The Shaking Down of America: Shrinking Packages, Higher Prices in Supermarkets (cont.)

There are plenty of ways to basically disguise the changes that confuse consumers. They include new sizes and shapes of containers, making it difficult to comparison shop, bright colors and enlarged text on smaller packaging, and more.

“In every economic downturn in the last few decades, companies have reduced the size of some products, disguising price increases and avoiding comparisons on same-size packages, before and after an increase. Each time, the marketing campaigns are coy; this time, the smaller versions are “greener” (packages good for the environment) or more “portable” (little carry bags for the takeout lifestyle) or “healthier” (fewer calories),” writes Stephanie Clifford and Catherine Rampell in the 2011 New York Times article “Food Inflation Kept Hidden in Tinier Bags.”

Sometimes the packaging doesn’t change much but the content reflects dramatic differences, particularly over the last five years. Ben & Jerry’s wildly popular “Cherry Garcia” was launched in 1987 and featured large cherry chunks in nearly every bite. It’s still a pint. But today it seems like you’re lucky to find a few cherries in it. Sure there are positive reviews, but few, if any, contain many details about the content. By contrast, the negative reviews were packed with detail about what was missing from the Vermont ice cream maker’s flavor. “There were lots and lots and lots of 'chocolate' bits... the color was an off white, whereas it used to be a pink color… I thought perhaps they took the food dye out, but, again, the ice cream did not taste like cherry flavor, nor were there many cherries,” consumer Cyndy Dennison wrote in 2013 on the company’s Facebook page.

Others followed. In 2015, consumer Jeffrey Belisle wrote, “Your Cherry Garcia ice cream sucks!!!!!! I had zero, I repeat zero cherry chunks, or chocolate chunks for the first 3/4 of the ice cream!! I emptied the carton out to search for cherries.” In 2017, another user complained “No cherry. None. Not a single bit of cherry!” was in this entire container.” The response was the company passing the information on to their “quality assurance team.”

Aside from ice cream, cereal manufacturers faced declining demand in 2015, but prices climbed from $2.89 a pound to $3.09 a pound, and up to $8 a pound for higher end cereals. “For every dollar spent on breakfast cereal in 1980, today you’d have to spend $2.93,” NBC News reported in a 2015 article, “Puffs, Flakes and Dollars: Why Your Breakfast Cereal Costs So Much.”

Bigger boxes don’t necessarily mean cheaper per ounce, in the case of cereal. Smaller, medium size boxes often cost less per ounce.

Size and packaging matters and visual appeal will always attract consumers. In the same way we’re taught to read labels for the product’s ingredients, we should look at the amount of content – whether it’s by the pound, ounce, gram, quart, gallon, or liter. Otherwise consumers pay more and come up short.