When the Chips are Down . . . Down . . . Down

Guest Author: Susanne Skinner

My husband is the Chief Cereal, Chip and Ice Cream Officer in our family. He oversees the purchase of these items because 1) He likes them and 2) He eats them.

Lays Potato Chips

Is the bag half full or half empty?

Over the years he has a developed a certain amount of purchasing expertise and is very particular about what he buys. Recently he commented on the blatant practice of deceptive packaging, noting the obvious and expressing his irritation with it. This is particularly noticeable in chip packaging –- same size bag, fewer chips and a whole lot of air. The chips are down, down, down.

We know we are paying more and getting less but manufacturers have become more aggressive at disguising it and very creative at explaining it. When things like this annoy my husband he looks at me and says “You should blog about this.”

Let’s start with the federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. This law is designed to prevent the public from being misled by packages containing excessive slack fill, or empty space that creates the illusion of more contents. This is most often done by under-filling or indenting bottoms. Slack fill is allowed if it keeps a product from breaking –- like those potato chips. We pay for the air in that bag.

It’s a hollow law. Despite the obvious sleight of packaging, it should be noted that the FDA hasn’t acted against a manufacturer for a slack-fill violation in over five years.

Brand Blindness

Manufacturers count on our brand loyalty and recognition when shopping because it creates detail blindness. Consumers tend to ignore labels and purchase largely on brand loyalty and package dimensions. Studies claim the majority of us don’t bother to look at the actual packaging or weight—unless you are my husband—and simply grab the familiar brand. My husband comparison shops, even reading the cost-per-pound labels under items.

Faced with a large box and a smaller box, both with the same amount of product, consumers choose the larger box believing it’s a better value. Manufacturers count on this and gradually introduce deceptive changes thinking we are less likely to notice.

When we are shopping, the packaging viewed from the aisle appears unchanged.   Examination of the packaging might reveal a thinner box, an indented bottom, or lighter weight, but sometimes the change is so subtle it’s never recognized. Manufacturers’ often change the packing at the same time they alter the size to further obscure the modifications.

Skippy peanut butter

The deceptive crater

Take Skippy peanut butter. The jar height and circumference remain unchanged, but turn it over and you’ll see a hard-to-miss crater that reduces the weight by 2 ounces. On the shelf it looks the same, but by my husband’s reckoning that reduction is equal to one double-decker Fluffernutter.

Big Offenders

Noticeable offenders include:

  • Bleach: one gallon is now three quarts
  • Coffee: one pound is now 14, 12 or even 10 ounces
  • Candy bars: 4 ounces of indulgence is now a measly 2.75
  • Oreos cookies: originally 16 ounces, reduced to 15.25 ounces,  now 14.3 ounces
  • Ice cream: the half-gallon is now 1.50 quarts

Let’s not overlook the toilet paper deception. Scott advertises 1,000 sheets rolls but reduced the sheet size from 4.5 inches to 4.1 inches. That means a four-pack has almost 42 square feet less paper. The reason? To “make it comparable to other brands.”

Which brings me to the product that jumpstarted this blog—my husband’s favorite cereal. It now comes in two choices; a smaller size or the new “family size” with a big price increase. Cereal manufacturers claim the change is a result of stores wanting to stock more brands on the shelves and for consumers, who either want a large box to feed a big family or lack storage space and want a smaller size.

Wallace Shawn, The Princess Bride, InconceivableManufacturers have all kinds of clever excuses to explain these reductions. When Bounty cut the number of paper towels on a roll from 60 to 52 Procter & Gamble said it was because the sheets are “improved and thicker.” When Kraft began putting 15% fewer saltines in a box they claimed they did it to “make them more portable and keep them fresher.” Right.

Companies claim packaging is reduced to protect the environment and meat is injected with solutions to make it tender, but the truth is, they do it to enhance their bottom line and increase profits. When profits are threatened a company has three options: raise the price, substitute lower-cost ingredients or make the product smaller. Most of them do all three.

Size Matters

The reduction in packing affects people like me who love to cook. Back in the day recipes were written with a can of this or a package of that when the amount they contained was larger. A smaller sizes means the recipe is no longer accurate. If you measure by weight, you often have to purchase more than one item and that often results in leftover ingredients. Like my husband, I am annoyed to find the five-pound bag of sugar is now four pounds and a package of chocolate chips weighs in at 10 ounces, which is less that most recipes call for.

Despite fewer economical options we can still be discerning buyers. Don’t buy for convenience or brand loyalty. Don’t support companies that practice deceptive packaging and don’t be manipulated by marketing designed to prey on your intelligence.

Our strength as consumers lies in our purchasing power. When shopping, send a message to manufactures that says you are willing to try new items, buy generic brands and above all else, refuse to pay more for less.

Be a smart shopper and an educated consumer. Vote with your wallet.