Ben Popken On NPR Talkin' 'Bout Grocery Shrink Ray

NPR’s Michele Norris on “All Things Considered” did a nice interview with me about that deadly Grocery Shrink Ray sweeping supermarkets across America. It looks like it just aired, you can listen to it online here. If you want to look at previous stories in the Grocery Shrink Ray series, check ‘em out here. And if you have a example of a product that is shrinking in terms of volume or net weight and you want to submit it to us for a possible post, just send it on in to tips@consumerist.com.

UPDATE: Transcript added, inside…

Grocery Items: Same Price, Smaller Size [NPR]
(Partial image credit: hellochris)

TRANSCRIPT

Michele: Now we go from rising prices at the pump to shrinking products on grocery shelves. Your eyes are not playing tricks on you. Cereal boxes, juice containers, bars of soap, jars of mayonnaise. All these products and more really are getting smaller. But here’s the hitch, you’re buying less, but not paying less. Reducing the size of products is one way that manufacturers can cope with their soaring costs. Ben Popken is the editor of a consumer advocacy blog called Consumerist.com. He’s been closely monitoring this trend, and he joins us now. Mr. Popken welcome to the program.

Ben: Hi, thanks for having me.

Michele: Now I’m just curious, have you been skulking around grocery store aisles looking for examples?

Ben: No, unfortunately, I sit in my blogging chamber upon high and I just receive reports from the readers, they dispatch what they’re finding out at the supermarket.

Michele: And what are you hearing from the provinces?

Ben: I’m hearing the sound of shrinking, basically. What we call the “grocery shrink ray” is in full effect across America. Leaving all sorts of shrinking boxes and products in its wake.

Michele: Can you give me a few examples?

Ben: Definitely. Kelloggs, a wide variety of cereals are down 2.4 oz. Breyers Ice cream, 56 oz to 48 oz. Edy’s Ice Cream, 1.75 quarts to 1.5 quarts. Dog Food… Butter…Country Crock is down 6%. It’s just all over the board.

Michele: Now, these changes sound slight. I mean if you weren’t looking out for this, would it be evident that the Country Crock tub is smaller than it used to be?

Ben: Probably not, unless you are some sort of savant who is able to memorize the net weight of all of the items that you purchase in your grocery trips, you are probably not going to notice it. But, right now we’re in a crossover, a threshold phase where there are still a few of the old products left on the shelf, and when you see two different sizes being sold for the same price right there in front of you, that’s when you notice.

Michele: You know there’s always been talk about not wanting to break these benchmark amounts for product manufacturers. A gallon of milk for instance, or a pound of bacon. But it seems like we’re seeing them cross that threshold now. I’m thinking of the half-gallon of ice cream, that was always the standard. That rectangular brick of ice-cream that you used to see in the frozen food section.

Ben: That is definitely no longer the case. There’s a whole sort of secret underbelly in the ice cream world of who’s delivering less and how much air is in it versus, you know cream and milk. Some brands even make it their marketing distinction, and they put it right on the label. Like, Brigham’s Ice cream and Blue Bell Ice Cream they proudly state “Never Shrunk.”

Michele: Do manufacturers ever alert customers? Or at least provide some information in the fine print that they’re doing this? Does Wrigley for instance, note somewhere on the label that the 17 stick “Plenty Pack” is now a 15 stick?

Ben: The only disclosure that they are giving people is the different net weight and the amount of servings per package. The newest victim of the Grocery Shrink Ray that we saw today were these Kraft slices of swiss cheese and they’re now giving 10 slices instead of 11 slices, and they’re doing a different package. In this case there’s a slight disclosure, but it has a little spin on it. There’s a little green label and it says “sensible serving” so they’re trying to tap it into the whole obesity crisis, and think that by giving you less for the same amount of money, decreasing your purchasing power, they’re actually helping you out, fitness-wise.

Michele: Now, the food manufacturers will say that they’re trying to get by too, they’re facing rising fuel costs, rising commodity costs. So, they may be shrinking the package but they’re doing that instead of raising costs, which might be much worse.

Ben: Well, I don’t think that they’re trying to do it to do anyone any favors, except for themselves. I mean everyone’s got to get by. The economy is getting tighter, and I think everyone recognizes that. The problem is that they’re trying to, you know, sneak it across the table without people noticing. So, when that works on the large swath of myopic consumers, that’s great and that works out for them. But, when you have people who are actually paying attention to these things, then it’s going to be a problem for both the consumer and the manufacturer because then people feel like they’re being tricked. I think more and more people, as times are getting tougher, as people are watching their pennies more, they’re becoming much more sensitive to value and these manufacturers maybe biting themselves in the butt.

Michele: Buyer Beware.

Ben: Definitely. Caveat Emptor.

Michele: There you go.

Ben: I mean the fact that the Romans were able to invent a word, it’s nothing new.

Michele: Ben Popken, thanks so much it’s good to talk to you.

Ben: Thanks Michele.

Michele: Ben Popken is the editor of a consumer advocacy blog called consumerist.com

Comments

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  1. TexasScout says:

    Great interview! I think you got lot’s of people thinking about the “shrink ray”.

  2. ShadowFalls says:

    The important part I agree with is the sneaky measure, there is one thing increasing prices, there is another increasing prices by giving less.

    I wish the cereal companies would shrink the amount of cardboard they use on their box and give you a little bit more cereal in place of it. You got a 13oz box of Post’s Pebbles cereals that could easily contain more cereal than currently inside the box.

    Those materials have to get paid for too, why waste on that front and say, oh we are so hurting…

  3. RabbitDinner says:

    Nice! Now I can really rub it in-tell all my friends I read Consumerist before they heard it on NPR.

  4. NotAppealing says:

    I heard it on the way home from work! Congratulations!

  5. Not Alvis says:

    Transcript available? Listening to anything takes too long.

  6. Ben, excellent!

  7. mgy says:

    @Clold: I bet you’re a joy at parties ;)

  8. SharkD says:

    Listened while at work, great job!

  9. dohtem says:

    @ShadowFalls: Oh that pisses me the f**k off!! I grab a box of cereal (after checking the price), open the box and the inner bag and after a bowl it looks like it is half empty already.

  10. seldon452 says:

    Yep, I herd this on the radio on the way back from playing tennis. It was pretty interesting.

  11. humphrmi says:

    This is one area where I think the airlines are at least being more honest than the rest of the consumer economy. Every time the airlines add a new fee, they say “due to the increased cost of fuel…” The food industry thinks they are sneaky, but they aren’t. They are just a bunch of liars.

  12. retCalDAG says:

    The described practices could be a violation of law, depending on how the company does it. A consumer cheated by such practices might have the right to sue; I would not be surprised to see some class actions develop. [I am a recently retired California prosecutor of businesses which violate consumer laws.]

    Under California law (Business & Professions Code 17200 and 17500), which has corollaries in federal law, California civil law, and in other states’ statutes, an unfair and unlawful business practice is one that is unfair or misleading. If a company sells or markets a product in a way to hide the size or value change, even by not clearly disclosing it, it probably runs afoul of the rules.

    Prices change on commodities all the time but if a company fills a same-sized product (i.e., half gallon of ice cream) with more air, uses some kinds of changes to a cheaper recipe/ingredients, or sells the same-sized container with less of the product inside, I think it must be clearly disclosed to be a lawful practice. (Having a package that is larger than necessary for a product brings up a violation called “slack fill.”)

    It was good to read about this issue on this site and it was good to hear on NPR.

  13. pigbearpug says:

    I heard it on the way home too and was wondering when you were going to post it. Great job! For a blog editor you have impressive composure.

  14. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot says:

    @Clold: I was wondering the same thing – being deaf, listening to an interview isn’t all that easy.

  15. I got in the car to drive to teach an evening class, and NPR goes … “and with me is Ben Popken” and I was like “hey, I totally internet-know that guy!”

    Great job!

  16. Ben Popken says:

    @Clold: Watch the NPR site for the pending transcript.

  17. Not Alvis says:

    Will do!

  18. Wormfather is Wormfather says:

    Heard this on my way home, good stuff Ben. Consumerist is one step away from being MSM.

  19. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot says:

    @Ben Popken: Thanks Ben!!!

  20. Way to spread the word, Ben.

    I’d like to see some leaked minutes from the manufacturer’s “Oh shit, we have to pass our rising costs on somehow” meeting. Or an anonymous tip would be good too.

    And, when the economy improves, I bet there’ll be an outbreak of “15% more, free!” or “New! better value!” corrections. It’s other natural step in their coquettish deception.

  21. @Wormfather is Wormfather: MSM! Those sound like fighting words.

  22. humphrmi says:

    @Michael Belisle: Don’t worry, ATC is a long way from being MSM. But cool, anyway.

  23. EV1Fan says:

    Just noticed it tonight on Orange Juice.

    Tropicana went from 96oz to 89.7.

  24. marsneedsrabbits says:

    Wonderful interview! You sound great. They should give you a regular gig, or you should consider podcasting.

    I don’t know what the solution to the “shrink ray” is. For me it is a price book, because I know how big thinsg were and what they cost the last time I bought them, but that may not be worth the effort for everyone.

  25. drjayphd says:

    Alas, it’ll probably be unable to top their segment on lucha libre movies a couple of years back that I listened to today. But tell me you wouldn’t watch El Santo vs. the Grocery Shrink Ray. I’m already buying a dozen.

  26. While he was there, he should have discussed the air-time-without-sponsorship-announcements shrink ray…

  27. TechnoDestructo says:

    Has an image of Myron Reducto been used in a Grocery Shrink Ray story yet?

  28. Randy says:

    I’m hearing impaired, and I would love a transcript, since I cannot understand anything in the podcasts (I hate podcasts anyhow). Unfortunately, NPR is extremely slow at posting transcripts. Is there any chance the Consumerist could possibly do one?

  29. Randy says:

    Okay, scratch the above, I finally found the transcript – and if you want it, it’ll cost you $3.95. Pass.

  30. Randy says:

    Err… (we really need an edit function >.< ) to clarify… to purchase the transcript from NPR costs the $3.95, is what I meant. Sorry about the confusion and multiple posts.

  31. I know this is a topic everyone loves at Consumerist, but can someone explain why this is of so much interest? Is it because it’s similar to a price increase, but with the manufacturers hoping that customers won’t notice? The amount and volume are still visible right, so it isn’t like they are lying about it…this will probably make some people here upset but I’m just not seeing the big deal personally.

  32. SkokieGuy says:

    I posted this thought in other shrink-ray threads.

    If a manufacturer has legitimate costs increase (energy, transportation, raw materials, employee healthcare), then the choices are shrinking the package or increasing the price.

    NEITHER is obvious or promoted by the manufacturer and to expect them to ‘announce’ either LOOK LESS PRODUCT – SAME PRICE, or LOOK – NEW HIGHER PRICING! is laughable.

    Isn’t the smaller product option the greener choice?

    Logically, if transporting detergent to a store costs $XXX per 8lb jug, then by selling a smaller more concentrated formula (shipping less water) and also shrinking package size (so more jugs fit into a truck) then the transportation costs associated with selling us that bottle of detergent go down.

    Greener, more economical shipping. I cannot see why most on this site find shrinking product bad and increased prices good.

    To me the only true consumer issue is when companies use the economy and fuel prices as an excuse to gouge customers in excess of real and unavoidable costs. In other words, is the shrink ray must be used to maintain the same profit margin, I will grudgingly swallow it. BUT if a company uses shrink rays to increase profits and use rising costs as an excuse, these companies need to be exposed and publicly flogged.

  33. savvy999 says:

    @SkokieGuy: The point is lack of disclosure. People *think* they’re getting the same, when they’re not. Whether the companies want to increase price or shrink product is entirely up to them, but the at least owe consumers the knowledge of what they are doing either way.

  34. RandomHookup says:

    @SkokieGuy: I’m really less concerned why a company raises their prices — hell, maybe they just want to make more profit. In the free market, after all, other firms should compete against the changes.

    I’m more concerned about the subtle deception that the companies use to sell it. Same container, only a very small mention of the size change — often with accompanying mistakes by the retailers in their unit pricing labels and the sale of the old containers at the same price alongside.

  35. @savvy999: But the knowledge is there…the package says X oz. And even though consumers have come to expect certain sizes for certain products as standard in the US (a gallon of milk etc.), it isn’t set in stone. What’s the solution here, to force companies to advertise changes like this? Consumers would still get to choose whether to buy the 30 oz (formerly 32 oz) product or not. I guess I just think there are juicier and more relevant issues to be reported and discussed.

  36. SkokieGuy says:

    @savvy999:
    @RandomHookup:

    What disclosure do each of you feel is appropriate when package sizes change? Television ads? Full page newspaper ads?

    When prices are raised, there’s no disclosure or announcement. You have to look at the shelf tag. The same shelf tag that lists the price per unit.

    Neither of you addressed the point that shrinking package sizes is a more green way of accomodating rising costs and reduces the transportation cost associated with the product.

  37. Good Job Ben … heard part of the interview on my way home last night, and was totally psyched to hear about it. I’ve actually emailed NPR a couple of you links though ironically I don’t think it was any about the GSR.

    I just went and listedn to the parts I missed. Nice work!

    :)

  38. @ Skokieguy

    Actually I’m not sure I agree with this part of your statement:

    “Neither of you addressed the point that shrinking package sizes is a more green way of accomodating rising costs and reduces the transportation cost associated with the product.”

    It seems to me that 10 10oz packages probably take close to the same cubic space, and weight the same as 20 5oz packages of cereal. Also they probably take the same amount of packaging materials as well. And they all still weight the same.

    So they aren’t saving money on costs … just charging the same $ for a smaller version of the same product.

    So using my example 10 10oz packages at 10$ = $100

    20 5oz packages at 10$ = $200

    *Note I know this is not a realistic example … but I used it due to the simplicity … it’s too early to be complicated

  39. SkokieGuy says:

    @TakingItSeriously: First, great nickname!

    Let’s continue with your example: (10) 10oz packages might take the same space as (20) 5oz packages and the weight is the same.

    So if it costs $5.00 to transport that amount of weight and space, then the transportation cost of each 10oz package is $0.50. The transportation cost is $0.25 for each 5oz package.

  40. zarex42 says:

    @SkokieGuy:

    I agree, mostly.

    I don’t fault Ben for pointing this out, but he is quite misleading in many circumstances.

    Intelligent people purchase food by the *orange* printed prices, which is normalized per weight, instead of the regular unit price (white). This does NOT take a “savant”, Ben. It’s pretty easy, and doing this trumps any other inspection technique you’ve cited. This normalized price is in every supermarket I’ve been to, and on every single item.

    Why on earth wasn’t this mentioned in the interview?

    No one is being “tricked”, except perhaps for those who think that they need to be a “savant”.

    The grocery companies have a simple choice; either raise prices, or reduce the product size. This is pure reality, and is NOT their fault. The costs of production have gone up, and the value of the dollar has gone down. This is the simple reality, and shouldn’t be brushed away as some dishonest conspiracy.

  41. @SkokieGuy

    Thanks … I couldn’t believe it was available XD.

    Okay sorry I guess I wasn’t clear with part of my point, and it may be somewhat subjective.

    So my point in summary:

    IMO smaller packaging does not mean less product is consumed. It means that more individual packages are purchased to get the same amount of product.

    == Now my reasonlng

    My point was that IMHO the manufacturer is unlikely to ship less product to stores because they reduced the packaging sizes. They ship the same amounts of product just in the smaller packages.

    It all comes back to the consumer. If consumers used to use 1 10oz package of cereal per week … with the smaller package one of 2 things will most likely happen.

    A: The consumer will now likely use 2 boxes per week, and buy more. Therefore the store will run out faster, and order more per shipment.

    B: The consumer will cut back on usage of that product, and change to an alternate product that either had larger packaging or is cheaper.

    What I think will happen is the same gross amounts are probably going to be consumed, but the company will make more money off what is sold. There may be a slight reduction in the amount of waste produced (a good thing), but IMHO it would/will be negligible.

    *Note: This also disregards companies that change their packaging to be more eco-friendly such as from a box with a sealed bag inside to JUST a sealed bag with maybe a sticker/label (e.g. Malt-O-Meal brands).

  42. @SkokieGuy: I’m not sure your “greener” argument is sound. I think you were assuming that the smaller size contained the same amount of usable product (e.g. wash loads) but was just of higher density. I don’t think that is the case with the items we’ve seen mentioned here (orange juice, pet food, even detergent, which has been sold in concentrated form for years). Suppose over the course of a year, I use, 1000oz of laundry detergent. The cost of delivering this 1000oz to my local store does not change as packaging size decreases from 110oz to 100oz (if anything, it goes up a little bit because of a higher packaging/fluid weight ration). Also, in order to use this 1000oz, I now have to buy, say, 10x100oz bottles instead of the 9x110oz bottles I would before the shrink ray hit. That’s an extra bottle which consumed energy and oil to produce and which must be recycled. So this shrinkage isn’t just sneaky, it’s bad for the environment.

  43. SkokieGuy says:

    @TakingItSeriously: @AtomicPlayboy:

    Yup, I’ll have to agree your points are valid. If a consumer’s long-term usage is unchanged, then smaller packages would result in a net increase in total packages purchased, meaning MORE packaging per annual consumption, certainly not green, and the lower transportation cost per package is no true savings is more packages are purchased.

    So maybe the shrink ray benefit is limited to products where the smaller size is tied to a more concentrated product and the net annual usage is unchanged, but achieved with less product (such as further reducing the water content of things like detergent, dish soap, shampoo, etc.)

  44. Dervish says:

    @zarex42: I was confused about this, too. Are there some grocery chains that don’t put unit price on their shelf labels? Because that’s how I shop.

    I guess I just don’t really see that shrinking a product is much worse/more sneaky than changing a price. I know there are probably people out there who keep consistent price lists and might notice that the price of cereal has been increased by fifty cents, but I’m willing to bet that such a minor change would be as unnoticed by the majority of shoppers as going from 20 oz to, say, 18 oz.

    I know I’m opening myself up to lots of criticism here, but in the interest of full disclosure, I DO work in the food industry (although I’m not in sales/marketing, and I work in foodservice, which handles pricing differently than retail). Food manufacturers have been absorbing costs for a long time without passing them on to the customers, but we’ve reached a tipping point with the increase in the price of gas, commodities, and…well, everything. This is by no means a “woe is us” statement – those are the risks of the business we’re in, and we have to suck it up and deal with it – but it’s an explanation behind why all this is happening. It would be a stupid business model to do this purely in an effort to increase profits, especially in such a difficult economic period.

  45. RandomHookup says:

    @SkokieGuy: How about obviously different packaging? How about putting it in a package that is obviously smaller? How about putting in a different location from the ones it is replacing?

    Or, how about, just raising the price? Half gallons of ice cream aren’t half gallons anymore. I’m pretty sure that change wasn’t due to consumer demand.

  46. Good job, Ben!

    You should have explained to her HOW MUCH more people are paying with the size reductions. For example, with ice cream, at regular price Breyers is now about $8 per half gallon. But, I can buy Blue Bell for just over $6 per half gallon at regular price. That’s a huge difference.

    The size reductions are extremely sneaky because they usually amount to far greater price increases than people are aware of.

  47. Zephyr7 says:

    It’s amazing how much coverage you can get out of a simple topic with a cutesy name…

  48. Dervish says:

    @RandomHookup: I’d prefer that companies use different packaging to call out the change, but it won’t make people any more accepting of the shrinkage. Remember when General Mills came out with its condescendingly-spun “right size, right price” shrinkage on its cereals? It was a hogh-profile marketing announcement and everyone in the Consumerist comments section still lambasted them for it. I can’t recall anyone praising them for actually being honest about it – people still just thought they were being screwed for extra profit.

  49. RedSonSuperDave says:

    @Dervish: Are there some grocery chains that don’t put unit price on their shelf labels? Because that’s how I shop.

    Well, both my local Wal-Mart and Winn-Dixie normally put the unit price on their shelf labels. However, when the object is “on sale”, they use a yellow tag which only shows the sale price, and not the units per dollar you get at the sale price. This tag is sometimes placed over or instead of the original tag.

  50. Manok says:

    I love NPR. They have the best interviews.

  51. trujunglist says:

    @SkokieGuy:

    “Kraft Cheese Slices, same great taste, $.75 more expensive!”

    Yeah… I don’t see that happening either. People just need to be aware of what they’re buying. If they’re so brand loyal that they can’t switch, that’s the breaks.

  52. Randy says:

    Thank you so much for including the transcript, Ben. That was extremely kind of you. :)

  53. SinA says:

    by increasing the cost per ounce/liter/whatever… but by not raising the actual price at the register… it’s like ‘reverse inflation’ if that makes any sense

  54. Great job Ben, and thanks for the transcript. I’ve been talking to my deaf friend about the shrink ray, but naturally telling him to listen to NPR is a bit of a moot point.

  55. Marks2183 says:

    I don’t think anybody has mentioned this but the first thing that I noticed about the shrink ray is that it causes you to SCREW UP RECIPES! A recipe calls for one pound of magic wachamacallit and while yer bummin on the taste you notice the empty can of crap you added wasn’t a pound-o-poo, it was 12 ounces! RRRRRRRRR! Bastards!