MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Now we go from rising prices at the pump to shrinking products on grocery shelves. Your eyes are not playing tricks on you. Cereal boxes, juice containers, bars of soap, jars of mayonnaise - all these products and more really are getting smaller. But here's the hitch: You're buying less, but you're not paying less.
Reducing the size of products is one way manufacturers can cope with their soaring costs. Ben Popken is the editor of a consumer advocacy blog called Consumerist.com. He's been closely monitoring this trend, and he joins us now. Mr. Popken, welcome to the program.
Mr. BEN POPKEN (Consumerist.com): Hi, thanks for having me.
NORRIS: Now, I'm just curious. Have you been skulking around grocery store aisles looking for examples of this?
Mr. POPKEN: No. Unfortunately I sit in my blogging chamber upon high and I just receive reports from the readers. They dispatch what they're finding out at the supermarket.
NORRIS: And what are they - what are you hearing from the provinces?
Mr. POPKEN: I'm hearing the sound of shrinking, basically; what we call the grocery shrink ray is in full effect across America, leaving all sorts of shrinking boxes and products in its wake.
NORRIS: Can you give me a few examples?
Mr. POPKEN: Definitely. Kellogg's, a wide variety of their cereals are down 2.4 ounces. Breyers ice cream, 56 ounces to 48 ounces. Edy's ice cream, 1.75 quarts to 1.5 quarts. Dog food, butter, Country Crock is down six percent. It's just all over the board.
NORRIS: Now, these changes sound slight. I mean, if you weren't looking out for this, would it be evident that the Country Crock tub is smaller than it used to be?
Mr. POPKEN: Probably not. Unless you are some sort of savant who's able to memorize the net weight of all of the items that you purchase in your grocery trips, you're probably not going to notice it, but right now we're at a crossover, a threshold phase, where there's still a few of the old products left on the shelf, and when you see two different sizes being sold for the same price right there in front of you, that's when you notice.
NORRIS: Now, there's all this new talk about not wanting to break these benchmark amounts for product manufacturers, a gallon of milk, for instance, or a pound of bacon, but it seems like we're seeing them cross that threshold now. I'm thinking of the half-gallon of ice cream. That was always the standard, that rectangular brick of ice cream that you used to see in the frozen food section.
Mr. POPKEN: Yeah, that's definitely no longer the case. There's a whole sort of secret underbelly in the ice cream world of, you know, who's delivering less, and how much air is in it versus, you know, cream and milk. Some brands even make it their marketing distinction, they put it right on the label. Like Brigham's ice cream and Blue Bell ice cream, they proudly state: never shrunk.
NORRIS: Do the manufacturers ever alert customers, or at least, you know, provide some information in the fine print that they're doing this? Does Wrigley, for instance, note somewhere on the label that the 17-stick plenty pack is now a 15-stick?
Mr. POPKEN: The only disclosure that they are giving people is the different net weight and the amount of servings per package. The newest victim of the grocery shrink rate that we saw today was these Kraft slices of Swiss cheese, and they're now giving 10 slices instead of 11 slices, and they're doing a different package. And in this case there is a slight disclosure, but it has a little spin on it.
There's a little green label, and it says sensible serving. So they're trying to tap into the whole obesity crisis and think that by giving you less for the same amount of money, decreasing your purchasing power, they're actually, you know, helping you out fitness-wise.
NORRIS: Now, the food manufacturers will say that they're trying to get by too. They're facing rising fuel costs, rising commodity costs. So they may be shrinking the package, but they're doing that instead of raising costs, which might be much worse.
Mr. POPKEN: Well, I don't think that they're trying to do it to do anyone any favor, except for themselves. I mean, everyone's got to get by. The economy is getting tighter, and I think everybody recognizes that.
The problem is that they're trying to, you know, sneak it across the table without people noticing. So when that works on the large swath of myopic consumers, you know, that's great, and that works out for them, but then when you have people who are actually paying attention to these things, then it's going to be a problem for both the consumer and the manufacturer because then people feel like they're being tricked. And I think more and more people, as times are getting tougher, as people are watching their pennies more, they're becoming much more sensitive to value and these manufacturers may be biting themselves in the butt.
NORRIS: Buyer beware.
Mr. POPKEN: Definitely. Caveat emptor.
NORRIS: There you go.
Mr. POPKEN: The fact that, you know, the Romans were able to invent a word, it's nothing new.
NORRIS: Ben Popken, thanks so much. Good to talk to you.
Mr. POPKEN: Thanks, Michele.
NORRIS: Ben Popken is the editor of a consumer advocacy blog called Consumerist.com.