The snack has lost a finger, the soap has shrunk and the Curly Wurly is a shadow of its former self. Welcome to the incredible shrinking world of supermarket shopping, where the price stays the same but the product gets smaller.
Over the past 12 months, hundreds of things commonly found on Irish supermarket shelves and in Irish shoppers’ trolleys have been quietly made smaller by manufacturers anxious to maintain their profit margins in the face of higher prices on global commodity markets and smaller pay packets closer to home.
A reader was less than impressed when he realised his regular treat, a bar of Cadbury Dairy Milk, had been reduced from 230g to 200g while the price stayed the same.
We contacted the chocolatier and, far from being apologetic, it offered a robust defence of the shrinkage, claiming it had no option but to make its bar smaller “because of a number of economic factors including ingredient costs”. It also said the bar “still represents a very affordable treat”.
And while it may well be affordable it is more than 10 per cent less affordable than it was a year ago. While the Dairy Milk attracted our reader’s attention, it is by no means the only product that has got noticeably smaller.
Earlier this year, British consumer magazine Which? identified a range of products that had shrunk – and the list was long. It reported that one litre tubs of Carte D'Or ice cream had become 900ml tubs while Magnum ice creams were 330ml instead of 360ml. Imperial Leather soap, which used to be 125g, is now 100g, a size reduction of 20 per cent. A packet of 48 Persil washing tablets has become just 40, a decline of 16.6 per cent. A packet of 56 Pampers Baby Wipes used to be a packet of 63, an 11.1 per cent reduction. Innocent Fruit Juice used to come in one- litre cartons but now it is sold in 900ml containers, while Birds Eye has cut the number of burgers in at least one of its ranges from 16 to 12, a fall of 25 per cent.
Speaking at the time, executive director of Which? Richard Lloyd described the practice of shrinking products as "an underhand way of raising prices" and he called for "simpler pricing so people can easily compare products to see which is the cheapest, and for offers to be genuine".
'Frustrating for consumers'
The chief executive of the Consumers' Association of Ireland, Dermott Jewell, is even more forthright in his criticism of the practice.
“This is a very serious problem, as by any measure they are increasing their prices through stealth and deception. And they are doing it in a very deliberate way,” he says. He points to Pond’s Cold Cream, which reduced the size of the jar but kept the box the same size, adding a false bottom to ensure the smaller jar did not rattle around in it.
He says it is “very frustrating for consumers, who have to be constantly on their guard against deception”, and he believes that in the absence of legislation to force manufacturers to be more upfront about their sizing, a voluntary transparency code should be introduced that would encourage them to give shoppers more detailed information about changes to products.
Which? also asked producers about the shrinkage, and most claimed that it was better to make products smaller than more expensive. Readers of the magazine disagreed, however: in a poll, 58 per cent said they would prefer prices to rise rather than sizes to shrink, while 37 per cent said they would prefer packets to shrink as long as they were told about it. Just 3 per cent said it was all right for pack sizes to get smaller even if they were not told about it.
Such changes on our supermarket shelves could not come at a worse time for consumers, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet.
The latest figures from retail research company Kantar show shoppers with children are coming under particular pressure this year, and while grocery prices are climbing and products are getting smaller, this cohort of shoppers is spending less. Its most recent study published last week put grocery inflation at 4.65 per cent for the 12 weeks up to July 7th, down from 4.82 per in the previous 12-week period, and while prices are increasing at their slowest level this year, that rate of increase is still substantially higher than the general rate of inflation, which stood at just 0.7 per cent in June.
Kantar factors in shrinkage, and its figure is based on more than 30,000 identical products compared year-on-year in the proportions purchased by Irish shoppers.
David Berry of the organisation accepts that product shrinkage can be difficult for consumers to track, but he says shoppers are more clued in than they have ever been.
“People are way more careful about how and where they spend their money now,” he says. He argues that, in spite of widespread product shrinkage, Irish consumers are still in a better place than at any time in recent history.
"At the moment consumers are getting better value than ever, because there are more places to shop and the own-label options are much stronger than they have ever been," says Berry, pointing to the growth of Aldi and Lidl, which will have a combined share of more than 15 per cent of the Irish market by the end of the year.
Jewell is not, however, convinced that all is quite so rosy in the shopper’s garden.
“Irish consumers have changed and they are not as passive as they used to be,” he says. “They are incensed by this constant and deceptive shrinking of products and it needs to be highlighted again and again. We have serious price inflation in the grocery sector but we can’t see it because the retailers and the manufacturers don’t want us to see it.”