Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Food Packaging: It’s a trick worthy of a magician

Make a supermarket product look the same but actually contain less. That’s the kind of move that many companies are using to shrink popular grocery items like mayonnaise, ice cream, peanut butter and toilet paper, while keeping the price and packaging the same. The result: Consumers are getting less for their money. Approximately one-third of items at the grocery store have lost content since 2007, according to the Nielsen Co., which tracks market trends. Meanwhile, consumers last year saw food prices rise some 7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Companies argue that, like consumers, they’re also trying to stretch a dollar; their manufacturing costs have gone up, explains food marketing expert Phil Lempert, editor of http://www.SupermarketGuru.com Factors like hurricanes, record cold weather and the rising cost of energy have driven up the cost of producing packaged goods. "When you're a food manufacturer, you either raise your prices even further or you take a look at putting less in the package and keep the price the same," Lempert says. Still, he agrees that "some packages are blatant rip-offs." For instance, he notes that coffee packages that may appear to be the same size "can have anything from 7.5 to 16 oz. of coffee, depending on the brand, and that's just not fair."

Content downsizing cuts across the grocery spectrum, influencing private labels and even organic products. "You especially see this with products like chips-organic or otherwise-especially when they're packed in airtight bags," says financial writer Jill Westfall, a contributor to Money magazine. Part of the problem, says longtime consumer advocate Edgar Dworsky, is that most consumers "aren't net weight-conscious, they're price-conscious, and the manufacturers know that. That's how manufacturers take advantage of customers. They do these tricks." Dworsky, a lawyer who's worked in the field of consumer protection for 31 years, monitors consumer news on his website http://www.ConsumerWorld.org and recently started a blog, http://www.Mouseprint.org that is focused on the fine print of advertising. "Manufacturers know that customers know the size [of a product] in the relative sense-when you pick up a large tub of margarine, which used to be 3 pounds but is now 45 oz.," you can't really feel the missing three ounces, he says. Some examples of downsizing are:

* Dial Corp. shaved its soap bars from 4.5 oz. to 4 oz.;
* The biggest jar of Hellmann's mayonnaise dropped from 32 oz. to 30 oz.
* A tub of Breyer's ice cream shrank from 56 oz. to 48.
* Skippy peanut butter now has an indentation at the bottom of its jars, causing the contents to drop from 18 oz. to 16.3 oz, even though the jar looks the same.
* Scott's toilet tissue kept number of sheets (1,000) but reduced the length of the sheets from 4 inches to 3.7 inches, making the roll 300 inches shorter.
* Kleenex tissues shrunk in width by two-tenths of an inch, which adds up to more than 300 square inches less per box.
* StarKist's Chunk Light tuna went from 6 oz. to 5.
* Froot Loops went from 19.7 oz to 17 oz.
* Apple Jacks went from 17 oz to 15 oz.
* Hershey's chocolate bar went from 8 oz to 6.8 oz.
* Country Crock spread from 3 lb to 2 lb 13 oz.
* Tropicana orange juice from 96 oz to 89 oz.
* Friskies cat food from 6 oz to 5.5 oz.
* Chips Ahoy cookies from 16 oz to 15.225 oz

Dworsky says that if shoppers spot a leading brand shortchanging them and it’s a recent development, they should check the other competing brands. Chances are, those brands haven’t changed yet and shoppers will get more for their money. He also encourages consumers to voice their feelings to manufacturers of their favorite brands. “Send a letter and let them know you’re not happy about them changing the product. Maybe at least they’ll send you some discount coupons.” He also recommends that consumers “shop by unit”—that is, check the price per unit posted on the shelf to see what they’re really paying for. Ultimately, though, once the top brands resize their packaging or contents, the other brands—even the private-label store brands—likely will change as well. And nothing seems safe. Even dog food has downsized. At the rate packages are being downsized stand by for the 11 egg cartoon.

[Source: AARP Geoff Williams article 17 Feb 09 ++]

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