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Shrinkflation – not a very nice experience

None of us like to be duped. And yet, we are being duped all the time, often not realising it. Last year Procter & Gamble reduced the number of sheets in a roll of toilet paper from 264 to 244. That might not sound much but if you are buying the large package with 18 rolls, it amounts to a roll and a half that you are not getting. But who notices this 7.5% cut which is effectively a 7.5% price increase? It is called shrinkflation and it has been going on for years. In 2010 Kraft reduced the size of its 200 gram Toblerone bar to 170 grams. Tetleys teabags were sold in boxes of 88 instead of 100. Unilever reduced the size of Ben & Jerry's ice cream tubs from 500 mL to 465 mL while retaining the same price.

It's happening all over. In Europe Reckitt is selling its Finish dishwasher detergent in batches of 46 tablets, down from 50. Packets of tissues now contain eight instead of 10. Family sized cereal boxes are being shrunk from 19.3 ounces to 18.1 ounces. And everywhere this happens, the price is kept the same.

We know why this is happening. For many of these familiar items the production costs have increased 30 to 40%. It is just that it seems a dishonest way of operating. It is like putting more palm oil in the butter and less fluoride in the toothpaste or substituting glucose syrup for sugar in the confectionery.

Everyone is at it. Hotels are cutting back on the breakfast and reducing the frequency of housekeeping. It is especially hard to spot shrinkflation in business to business markets. You can’t always tell if a company has reduced its quality control, used cheaper packaging to protect its products, cut the number of people on its service desk or altered its warranty to cover a small time period. Manufacturing companies have an obligation to ensure that their products meet the needs of customers without wasted materials and cost. It is the purpose of value engineering to ensure this is the case. As in all things, it can go too far. If corners are cut and the engineering overrun is reduced to a hair’s breadth, there may be no margin of comfort or safety.

The trouble is that these things can be hard to spot. It's difficult to hold in our minds what the sizes were of previous packs when the new ones look almost the same. We haven't got a note of the ingredients of products so we can't make a direct comparison when we look at the label. We may well notice a change in the taste of food or the delivery of service but it is hard to detect that a toilet roll has thinner sheets. Passengers in a Boeing 737 Max weren't to know that the company had introduced some self levelling software in the aircraft without telling pilots because this would have been costly in pilot simulator training. As we now know, this act of shrinklflation cost the lives of 346 people in two crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.

Shrinkflation is taking place all the time and its affect can be simple annoyance that we are being duped through to real concern that quality issues are at stake. It is our responsibility to keep our eyes open and speak out against it. Customer reactions are still one of the most powerful weapons in our armoury.


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