Less product, same price: “reduflation” masks post-pandemic inflation

Are you under the impression that there are now fewer chips or cereal in grocery store packages? He is not dreaming: the "reduflation"A common tactic of the food industry to reduce the size of its items to hide price increases, it returned with post-pandemic inflation.

Edgar Dworsky, who has been studying the phenomenon for a quarter of a century, says he has identified dozens of products that have shrunk in size in recent months, from Charmin toilet paper rolls to Cheerios cereal packets to Royal Canin cat food. The price, however, remains the same.

In September, food giant General Mills (Cheerios in particular) argued for rising raw material and labor costs to justify traditional price hikes but also so-called "package price architecture" (price pack architecture, PPA), a technical term that actually means downward adjustment of the quantity of product per pack, or "reduflation".

20 years ago, only the most discerning consumers realized and "they complained in their corner", but today, with the internet, "it’s public", Dworsky emphasizes.

On the social network Reddit, the group "Shrinkflation" (ReduflaciĆ³n) has 14,500 members, who share their discoveries, more in a playful way than in protest.

"It is more insidious because the reduction in size is less conspicuous than a price increase"Jonathan Khoo, a software designer in Oregon, told AFP. "It is the delay between the purchase and the moment when you realize that you fell into a trap that makes it worse" than a price increase.

This scam feeling "comes from the fact that most consumers are confused with the idea that quantities are standardized, regulated"And that’s not the case, with rare exceptions, such as in the case of alcohol, explains Pierre Chandon, professor of marketing at INSEAD, a European business institute. "Since we assume that the weight is fixed, we do not look at it".

"Bad buyers" 

"For me it is clearly a problem"says Jonathan Khoo, "but I also feel that, as consumers, we are not listened to (…) that there is nothing we can do".

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"I know companies do it because consumers have a price in mind for this or that item, based on years of experience."argues Brian Johnson, a 52-year-old data analyst. This other Oregon resident was surprised to find that Tillamook ice cream, a local fashion brand, had gone from 1.65 liters to 1.42 liters.

"They don’t do it lightly"says Dworsky. "They have incorporated the costs (of recalibration) and if 0.5% of consumers complain, they send them vouchers so that they continue shopping" the item in question.

There is no example of a product that consumers have rejected en masse after downsizing. Group members on Reddit almost never call for a boycott of the brand.

"Perhaps we have learned that it is the usual thing and that if they cheat us it is because we were bad buyers"suggests Pierre Chandon.

Aside from the price, Brian Johnson also regrets the "packaging waste" aggravated by the reduction of products.

The marketing professor at the University of Central Florida, Anand Krishnamoorthy, also points out that, once the inflationary period is over, "there is no incentive" for brands to return products to their original size. Therefore, the change becomes, in effect, permanent.

However, he cautions that the food industry should not be stigmatized, as he believes that examples can be found in many other sectors. Some examples are the development of apartments with very small surfaces, the models of compact cars or the conditioning of airplanes so that they can fit more passengers per square meter.

On the other side of the scale, Pierre Chandon sees in the "reduflation" a health benefit. "We know that the more there is, the more we eat"he says, but with the readjustment of the sizes "we are in the process of getting back to normal portions".

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