Beware the Effects of the Grocery Shrink Ray

Strange Things Are Happening to the Products You Buy

Man looking at jar of olives in grocery store
anyaberkut/iStock

It’s not a conspiracy theory. It’s not a term that is all talk, and no substance. The grocery shrink ray is real. And although you may not notice its effects, or even realize it is operating in your areas, it is having a major impact on your wallet.

The consumer watchdog site “The Consumerist” has been talking about this since 2008, and with good reason. It’s a sneaky method used by manufacturers around the world to rob you of the value of a product without you even realizing it.

So…What Is the Grocery Shrink Ray?

Well, it’s not a real space-age device that zaps your groceries. It’s simply a term coined to describe the way a product is changed to provide less value to the consumer, without actually warning the consumer that a change has even taken place. There are countless examples of this, but here are some classic examples of the “Grocery Shrink Ray” at work.

  1. Same Packaging, Less Product
    This is the most obvious use of the grocery shrink ray, and it’s everywhere. You will pick up your regular box of crackers, trash bags, or toothpaste, and from what you can see, nothing has changed. The price is the same, the packaging looks the same. However, the difference is in the amount of product you get. Suddenly, you’re getting a 10oz of something instead of 12oz. Or 36 instead of 40. If you were oblivious to the size or weight of the product before, you won’t know the difference. But, you’ll be buying more of that product throughout the year, because you’re getting less than you used to.
  1. New Packaging, Less Product
    Many consumers would think this one is less sneaky, but in some ways it can be even more deceptive. It all depends on the phrasing the packaging uses (or, doesn’t use). Instead of simply sneaking less product into a current package, this technique involves a complete redesign, often using language like “new and improved” or “new package, same great taste.”

    However, it’s all done to hide the shrinking of the amount of product being supplied. A recent example of this comes from Soda Stream. The original bottles held 14.9oz and provided 50 servings. The new and improved syrup was launched in 2015, and at first glance it looks like you get the same amount – 14.9oz. But, the product was diluted. Now, that same amount of liquid gives only 29 servings, but for the same price. It had Soda Stream consumers livid about the massive reduction in value.
  1. Misinformation
    It’s rare to find examples of blatant misinformation, but if you look hard enough, they’re out there; and it has been happening for decades. Take the example of the mysterious shrinking TV sizes, as reported by the New York Times way back in 2008. You would think a 32” TV would measure 32” diagonally, right? But, trim just half an inch off that dimension and you save millions of dollars over the production of mass-produced TV sets. That’s why the fine print read “31.5 inches when measured diagonally.” Well, hang on; that’s the largest dimension anyway, so what does the 32” refer to?

    Another recent example is the Subway foot-long sandwich. We all took for granted that the foot-long was, well, a foot long. Until one curious consumer measured it, and found out it was only 11 inches long. There was even a lawsuit brought against the company.

How Can You Spot the Effects of the Grocery Shrink Ray?

Honestly, it’s not easy these days. Manufacturers are going out of their way to increase profits and shareholder value, and the easiest way to do that is to get the consumer paying the same price for less product. But if you keep your eyes open, and take notice of the products you buy on a regular basis, you should be able to spy these unfair changes.

Here are five tips:

  1. Check sites like The Consumerist for their grocery shrink ray updates.
  2. Be wary of new packaging. Look at the serving size, the weight, the contents, and compare it to the ones you have at home.
  3. Use your senses. Does the product feel lighter than it used to? Or smaller in your hand? If something is just a little off, it’s probably been hit by the shrink ray.
  4. Use the Internet. If you have suspicions, Google the problem. If you see results pointing to a change in serving size, you have your answer.
  5. Ask the manufacturer directly. Every product out there has some kind of customer service contact number or email. If you think something is fishy, ask them directly. They cannot lie about it.