Tuesday, January 13, 2009

When less is more

In American supermarkets,
size matters more than ever

I grew up working in supermarkets – in my high school and college days, back before scanners and UPC barcodes. Every item had to be rung up on a cash register. Dollars, cents, grocery, meat, deli, drug, taxable, enter.

There was a rhythm to it all: Reach out with the left hand for the item on the conveyor belt, glance at the price, and hit the register keys with the right hand as you push it back toward the bagger guy (if you were so lucky to have a bagger guy).

Eventually, the fast cashier (me) hardly had to look at the item or the price. You could feel what it was, and had memorized the prices of hundreds of products and the weekly specials.

Daresay, I was faster than the kids using scanners these days. And I didn’t need the register to tell me how much change to hand over from the customer’s 20-dollar bill.

I offer this not to boast, but simply to lay out my credentials as an expert on supermarkets. In this household, I do most of the shopping, and I remember products, prices and sizes of all sorts. It’s a hobby, getting the most bang (or beef) for the buck.

And in the canned meats aisle of my local Giant Food supermarket the other day, I had a tunafish epiphany.

The can felt funny. It was shallow, and stated the content weight as five ounces.

That’s an ounce shy of the six that standard tuna cans have held, seemingly for decades.

Take that, you recipe books – all those dishes expecting a six-ounce dose are going to fall short. Tuna noodle casseroles are going to be heavy on the noodle. God save us!

Me? I was merely offended. Shouldn’t there by a sign posted over the tuna shelf announcing to the world that it is being shorted an ounce of fish?

The price didn’t drop. Only the tuna.

I knew it’s been going on – I saw a dramatic example in another chain store some months ago when 12-roll packs of toilet paper were being dispatched at clearance prices, and replaced by an adjacent stack of 12-packs with fewer sheets per roll.

Squeeze the customer, not the Charmin! (Actually, it was Cottonelle, and I stocked up on the cheaper, bigger rolls. In this wicked world, you can never have too much toilet paper.)

So, I thought after the tuna trick, it was time to look around my local Giant Food store and see what’s been happening lately.

Frankly, it was shocking: Ice cream, orange juice, cereal, margarine, potato chips, bottled water, cat food – all shrinking in content and, in some cases, to a less-noticeable degree in packaging.

Most deceptively offensive: Sunshine Cheez-its. The “Duoz” two-flavor box was reduced in content from 14.5 ounces to 13.7. Both packages were still on the shelf, priced at $3.99, identical in height but one of them almost imperceptibly thinner.

Likewise, the 16-ounce box of original Cheez-it crackers stood side by side with its 13.7-ounce “twin” replacement – the lesser version, though, more noticeably thinner in girth.

When did the 16-ounce can of fruit become 15?

Potato chips once 13 ounces dropped to 12, then 11 and 10.5 – a gradual shrinkage that does not seem matched by the size of the bag. (Ah, the air must be free!)

The gallon jug of bottled water has become three liters, despite American abhorrence of the metric system. (Oddly, there was a nine-tenths-ounce gain in the switch years ago from pint to half-liter bottles, but that’s a rare exception.)

The pound of soft I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter that used to cost a little more than a buck nowweighs 15 ounces. The “everyday” price on the shelf tag: $2.99.

I Can’t Believe It’s More Expensive Than Store-Brand Butter!

Watch out for mayonnaise. It’s going down! Hellmann’s and the Giant brand, both 30-ounce, sat a shelf away from the still-32-ounce Kraft’s. Bet the farm: The 30-ounce Kraft and other brands of mayo and “salad dressing” are coming soon to a store near you, and your wallet is going to take a Miracle Whipping.

Cookies are confusing, particularly Pepperidge Farm – the Milano cookies variously weighing in at 6 ounces, 7 ounces, 7.5 ounces. One could change and you’d never know it. Watch these guys like a hawk!

Friskies canned cat food? Six ounces is now 5.5. But your fat cat probably needed to go on a diet.

Every aisle seems to have its own little outrage.

Orange juice jugs – three-quart is evolving into a fancier “easy-pour” version, and seven ounces lighter. That’s part of what makes it easy, I guess. And a half-gallon laminate-paper container sits side-by-side with the 59-ounce plastic carafe.

Post Selects cereals: The 15.2-ounce banana nut crunch sits next to a 13-ounce cranberry almond crunch. And Post Honey Bunches of Oats ($3.99) weighs in at 14.5 ounces, sitting next to the exact-same-dimension box of Giant brand “HoneyCrunchin’ Oats” that holds 15 ounces and costs a dollar less. The nutritional values are nearly identical, so there’s clearly not much difference between Bunchin’ and Crunchin’ other than price and, for now, weight.

Ice cream? That half-gallon package has shrunk to 1.5 quarts, after an intermediary stop at 1.75 quarts. (The Giant brand is still 1.75, but for how long?)

It all makes you wonder how so many brands shrink together to new size standards. It seems as if the corporate folks who are barred by law from price-fixing are engaged in an activity every bit as conspiratorial: Size-fixing.

Next up? Toilet paper.

The sheet size is shrinking. Really.

And our asses aren’t getting any smaller.

Today's fortune cookie message

Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation.

Daily number: 538

Note to my readers

I'm sorry -- I've gotten lazy, and this is my first posting of the new year. I hope you've missed me, and haven't given up on The Real Muck. There's more to come. Please visit again soon.


Rosemary Armao said...

I'm glad you are back blogging. As to your conclusion here -- actually our asses might be getting smaller. Simply by eating the same as usual -- you've shown we are eating less -- so the shrinkage could transfer.

Mitch Hellman said...

My ass may be the same size; it's hard to look behind you, and my wife knows better than to give an honest opinion. However the issue with toilet paper is not the size of the ass as much as the size of the... output.

Anonymous said...

Yogurt. No more 8oz containers -- now it's in 6oz micro-mini-buckets. Same price ... a 33% increase on a per-oz basis.

I shop at the food outlet now, and the supposedly middle-class folks there are in about equal numbers with the obvious poor.

The upscale supermarket owners can go jump in a lake.

Kathleen said...

I remember you joyously picking up extra copies of the newspaper on coupon day, trying to get Maxwell House 3 oz coffee for free, and just having a great time digging up bargains. Thanks for the memory.