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The lowdown on downsized products The troubled economy is speeding the trend toward deceptive packaging
Illustration of someone carrying a tiny bag of groceries
Illustration by Arthur Giron
Whether it's ice cream, juice, or paper towels, many manufacturers are giving you less of what you want, and our new survey shows that you're taking notice. Downsizing—charging the same price for a lighter package—isn't new: In 1959 a Consumer Reports reader survey found that deceptive packaging was highest on a list of topics that should be more fully covered. But the troubled economy is speeding the shrinkage.

"Manufacturers must stay up late at night creating clever ways to disguise the fact that their products have been downsized," says Edgar Dworsky, editor of MousePrint.org, a blog that examines the fine print of advertising.

Let us count the ways: There are indented container bottoms, smaller or fewer sheets of paper goods, thinner garbage bags, and frothier products (add air, charge the same). Sometimes the new package is smaller (score one for full disclosure); other times it's the same size or is actually bigger than the old package.

Two Hershey's Special Dark candy bars
WEIGHT LOSS  These cost the same, but the newer "giant" bar is 1.2 ounces lighter.
Certainly "input inflation," industry-speak for the rising cost of ingredients, plus transportation and energy costs contribute to the downsized products. Over the last year, the price of soybeans has risen 80 percent; wheat, 65 percent; corn, 51 percent; eggs, 40 percent; and gasoline, 32 percent. Most of the companies we contacted said they've shrunk packages to avoid a price hike. It's a smart albeit stealthy strategy, Harvard Business School marketing professor John T. Gourville says, because consumers are less likely to notice a reduction in package size than a boost in price.

But buyers are wising up. In a nationwide survey in July of 1,743 shoppers by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, 75 percent said they noticed packages are shrinking, and 71 percent said the main reason for downsizing was to hide price hikes from consumers. Yet half said they'd prefer that manufacturers keep the old package and raise the price.

For what it's worth, some manufacturers gave us other reasons for lighter weights. Laurie Guzzinati, a spokeswoman for Kraft Foods, said the company downsized its 16-ounce bag of Chips Ahoy cookies to offset the cost of a new package that keeps cookies fresher longer. A Tropicana customer-service representative said the company drained 7 ounces of orange juice from its 96-ounce container to create a bottle that "poured easier with less spillage and less gurgling." A customer-service rep attributed a half-ounce reduction in Iams canned cat food to a partnership with a firm whose machinery wouldn't make 6-ounce cans.


THEN AND NOW...
Some packages that shrank in the past year or so.
Product Size (oz.) % smaller
  Old New  
Hershey's Special Dark chocolate bar 8 6.8 15
Breyer's ice cream 56 48 14
Kellogg's Froot Loops cereal 19.7 17 14
Dial bar soap 4.5 4 11
Skippy creamy peanut butter 18 16.3 9
Iams cat food 6 5.5 8
Tropicana orange juice 96 89 7
Hellman's mayonnaise 32 30 6
Nabisco Chips Ahoy cookies 16 15.25 5


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