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What is 'shrinkflation'? Why you may be paying more for less in the grocery store

You're not seeing things — many grocery items in U.S. stores are indeed getting smaller.
/ Source: TODAY

Consumers are aware that inflation has caused the prices of some of our favorite grocery items to spike in the wake of COVID-19. But what you may not realize is that while groceries are going up in price, in some cases, their sizes are also shrinking. The phenomenon is known as "shrinkflation" and while most shoppers don't examine their cereal boxes or ice cream containers, the fact is they may be paying the same amount — or in some cases, even more — for less product.

Also known as downsizing, shrinkflation can hit your wallet hard, if you're not an informed consumer.

According to Consumer World, brands such as Doritos, Sun Maid and Chobani have all recently downsized their products. NBC News reached to the brands for comment but did not receive a response.

"Manufacturers can either raise the price of an item, or they can give you less," Edgar Dworsky, founder and editor of Consumer World, told NBC News senior consumer investigative correspondent Vicky Nguyen. "So when they give you less it's called downsizing or shrinkflation. It's a sneaky way to pass on a price increase."

Dworsky said in an earlier email to TODAY that the downsizing of products comes in waves, usually as a result of inflation. "Manufacturers tell me when they face increased costs of raw materials or the price of gasoline goes up making it more expensive to ship their goods to the store, they are under pressure to either raise prices or downsize their products. And sometimes they may do both."

Dworksy told Nguyen that shrinkflation is nothing new and has been around since the days of the five-cent candy bar, but that's it's never been as bad as it is right now. He said that downsizing is an "equal opportunity tactic" used by companies small and large.

"Tillamook, a farmer-owned company, finally gave in and downsized their ice cream from 56 oz. to 48 oz. — some 13 years after Breyers (a Unilever company) did," said Dworsky. "Generally speaking, the big paper manufacturers have been the most prolific downsizers changing the size of paper towels, toilet paper, tissues, etc. repeatedly for decades."

Paper products are a category where shrinkflation runs amok. He said that Cottonelle Mega Rolls now come with 312 one-ply sheets instead of 340 one-ply sheets — that's an entire roll of toilet paper you're not getting, while still paying the same price. Kimberly-Clark Corporation, the maker of Cottonelle, did not respond to NBC News' request for a comment.

Before you resign yourself to less ice cream, Dworsky said there are three things we can do to save our hard-earned dollars:

  1. If your favorite brand downsizes, look to a competitor. Store brands are usually the last to shrink, he said.
  2. Use unit pricing, the price per measure or count labels on store shelves. "It helps you compare the price per ounce or per 100 sheets, for example, of differing brands and sizes of the same item," he explained.
  3. Become net-weight conscious. "Learn the net weight of the products you regularly buy. Memorize them. And when you shop, check the net weight to make sure it has not changed," Dworsky added.

Companies including Miracle Gro, Gatorade and personal care items such as Dove body wash told NBC News that inflation is not behind any changes to their packaging. Gatorade said their change to a 28-ounce bottle was part of a years-long ergonomic plan to phase out 32-ounce bottles.

Dworsky said that some products get downsized so much that manufacturers re-introduce larger versions of the product, but at much higher prices." This happens with snack foods like potato chips. The old 16 oz bag becomes 14 oz, then 12, then even smaller. Eventually manufacturers re-introduce one pound bags and call them 'party size.'"

Jayson L. Lusk, a distinguished professor and head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University told TODAY that he hasn't seen any data suggesting that "shrinkflation" is occurring at a greater or lesser rate today than in the past.

"Shrinkflation involves firms keeping the price per package the same while reducing package size. However, as long as one converts to price per ounce, the inflation is again apparent, and many grocery stores make this calculation for consumers, albeit in small font, on the store shelf."

Lusk said that when seen in this light, any of the “normal” factors that lead to food price inflation can lead to “shrinkflation.”

"Generally, one would expect an increase in raw ingredient prices, or prices of packaging material, wage rates, or costs of transportation lead to an increase in price per ounce," he said.

Even fast-food chains are getting in on shrinkflation, Nguyen reported. Burger King recently announced they will be changing their meal from 10 pieces of chicken nuggets to eight pieces. "With beef prices up 16% from last year the fast-food giant also putting it's signature burger out to pasture, removing the Whopper from the Value Menu," she said.

Dworsky said these little differences are no small change — if you're getting 10% to 12% less of a product, that's equivalent to a 10% price increase, and that can really hit your pocketbook.

In response, many people are shifting to purchasing store brands, which are often the last to downsize. Companies like Clorox said they will respond with increased promotions if cheaper brands keep making it into consumers' shopping carts.

The only upside to this predicament is that it may be saving you some calories. When six-packs of bagels go from 24 oz to 22 to 20 oz, you probably will still buy the same number of packages but eat a little less.

"For small bags of candy that have been downsized, you are not likely to eat two bags instead," said Dworsky. "But for orange juice, cereal, paper towels, toilet paper, peanut butter, whatever — consumers just have to buy it more often."

Bottom line: Check unit prices, make a meal plan and use coupons to stick to your grocery shopping budget.