Package Shrink: Getting Less for Your Money

The U.S. seems to be entering a period of increased package shrink. And no, I’m not talking about something from an old Seinfeld episode.

One of the items I needed to buy on my last trip to the grocery store was sugar, so I went to get our usual brand. When I picked up one of the five-pound bags that we usually buy, I thought that I must have grabbed a bag that was open or leaking because it felt lighter than normal. After grabbing a second bag, then standing in the grocery aisle no doubt looking dumbfounded, I looked at the label and realize that the five-pound bags of sugar all were labeled “4 lbs.” Then it dawned on me ‑it was another case of package shrink. 

Package shrink is nothing new. It has been around since at least the beginnings of the consumer products era. When economic times are tough, as they currently are in the U.S., manufacturers look for ways to increase prices without irritating their customers. Package shrink introduces a twist, where instead of increasing the price of a given item, the manufacturer instead shrinks the item size by a small amount, while holding the price the same. The hope is that the average shopper will not notice the smaller size and thus not realize she or he is getting less product for the same price.

What’s different this time around is that some consumer product companies are spinning their package shrinking actions as a “green” initiative. The argument they present is that smaller packages reduce both initial production costs and packaging waste after use. Unfortunately in almost all instances of package shrink, the claims of both reduced production costs and reduced waste are what I like to call “twisted statistics.” For example, it would seem intuitive that a four-pound bag of sugar comes in a smaller bag than the older five-pound version, and as a result the four-pound package results in less waste destined for the landfill. The deception results from thinking only in terms of a single package. If your family uses 20 pounds of sugar each year, you won’t use less just because the sugar now comes in smaller bags — in fact you will end up buying more bags per year.*

Whenever I encounter a new instance of package shrink, the conspiracy buff in me can’t help but think of George Orwell’s novel 1984 and the plot element of the shrinking weekly chocolate ration.

“As short a time ago as February, the Ministry of Plenty had issued a promise (a ‘categorical pledge’ were the official words) that there would be no reduction of the chocolate ration during 1984. Actually, as Winston was aware, the chocolate ration was to be reduced from thirty grammes to twenty at the end of the present week. All that was needed was to substitute for the original promise a warning that it would probably be necessary to reduce the ration at some time in April.”

And then as soon as Orwell’s next chapter ...

“It appeared that there had even been demonstrations to thank Big Brother for raising the chocolate ration to twenty grammes a week. And only yesterday, he reflected, it had been announced that the ration was to be reduced to twenty grammes a week. Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only twenty-four hours? Yes, they swallowed it.”

So next time you’re in the store and wondering if that bag of sugar, tub of ice cream or container of laundry detergent has shrunk, don’t swallow it — check the label and see you’ve just discovered the latest case of package shrink.

*Originally you would have purchased four bags of sugar (at five pounds each) for a years supply. After the package shrinkage, you now have to purchase five bags of sugar (at four pounds each) for a years supply. Even if the individual bags are now slightly smaller, the five bags still represents more waste than four bags did. And the energy required to divide and package 20 pounds of sugar into five bags will be higher than what was required to produce four bags.

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