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Regular readers of this column will know that I’ve got a bit of a “thing” about pack shrinkage – a global phenomenon which sees grocery manufacturers going to the huge hassle and expense of repackaging their products into slightly smaller packs.
They do this in a bid to “sneak” a price increase on to their loyal customers, rather than transparently putting up the price on the old pack.
If they wanted their customers to know that the pack size had reduced, they’d draw their attention to this on their new labels – as in “new smaller pack!” – but they don’t, of course.
They just quietly introduce the smaller pack, which looks identical to the old one on the shelf, except for the small number which reveals the pack size, and unless you were familiar with the old pack size, you could easily miss the significance of it.
It’s in this “under the radar” manner that smaller chocolate bars and slabs, soap bars, tubes of toothpaste, boxes of tissues, beverage cans, chip packets, pet food pouches, peanut butter bottles, nappy packs and bags of chips have been introduced in recent years.
Oh, and bottles of tomato sauce, too.
The iconic All Gold tomato sauce – part of the Tiger Brands stable – shrank from 750ml to 700ml with no fanfare recently, a development which was not lost on consumer Mark Allan Henshaw.
He lodged a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), questioning the veracity of Tiger Brands’ website boast that the product “is crammed full of 36 tomatoes”, given that the bottle had since shrunk by 50g.
Tiger Brands responded by saying that the website reference to the 750ml bottle – and the 36 tomatoes – were errors which had since been corrected.
So, when the case came before the ASA Directorate last week, it accepted the company’s undertaking on condition that the website advertising was withdrawn and not used again in future, and as such there was no need to “consider the merits of the matter”.
The ASA Directorate did note that at the time of the ruling the tomato claim was still reflected on the website and stated that the company had two weeks in which to remove it.
At the time of writing, the offending line is still on that website: “the same passion, and the same 36 tomatoes, still gets crammed in to every bottle of All Gold”.
Of course, to reduce the number of tomatoes in that advertising claim would draw attention to the fact that consumers are getting less tomato sauce in that bottle, which is clearly not the intention.
What all the “pack shrinkage” manufacturers are hoping is that consumers simply won’t notice that they’re getting less.
When asked to justify the subtle shrinkage, they almost always trot out the line that the smaller product is “more affordable” to consumers.
What they don’t admit is that they’ve made the product more expensive per gram.
When pack shrinkage is accompanied by a price increase – a double whammy – they argue that the price hike would have been higher had the pack not been made smaller.
Disguising a price increase by giving us less is not a consumer-friendly tactic – it’s underhand.
And when consumers get wind of it, they seldom feel well disposed towards the company they’ve chosen to support.
Arguably the least subtle of the “we’ve shrunk the product” examples is that of Colgate Palmolive’s recent reduction of its 200g bar of Protex soap to 175g.
They achieved this not by remoulding the bar so as to be a slightly smaller version of the old one, but by creating a very obvious indented scoop in the 200g shape.
There are a number of other issues related to this trend.
Cape reader Sonja Hibbers was incensed to discover last year that the 397g tin of condensed milk which her fudge recipe required had shrunk to 385g.
“You cannot see a difference in tin size, but how would this impact the fudge recipe if you added 12g less of the key ingredient? she asked.
“Do I now have to buy two tins of the stuff to ensure a successful batch of fudge?”
And those tasked with monitoring grocery price inflation have their calculations made unnecessarily complicated by ever-shrinking pack sizes.
What to do?
Well, in my view consumers need to make a lot of noise – in all forms of media – every time they notice that a product has shrunk in size.
We may not be able to demand that grocery prices don’t increase, but we can demand that the increases be imposed in a transparent manner.