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Good Buys: Products hit by ‘shrink ray’

Irish Independent
Belinda Higgins, August 21, 2008

The size of some leading grocery products has secretly shrunk in recent months. Some manufacturers have adopted this new practice in order to claw back rocketing inflationary costs.

Products that have been reduced in size include a Cadbury’s chocolate bar, Kraft Foods’ Dairy Lea triangles and NestlĂ©’s Rolo — but the price of the products sold in supermarkets has remained the same.

Consumer champions are concerned that people are being tricked into paying more for products at a time when household budgets are already under pressure from increased fuel, petrol and food prices, in addition to falling property prices.

In America, this phenomenon is known as the ‘Grocery Shrink Ray’ — and now it seems to be infiltrating European supermarkets. Firms are reducing the size of products, rather than scaring off shoppers with higher prices.

“It’s really just a price increase, but in a totally different guise,” says Dermott Jewell, CEO of the Consumers’ Association of Ireland (CAI).

“It’s a very frustrating and annoying practice from a consumer point of view. It’s not a good practice and it’s not acceptable. It’s the secrecy behind the moves that is ethically wrong. Consumers are entitled to be told clearly and in advance if a product is to be reduced in quantity.”

“If this is the way that some manufactures and producers are going to act, then I really would question both their ethos and ethics.”

Some of the world’s largest food and drink manufacturers said that the smaller pack sizes are a response to soaring prices in supply chains, such as rising dairy, oil and energy costs. “We seek to keep our confectionery affordable in order to offer our consumers value for money, and therefore we have slightly reduced the size on some of the larger sharing packs, rather than directly raising prices,” said a spokesperson for Cadbury’s.

The size of a Cadbury’s Family Share chocolate bar has been reduced from 250g to 230g, but the price has stayed static. Meanwhile, Nestle’s Rolo has reduced from 11 chocolates to 10 per tube. Kraft’s Dairylea boxes will still have eight triangles, but each cheese portion has been reduced from 22.5g to 20g — or a reduction from 180g to 160g per box.

Retailers argue that rising costs would mean hefty price increases on the current size of products and that no price increase on a smaller pack offers better consumer value. Downsizing products is a convenient way to help maintain profits.

Grocers say that they are merely passing on the prices that manufacturers charge them for reduced pack sizes, and if they cut prices on the shop floor, then it would hurt their margins.

On the one hand, it could be argued that smaller portion sizes — particularly in the snack food sector — are a positive move from a health point of view and at a time when obesity levels have reached worrying figures.

However, it’s the secret tactics behind this growing trend that are causing concern. Many products are being downsized under the guise of fancy new (smaller) packaging, for example.

Consumers should be aware of this new trend and make sure to always compare prices per unit cost when grocery shopping. Remember, you can always vote with your wallet and switch brands.

“The NCA [National Consumer Agency] does not like this marketing approach and would be concerned that it is effectively a price increase which is not transparent to the consumer,” says a spokesperson for the National Consumer Agency (NCA). “The NCA will be closely monitoring this in its upcoming grocery survey.”

The CAI also plans to contact leading producers and manufacturers and ask them to reveal which, if any, of their products have been recently reduced in size.”It’s definitely a phenomenon that we’re planning to keep a close eye on,” says Dermott Jewell.

“Obviously it’s a sharp practice by suppliers, aided and abetted by retailers to squeeze more money from already hard pressed consumers,” says Diarmuid MacShane, editor of valueireland.com.

“However, there’s nothing that can be done by anyone about such activities — except by consumers themselves.

“Consumers should be aware of the specifics of what they buy on a regular basis. And then, should they notice that a particular brand, or a particular supermarket, is involved in the ‘shrink ray’ activity, then they should avoid giving them their custom, and go shopping elsewhere — and somewhere along the way letting others know what’s going on.”

> The Irish head offices of the following companies were contacted about this issue, but declined to respond: Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Nestle and Kraft Foods.

> Visit valueireland.com

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