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Grammar

‘Shrinkflation’: The Little Trick That Doesn’t Fool Anyone

A stuffed animal of the Sesame Street character Cookie MonsterDeposit Photos

President Joe Biden mentioned a term no other president has ever had to mention before in a State of the Union address: shrinkflation.

If you ever wanted proof that companies think their customers are stupid, look no further than shrinkflation. On paper, it’s a clever little way to raise prices without actually changing prices.

It goes by other names, like package downsizing and weight-out. But they mean the same thing. It’s when a company reduces the quantity of merchandise you’re getting for the same price.

It technically is a price hike, since you’re paying more for less. But because the amount you pay for the product doesn’t change, some might not immediately notice the lesser amount inside the box.

But consumers notice. We definitely notice.

Even Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster character noticed:

He followed that tweet on X, formerly Twitter, with a clever follow-up thought: “Guess me going to have to eat double da cookies!”

During Biden’s State of the Union address, one topic he touched on was protecting consumers. He said too many corporations “raise prices to pad their profits, charging more and more for less and less.” He said his administration wants to crack down on companies that engage in price gouging and deceptive pricing.

Shrinkflation, he said, is just another example.

“You probably all saw that commercial on Snickers bars. And you get — you get charged the same amount, and you got about, I don’t know, 10 percent fewer Snickers in it,” he said.

‘Shrinkflation’ is a portmanteau

A portmanteau is a word we form when we blend two others. In the case of shrinkflation, we combine the words shrink and inflation. I’m sure most people don’t have any difficulty in figuring out that much. One of the most famous examples of a portmanteau is the word smog, which includes the words smoke and fog.

The term shrinkflation has been around since the mid 1980s, although back then, it refered more to a shrinking or stagnating economy. The current meaning related to charging the same price for less product — thereby charging more — seems to have surfaced some time around the mid-2010s.

The pandemic certainly didn’t help.

How common is the practice? If you haven’t browsed the grocery store aisles lately, you might be surprised if you look closely.

Business Insider came up with a list of products that quietly shrank in size while maintaining the same price. Their list includes everything from cereal to potato chips to garbage bags. Even fast food restaurants, it reports, have reduced the size of the portions in some of their menu items.

One of the most famous examples involves the candy bar Toblerone. The candy bar is described as a series of joined triangular prisms. But in recent years, the width of the prisms has dropped dramatically. Comparing before-and-after photos suggests that even the number of prisms dropped. The length of the bar itself, however, seems to be constant.

What can consumers do? There are only so many options

The obvious answer may seem to be a boycott. Customers seem to like to boycott products or companies at the drop of a hat these days. But if it’s a product that you use and you decided to boycott a brand that shrinks their product, you may run into a problem. If you switch from one brand to another, unless you really have paid attention to that brand, how would you know that it hasn’t been even a bigger example of shrinkflation?

It seems to be a growing problem. I’m sure multiple brands have employed the practice as an alternative to raising prices.

But how will you know which one is the lesser of multiple evils?

During the State of the Union, Biden mentioned Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey. Casey’s proposed legislation, The Shrinkflation Prevention Act, is designed to protect consumers. His website lists three things it would do:

  • Direct the Federal Trade Commission to promulgate regulations to establish shrinkflation as an unfair or deceptive act or practice, prohibiting manufacturers from engaging in shrinkflation
  • Authorize FTC to pursue civil actions against corporations who engage in shrinkflation
  • Authorize state attorneys general to bring civil actions against corporations engaging in shrinkflation

It sounds like a good idea, but I wonder how many attorneys general would actually go after big businesses for such a thing.

I can imagine some arguing that if businesses lose the shrinkflation option, they might just raise prices more overtly. But shrinkflation is raising prices. So it’s not like that isn’t already happening. When they shrink the product but charge the same, it’s more of a ripoff. At least raising the prices for the same amount would send a clearer message to their customers.

Of course, Congress has to pass it first. We’ll see what happens.

Have you stopped buying products over shrinkflation? Which product or company is the biggest offender you’ve seen?

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

2 Comments

  • Ice cream is the most obvious example to me. Years ago, it came in half-gallon cartons. Those cartons suddenly shrank to 1.75 quarts, and then, later, quietly were changed to 1.5 quarts. I do buy fewer cartons than before, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to boycott it entirely; I love it! Funny, though, that I have always had the ability to occasionally consume a whole carton, but I’m still as satisfied doing so now as I was when the cartons contained a half a quart more. So, I guess I’m eating healthier now? I’m sure that I am less-inflated than I would have been, anyway!

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