For Ellen Jansen, 77, a 14-ounce package of kielbasa was the final straw.
"Enraged, that's how I feel! Kielbasa used to be a one-pound package for that price," said Ellen, who is my mother and a discerning consumer. "Do manufacturers think we're stupid?"
The size and volume of grocery products are shrinking with equal or increased prices. My grocery bill is at least 60 percent more than four years ago — for fewer groceries.
These changes did not escape my son as he eyed his meal. "Only one chicken nugget for dinner?" he asked. The stuffed chicken breast serving size was only four ounces, including broccoli and cheese stuffing.
In my grocery store coffee comes in 14, 11, and 10.3 ounce cans; crackers in 9-ounce boxes; pasta in pound boxes, but 12-ounce boxes are creeping in to replace them; our favorite cookies once came in 11.5-ounce packages but now it's 11.2; tuna in 5-ounce cans; beans in 15.5 or 15-ounce cans; cereal in a variety of sizes; and my favorite mayonnaise in 30-ounce jars, not 32. Even sugar has lost weight, coming in 4-pound packages.
Do companies believe they are pulling the wool over consumers' eyes? In February 2011, Consumer Reports magazine reported in "a survey several years ago, three-quarters of Americans said they noticed that packages were shrinking." And, "71 percent of those people theorized that the main reason was to hide a price hike." Consumers are aware and concerned — size matters.
Smaller packages are designed to appear larger. Ice cream tubs look similar in height and width, but are shallow in depth. Bottom indentations in containers of peanut butter, jelly, mayonnaise and juices decrease the volume while barely affecting appearances. The indentation in the underside of a tub of dried berries displaces a third of a cup, and in a tub of holiday candy more than a third of a cup. Some packages have reduced weight, but due to empty space remain similar in size.
"Is it my imagination, or does shipping and handling settle a box of crackers more than it used to?" asked writer Robert Brault. Consumers, who want to make economical choices, have few options. National and store brands reduce size around the same time.
For the top 50 food packagers, revenues in 2012 were strong. Nestle revenues reached $56.60 billion, Pepsico's were $33.40 billion and Tyson reached $33.30 billion. Coming in 50th is Sanderson Farms Inc. with $2.4 billion, according to Food & Beverage Packaging magazine. And with an average profit of 23 percent for ice cream producers, 13.3 percent for cereal makers and 9.4 percent for cookie, cracker and pasta production, manufacturers are having positive results from their downsizing their packages, according to Jeffrey Cohen writing in IBIS World Inc.
It is unlikely Ellen will see 1-pound packages of kielbasa ever again.
It may be good for consumers to get angry. And then get wise. It's made Ellen sharpen her approach to shopping. She studies sales fliers, clips coupons and uses a calculator in the store to better compare prices by weight and volume rather than clever packaging.
Shoppers can also send a message to manufacturers by being willing to try new items. Maybe you're not concerned about prices, but still be aware. Realize that you are buying convenience, for brand loyalty or to make shopping easier.
Don't support companies that continually shrink their items: When ice cream tubs shrunk to 56-ounces and then to 48 ounces, I bought those that remained larger. I will no longer buy certain brands.
While marketers understand that making purchases affects us emotionally, they challenge a positive response by providing less economical options. Consumers don't want to feel manipulated. And yet, "new and improved" and "100-calorie bags" seem to justify smaller packages. Canadian writer and humorist Stephen Butler Leacock said, "Advertising may be described as the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it."
Our strength as consumers is in our purchasing power. Be a wise and discerning consumer.