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ATLANTA — Slimmed-down toilet paper, fewer cookies in a bag, less conditioner in squeeze tubes.
The changes are subtle and might evade less discerning shoppers. But retail industry experts say we could see more consumer products start shrinking in size or quantity — or both — because of rising costs.
Record levels of inflation means households are paying more for everyday purchases and it's costing companies more to produce packaged items like paper products, shampoos as well as food and beverage products.
Companies can raise prices, and many are. Others are charging customers the same price while offering less.
Product downsizing, also known as "shrinkflation," is happening with toilet paper, said Edgar Dworsky, a former assistant attorney general in Massachusetts who is a consumer advocate and editor of the website ConsumerWorld.org.
"Downsizing happens during times of high inflation because companies that make everyday products are also paying more for raw materials, production and delivery costs," said Dworsky, who's tracking how a period of high inflation impacts consumer products for three decades.
Dworsky said product downsizing is becoming increasingly prevalent, and he recently picked up on several instances of brands inconspicuously shrinking the size of their products.
For example, Procter & Gamble's Charmin's ultra soft toilet paper 18-count mega package now contains 244 two-ply sheets, down from a previous 264 double-ply sheets per roll. And super mega rolls of the brand now display 366 sheets versus a previous 396 sheets per roll.
"That amounts to losing the equivalent of about a roll and a half in the new 18-count package," he said.
Dworsky noted the large-size toilet paper packs are most commonly stocked in stores now. "It's almost impossible to find a four-pack," he said.
Although he doesn't track product prices, Dworsky said when product downsizing happens, consumers end up either paying more for less of the product or the same price but for less of it.
This doesn't mean that every toilet paper product from Procter & Gamble will see a change. But my guess is that changes to more products are coming.
–Edgar Dworsky, former assistant attorney general in Massachusetts, consumer advocate
"This doesn't mean that every toilet paper product from Procter & Gamble will see a change. But my guess is that changes to more products are coming," he said, adding that he will have an upcoming report on other toilet paper brands.
In its most recent earnings call, Procter & Gamble executives acknowledged the company was facing a "challenging cost environment" due to continued effects of the pandemic on supply chains, a tight labor market and as "availability of materials remains stretched."
Consequently, P&G said it was raising prices to its retail customers for 10 product categories, including detergents, dryer sheets, baby and feminine care products.
In an email to CNNBusiness, Procter & Gamble pointed to various reasons for variations in sizes of its products and that store prices are determined solely by retailers.
"There is a cost element to innovation — adjusting the count per pack or the package size is one way of reinvesting in this innovation while maintaining a competitive price point," the company said.
P&G said it also tailors product sizes to different retailers. So rolls may have shrunk at some stores but not others.
"At the same retailer, the assortment you find in a suburban location may vary from what is in a smaller-footprint urban retail location — and versus what is on a retailer's website," it said.
Why "shrinkflation" happens
The "shrinkflation" phenomenon is nothing new. The practice is typically triggered when inflation surges and companies' costs go up.
When costs rise, manufacturers of consumer goods look for ways to offset the increases they are paying for commodities, transportation, labor and other expenses. They either raise prices on existing products or whittle down the sizes of existing goods, thereby increasing the price per unit of what you're getting.
Those increases are passed on to shoppers via stores, who purchase products from consumer goods companies.
Other recent examples of downsized products Dworsky noticed were Keebler Cookies. He said the Chips Deluxe with M&Ms package had gone down to 9.75 from a previous 11.3 ounce per package.
Shoppers have alerted him to new Gatorade bottles which hold less beverage — 28 fluid ounce down 32 fluid ounce — and a change in the packaging for Pantene conditioner to a slimmer squeeze tube that also holds two ounces less of the product.
"For consumer products companies, raising prices for consumers is the last resort. That's because price increases in stores are highly noticeable by shoppers and can influence demand," said Mark Cohen, director of retail studies and adjunct professor at Columbia University's business school.
Instead, companies make subtle adjustments to products and packaging. "For consumers, this is kind of an annoyance ... or a concern depending on the product we're talking about," said Cohen. "I do believe inflation will be here for a while and we will see such product adjustments continue to happen."
Contributing: Nathaniel Meyersohn