I remember laughing my head off as a kid at that movie, The Incredible Shrinking Man. A guy gets zapped by radiation and insecticide (?!) and starts to shrink, battling spiders and all the perils of the micro world. (Remember the scene with the spider?) Well, in recent years, some consumer products have begun to do their own shrinking act. But this time, you can’t blame radiation or Raid. The culprit is … (gasp!) money.
It’s a poorly-kept secret that many product manufacturing companies have been battling the twin evils of rising supply prices and better-informed consumers. And one of the latest victims is toilet paper. Yes, toilet paper: that necessity that without whose silky quilted layers humanity somehow managed to survive for thousands of years. I mean, how would we, how could we, ever go back? Why would we want to?
But I digress. In a recent post on Consumer Reports’ blog The Consumerist, a sharp-eyed employee noticed a change in Angel Soft, one of the most popular brands. Angel Soft is one of many paper product brands operated by Koch Industries and its subsidiary, Georgia-Pacific. Until recently, the 24-roll pack of Angel Soft promised “70% more sheets per roll.” But, Angel Soft recently (and quietly) slipped a newly-designed package onto store shelves. And instead of 400 square feet of luxurious septic-safe bliss, there was only 352 square feet. The difference has come in the width. The new rolls are only 4 inches wide, compared with the old 4 ½ inches.
Consumers think they are paying the same price, when they are actually paying more. Now, to be fair, the cost of everything is rising these days. As the price of fuel skyrockets, so does the cost of everything required to be shipped. Companies are faced with a dilemma: do we raise the price on the shelf, or do we provide less? In my humble opinion, it’s a little misleading, although you can bet they have run everything through the legal department.
Mind you, we are not just picking on toilet paper manufacturers. Many consumer products, from peanut butter to cereal to wine, have quietly begun to shrink the amount of product you’re getting, while maintaining the illusion that nothing has changed. Sometimes, they use packaging tactics, such as putting that little indentation in the bottom the peanut butter jar. It seems like a small difference, but to a company shipping millions of units, it matters. Sometimes, they use a legitimate excuse, such as Tropicana explaining why they reduced the volume of a can of OJ: because of cold weather damage to oranges. Interestingly, however, prices rarely seem to go back down when things get back to “normal”.
The bottom line for consumers: smart shopping may require a bit of detective work. Do the math. Many stores are now providing helpful unit-pricing, to help you compare apples to apples (or AppleJacks to AppleDapples). Take the cost per ounce, for example, and compare. Smart shoppers know that store brands can be a good alternative for most products. Don’t let gimmicks like loyalty programs persuade you that it means lower prices. In the arms race between savvy consumers and savvy marketers, you’ve got to be smart, agile and informed to win.