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Honey, they shrunk the snack chips - but not prices
Arizona Daily Star


September 22, 2008

TUCSON, Ariz. -- If you're able to tear through a bag of chips, a package of cookies or a carton of ice cream a lot faster than you used to, it's probably not just your eating habits.

You might also have noticed that you're emptying the coffee canister and the orange juice jug sooner than you did a year ago.

Those five items came in smaller package sizes -- around a serving's worth -- than they did last year, and all had a higher average price, the Arizona Daily Star found in its annual grocery survey.

Such trends come and go over time, said Chris Waldrop, director of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

This time around, packaging changes probably began six to nine months ago, Waldrop said: "What you're seeing is a result of increased commodity prices overall."

At a time when company costs are increasing, manufacturers have two choices: They can raise prices outright -- "which is the most clear way to do it, but it's the one consumers identify very quickly," Waldrop said - or they can change the amount of food consumers get per package.

"If companies are going to do this, they need to be very clear and open and transparent about it," he said.

In the current economy, most people understand that everyone is dealing with higher prices, and consumers are less likely to revolt against companies that announce it when they shrink their package sizes, Waldrop said.

"Consumers don't like to be deceived in the marketplace," he said.

The items in the survey join a long line of other products noted this year for shrunken packaging. Among them: Starkist tuna (from 6-ounce cans to 5 ounces); Best Foods mayonnaise (from 32-ounce jars to 30 ounces); Cheerios (from 14 ounces to 12.5).

On the surface, it may appear that the food manufacturers have been sneaky, said Anita Bhappu, an associate professor and division chair of the University of Arizona's retailing and consumer sciences department.

"More than likely, they're doing it to offset what has been an increase in food costs across the board," Bhappu said.

That's why it's important for consumers to be value shoppers, she said.

This means looking not only at the overall price of an item but also checking the price per unit - usually per ounce - frequently listed on the grocery store shelf, Bhappu said.

"Most shoppers today are more pocketbook-sensitive, so I would think customers are picking up on it," she said. "Being educated is the way to go, and the information is there."

On top of that, Waldrop said, it's important to shop around, make comparisons and buy store brands instead of heavily advertised brands that build the cost of advertising into their prices.

"It's a tight situation for consumers because of rising food prices," Waldrop said. "It's even more difficult when the food industry has to adjust the prices like this."


Contact reporter Shelley Shelton at sshelton(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps Howard News Service,

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