alice – At least we have unit prices to reveal shrinking products, but with multi-buy offers the supermarkets often don’t give the unit price for the offer. This has been going on for years and it is about time Which? put an end to the game. I’m sure that this would be easier than trying to stop manufacturers changing their pack sizes.

Discovered today that a box of Ainsley Harriott cup-a-soup now only contains 3 sachets (60g), admittedly “on offer” (ahem!) for .50p at Asda but usual price is usually around .90p for 4 sachets I think. I normally buy them when they’re 2 for 1 at around £1.50 but was quite shocked when I opened the box & only found 3.

Gretal – looking at the Soup comapny web-site all the packets for the soups show 4 sachets being inside.

On-line the ASDA offer does say 3 sachets for 50p reduced from 89p. I suspect it may be a special deal for ASDA who think it is a better price point for it’s customers.

Mark Erickson says:
12 June 2015

Noticed today that “Timeout” chocolate bar packs in Bargain Booze are now 6 for 99p, yet in Tesco they are 7 for 99p. In HomeBargains they were 8 for 99p, and about a year ago or so they were 9 for 99p. Clearly, manufacturers are making pack sizes to suit individual retail outlets.

Also, in Tesco (one of the worst stores for manipulating price offers), they reduced the size of their frozen mash from 750g to 650g yet still cost £1 – a price increase of about 15%. Prior to this, they zigzagged the price of the mash from 75p to £1.50. The annoying thing is that it makes it easy for the government to claim that inflation is falling, even though quantity prices are self evidently rising.

Mark, the big retailers are part of the system, I’m no talking about conspiracy theory nonsense, just simple fact, price manipulation is rempant in the fuel industry too, the Government sets a measure for what is meant by fuel poverty, as soon as it looks like that definition will apply to twenty per cent of the population or whatever, they change the measurement, saying, ah well, that measurement gives a misleading picture.

I do not follow the conversations that much so I do not know if this has been covered already, but have any of you smokers out there noticed that when you ask for a packet of 20 cigarettes you stand a pretty good chance of only getting 18 or 19 now, depending on the brand. I do not recollect ever having been told of this very sneaky price increase, and, as far as I am aware, a lot of the shop assistants selling them don’t know either. Has any body any further information for me please

I am certain Ainsley Harriotts “world” kitchen cup a soups used to sell four to a packet instead of three, and also there’s less in each packet. Truly, the mushroom soup is like hot dishwater. Well, I do have a choice and I’ve exercised it, by not buying that product ever again and telling everyone about the clever trick.

Jake says:
17 July 2017

Just compared recently purchased Tea Tree Oil Facial wipes from Superdrug to a previously purchased pack I have and guess what . . . Yes, size has been reduced as well as the number contained within the pack. No noticable reduction in the price though. One more reason to take my custom elsewhere.