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Published: Jul 07, 2022 8 min read
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This is an excerpt from Dollar Scholar, the Money newsletter where news editor Julia Glum teaches you the modern money lessons you NEED to know. Don't miss the next issue! Sign up at money.com/subscribe and join our community of 160,000+ Scholars.

Something huge happened in my life recently: I went viral.

See, for months I’ve been watching this dude on TikTok slowly build an eel pit in a rainwater cistern underneath his Kentucky garage. The process was arduous — first he had to clean the water, then install a pump, then put down gravel, then introduce minnows, then add crawfish, and so on — because he wanted to make sure the pit would be a safe ecosystem. In every video, he promised the eels were coming, but they didn’t show… until last week, when he excitedly let his followers know that the eels were finally en route.

I was excited about their arrival, so I tweeted about it. My post spread like wildfire, and, eventually, some 14 million people (!!!) saw it.

But there’s a dirty secret behind my newfound Twitter fame: I don’t even like eels that much. What actually drew me to the eel guy is the fact that I love niche internet communities.

Take the subreddit /r/shrinkflation, for example: Here, 35,000 members share complaints and theories about what they view as a rampant problem in the U.S. It’s fun to follow along and see people post photos of their groceries, even if I’ve been too preoccupied with marine life to determine whether the underlying phenomenon is real.

Now that I’m not spending every waking moment responding to #eelpit tweets, I want to find out.

Is shrinkflation legit?

Anand Krishnamoorthy, an associate marketing professor at the University of Central Florida, says shrinkflation is an actual trend. He defines it as a decrease in the amount of product a consumer obtains for the same shelf price they previously paid for that product.

“If you were paying $4 for a bag of chips three years ago, and you’re still paying the same $4 today, but there are fewer chips in that bag” — that’s shrinkflation, he says.

Why shrinkflation happens depends on who you ask. Krishnamoorthy says corporations often explain away changes in product size by saying they’re motivated by health concerns — like how in 2014, British confectioners decided to make all chocolate bars under 250 calories in an effort to fight obesity, leading Snickers to decrease its bars from 58 grams to 48 grams.

Others will claim they’re shrinking items because they’ve improved the product. Rolls of Bounty paper towels, for instance, have shrunk by three sheets, but Proctor & Gamble insists that’s because the paper towels are more absorbent now. Some manufacturers will also blame shrinkflation on innovation or a redesign. Gatorade has turned its 32-ounce bottles into 28-ounce ones to make them “more aerodynamic” and “easier to grab,” as a spokesperson told Quartz in March.

But in many cases, those are just excuses (and those subredditors are wise to the game). The real reason most shrinkflation happens is — you guessed it — inflation.

If you’ve bought, well, anything lately, you’ve likely noticed that prices are spiking. Between our pandemic recovery, the war in Ukraine and supply chain issues, the economy is overheated. Inflation was up 8.6% in May from a year earlier… the fastest 12-month increase in 40 years.

Manufacturers and brands are taking notice.

“Raw materials, gas, transportation, inflation, wages — when all of these are high, they have to find ways in which they can make more money from less,” Krishnamoorthy says. “There’s only one way firms can make that up.”

Sure, they could jack up the topline price of the item and start charging $5 for a bottle of Coke Zero that cost me $2.50 a few years ago. But that’s too risky because “the only thing consumers notice and remember about products is the price they paid last time,” Krishnamoorthy says.

So rather than take a chance on the possibility that demand will go down if they raise prices, companies opt to keep prices the same — and simply decrease the amount of stuff they provide. They’re banking on the fact that I won’t catch it.

Sometimes, it works. Krishnamoorthy points out that the curvature of bars of soap has been growing more drastic for decades (and the more curved a bar of soap is, the less actual soap I get in that bar). A standard can of vegetables was once 16 ounces; these days, I’m lucky if I can find one that’s 14.5 ounces.

Shrinkflation happens across industries — just look at how the amount of legroom on flights has decreased in recent years — but Krishnamoorthy says the most common examples are food and household goods. That’s what /r/shrinkflation is full of: Side-by-side comparisons of Pringles cans (165 grams to 134 grams), Simply Lemonade bottles (64 ounces to 59 ounces) and Barilla spaghetti boxes (454 grams to 410 grams) are among the subreddit’s top posts.

This gets customers riled up — a few years ago, there was actually a class-action lawsuit against McCormick for decreasing the amount of pepper in its grinders — but usually, people just get used to shrinkflation, Krishnamoorthy says. They’ll raise even less of a stink if the item is something they can’t imagine living without and every other brand is also doing it.

Fortunately, there are a few steps I can take to minimize the impact shrinkflation has on my wallet.

Krishnamoorthy’s favorite tip is to look at the price per unit rather than the topline price (often, both are listed on shelf labels) to get a sense of what I’m really paying for. If one brand's bottle of ketchup costs $3 and contains 15 ounces, the unit price is $0.20 per ounce. But if another brand's bottle costs $4 and contains 25 ounces, the unit price is $0.16 per ounce — ultimately a better deal.

The Consumer Federation of America recommends shopping around, opting for store brands over name brands, taking advantage of loyalty programs and downloading rebate apps.

The bottom line

Shrinkflation is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: when a product shrinks but its price stays the same. Brands offer various excuses for it, but the trend is usually driven by increasing prices behind the scenes.

And there are a few things I can do to combat it, since shrinkflation is an age-old trend… and one that’s not going away.

“Shrinkflation is something that's been happening all around us for years,” Krishnamoorthy adds. “It’s just that it's now in our face all the time.”

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