Nfld. & Labrador

Rezori: Why your groceries are getting smaller, but still cost the same

Shrinking sizes of food packaging has been a constant over the decades, but the prices don't decrease with the size of your groceries, CBC's Azzo Rezori writes.
CBC's Azzo Rezori says food packaging shrinks in size during times of economic hardship, but costs stay the same. (CBC)

In his novel The Time Machine, British author H. G. Wells has humans evolve into two distinct races — the Morlocks, who live underground and do all the work, and the Eloi, who live above ground and do nothing.

Idleness has turned the Eloi into an all-round diminished people — diminished in size, diminished in intelligence, diminished in relevance, except to the Morlocks who humour them like free-range cattle and eat them.

H. G. Wells was on to something: the tendency for things to diminish over time.

Which brings me to what made me think of the Eloi in the first place — the spicy Italian sausages I bought at the supermarket the other day.   

Even as I took them out of the cooler they felt different, more tidily packaged, the five sausages inside more uniform. It didn't register with me until I unwrapped them at home that they were also smaller.

My first reaction was to curse. Those scoundrels! I paid the same but got less! Damned if I ever buy those bangers again, even if I will miss them. 

Second thought made me feel better. Here was a company that cared enough for me, the consumer, to make sure I don't do any long-term damage to myself by eating too much of its tasty, but not necessarily healthy, product.

On third thought, I was wondering whether this was the company's way of making me eat even more. If I was used to eating one of the larger sausages per meal, I might be tempted to eat two of the smaller ones in order to get the same gratification.

On fourth thought, I remembered that I'd heard about this phenomenon of shrinking food packages before.

Reasons aplenty

Sure enough, a recent Mail Online article calls it the food package racket. Burgers, olive oil, shortcakes, furniture polish, licorice allsorts — those were just a few of the items Mail Online investigated. Sizes were down, but the prices had stayed the same.

Companies involved claimed the changes were driven by increased costs of raw materials, transportation and labour. The maker of a popular chocolate bar even suggested reducing size was its contribution to the battle against obesity.

NBC's Today Show had a look at the issue as well, and came up with phrases like 'the great weight loss' and 'that shrinking feeling.'

The packages of Tropicana orange juice down by 7.8 per cent, Häagen-Dazs ice cream by 12.5 per cent, Ivory dish detergent by a whopping 20 per cent. 

Etc. Etc.

The New York Times, using the more technical term of 'food inflation,' says this has been going on for years — and nothing's sacred. 

Take corn, that all-American staple. According to the Times, the 16-ounce can sold in 2005 had shrunk to 11 ounces by 2011 for the same price. In the meantime, companies are bending over backwards with creative explanations. Claims include that reducing size helps make products greener, healthier, more portable.

Etc. Etc.

Two options for companies

John T. Gourville, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School, has things figured out as follows.

It all started in the 1980s when a coffee company in the United States reduced the volume of its traditional pound of product by three ounces. Consumers reacted with outrage, the food industry with imitation.

Gourville explains when costs go up, companies have two options: increase prices or reduce the size of packages. As a rule, consumers react more strongly to the former, so the preferred option is the latter.

He describes the result as a clever manipulation of natural inflation. Every time there's a downturn in the economy, food packages get smaller. Once the economy rebounds, the packages get re-designed into their original size, but now at a higher cost per unit of weight. When times get tough again, as they always do, things starts all over — a continuous inflationary cycle with its own ratchet mechanism guaranteeing we always return to the old sizes, but never to the old prices. 

Which brings us back to The Time Machine and the question, why didn't the Morlocks come up with a way (as we do with the plants and animals we eat) to make the Eloi grow bigger and fleshier instead of letting them diminish? 

Who knows what was in the mind of a writer who's no longer around to explain exactly what point he was trying to make, if any.

For us here, the point is that in the long run nothing in this universe escapes inflation. It's spicy Italian sausages and the money we buy them with today, humans and all their grandiose dreams tomorrow.