Rossen Reports

Supermarket shrinkage? It's not your imagination, experts say

May 19, 2014 at 7:42 AM ET

Video: Experts say top brands are downsizing products, while charging you the same price. NBC’s national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen reports.

Have you noticed that some of your favorite brands are downsizing, giving you less and less while charging you the same price, or even more? Some experts say companies are getting sly in how they do it.

From cereal to cookies, paper towels to peanut butter, you can find it in supermarkets everywhere: Some of the most trusted brands getting smaller, the price tag not so much. "It's a very sneaky way to raise the price of a product," said consumer crusader Edgar Dworsky, who runs the website, consumerworld.com.

One tactic: the "optical illusion." Dworsky showed us two boxes of Apple Jacks side by side. Back in 2008 the product went from 11 ounces to 8.7 ounces, but from the front, the two boxes appeared the same; only when they were turned to the side did it become apparent that one was "much narrower," according to Dworsky. "That's one of the tricks of the trade," he said.

Dworsky also showed us two 8-giant-roll packs of Bounty paper towels that looked almost identical. But one had 72 sheets per roll, the other only 66 sheets per roll. "You think you're getting the same thing, but you're really losing like, two-thirds of a roll," he said.

Then there's the old "hollow the bottom" technique. "Here's Skippy peanut butter," Dworsky said. "The old one was 18 ounces, but now it's only 16.3. How did they do it? They hollowed out the bottom of the container." It looks the same, he said, but when Skippy downsized the product in 2008, they didn't drop the price. 

Dworsky said "new and improved" is another common ploy. "They just downsized Chips Deluxe," he said. "Here's the new package." The words "New Look!" appeared up in one corner.

"They're diverting your attention up to the top, right-hand corner," Dworsky said. "You should be looking at the bottom corner, where you see you're getting almost two ounces less."

When we let shoppers in on the secret, one young mom said, "I feel like I'm constantly buying and buying and buying and it runs out quicker." Said another shopper: "It's frustrating beyond."

"The money's coming out of consumers' pockets and fattening the bottom line for manufacturers," Dworsky said.

Tide Plus recently downsized from 60 loads to 48 load per bottle, and the price actually went up. But the bottle looks like it's the same size. "It's called Tide Plus. I think they should rename it Tide Minus," Dworsky said.

The makers of Tide told NBC News they recently "improved the performance" of most of the Tide Plus line, which resulted in the average cost per load increasing by 13 percent. They said that "consumers are now receiving better product benefits."

The top brands also say they adjust sizes and prices to stay competitive, improve product performance and address rising production costs, and try to "minimize that impact on consumers" with better products and increased efficiencies. 

So what's a supermarket shopper to do? "You have to become net weight-conscious," Dworsky said. "And if your brand downsizes, see if a competitor is still the full size and buy that instead."

Experts say these small changes, losing a few ounces here and there, can save these companies millions of dollars. Another example: Scott 1000 toilet paper. They've actually shrunk it twice since 1999. It's still 1,000 sheets per roll, but the sheets have gotten smaller, so you get less toilet paper.

It's all psychology: You're in the store and see it's still 1,000 sheets per roll — all good, you buy it. We don't notice these little changes. Scott says that even though the sheets are smaller, it's better and stronger.

Bottom line: Consumers should pay close attention to product labels, which clearly list the quantity, size, volume or weight.

Statement from Procter & Gamble (Tide and Bounty):

"For us, the consumer is boss and our simple goal is to continue to provide value to our consumers by delivering products that delight them at the right price point. While retailers set the final price the consumer pays, we do adjust our pricing to reflect such factors as improvements in product performance and/or the rising costs of raw materials, manufacturing and transportation costs. We make every effort to minimize that impact on consumers by making these changes at the same time as improvements to the product's performance and by offsetting costs by increasing the efficiencies of our own processes but some of it may need to be reflected in either the price or size of the product. In January, we improved the performance of most of our Tide Plus products and, to address potential consumer confusion on dose sizing, rationalized the sizes to a common 92 oz. bottle. That resulted in an average cost per load increase of 13% and consumers are now receiving better product benefits. Pampers is available in varying pack sizes and price points to meet the value needs of parents and the same is true of Bounty."

Statement from Kellogg's (Apple Jacks and Keebler):

"As commodity prices and other costs increase, Kellogg occasionally adjusts package sizes and wholesale prices, and we offer a range of product sizes to meet differing consumer preferences. Apple Jacks are available in package sizes ranging from 8.7 to 21.7 oz.

“Wholesale prices and package sizes across the Keebler line-up were standardized in 2011, with the price per ounce decreasing slightly on some products and increased slightly on others.”

Statement from Kimberly Clark (Scott tissue):

"As is typical, the slight decrease last year in the number of sheets per package in some of our tissue products was done in conjunction with product innovations that delivered improved performance for consumers.

By adding bulk, we developed a better, stronger sheet that allowed these products to continue to deliver outstanding performance while holding the line on price for our consumers and allowing the company to manage its costs."



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