By Mando Woodruf
No, your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you at the grocery store–that box of cereal really is shrinking.
It’s a phenomenon Edgar Dworsky, the consumer watchdog behind sites like ConsumerWorld.org and Mouseprint.org, calls “Downsizing”–products that are shrinking in size and not in asking price–and has been tracking since the early 1990s.
Chatting with Business Insider by phone Tuesday, Dworsky let us in on how he’s able to spot what the unpracticed consumer eye otherwise wouldn’t.
“I look through weekly sales ads. If, all of the sudden, I see mayonnaise that’s been 32 ounces is now 30, I go, is that a typo or have they downsized?” he said. Fueled by his hunch, he heads to the store advertising the product, then drives to several others in search of the older, larger product as evidence.
“It’s very rare to find the old and the new (product) on shelves at the same time,” he explained. “That in part is why downsizing is so sneaky. Even when the package is a different size, you almost never get to see them side by side.”
Once he’s sure a product’s been downsized, Dworksy snaps his own photos and shares them on MousePrint. He’ll find as many as a dozen products each year that have shrunk, but says there are always upticks when prices on commodities like gas and raw manufacturing materials shoot up.
“In the past year or so all of the sudden it’s picked up again. Gas for was going for $4 a gallon and commodities were going up, (so) you kind of got the double whammy,” he said.
And since manufacturers would rather shrink their products than deal with consumer backlash over rising prices, they shave off a few ounces, come up with a clever new bottle design, or trim a few sheets of paper towels off the rolls. Peanut butter is a prime example, with brands like Peter Pan and Skippy downsizing from 18 oz. jars to 16.3 oz. amidst rising peanut costs, Dworksy said.
“Manufacturers feel that’s more comforting to consumers than seeing a price rise,” he added. “Of course, it’s kind of a false economy, because if you’re paying the same price and getting less, that’s a backdoor price increase and you’ll still have to go the store more often.”
The only way to really tell you’ve been duped is to check price stickers for unit price or price by weight–an extra step Dworsky knows from experience that busy shoppers aren’t likely to take (“Consumers are price conscious, they’re not net weight conscious”).
And even then, shoppers have to vote down product shrinkage with their feet–and their wallets. That means looking for other brands that haven’t changed their sizes and putting that in your cart instead.
What Dworsky does isn’t easy work, and he hasn’t typically been eager to share his photos with the media in the past. However, he was kind enough to let Business Insider publish a few examples of his findings