Another Way to Rip Off Your Customers

Well, old man, I will tell you news of
your son: give me your blessing: truth will come
to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man’s son
may, but at the length truth will out.
(William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice)

Imagine that you bought five tickets for a movie, but they only let four of you in. Or that you took your car for a full service and paid for it, but they didn’t do everything they were supposed to do. Or that you buy a box of 200 tissues and instead you find only 180 actually inside. What if you bought a book and the last chapter was missing? That would be theft, wouldn’t it? Certainly in my book it is a sneaky way to steal from your customers.

Yet I have noticed a really disturbing trend in business that really makes my blood boil. It even has its own term – “shrinkflation” – and it is when a company sells products at the same price as before, but with less inside.

Some recent examples of less-product-for-the-same-price include…

  • Smaller chocolate bars with different (more attractive) rounded shapes – but less grams.
  • Tomato sauce bottles decreasing from 750 ml. to 700 ml.
  • Cold-drink cans reduced from 340 ml. to 330 ml.
  • Soap powder in the same boxes – but with more empty space.
  • Smaller bars of soap, and smaller tubes of toothpaste – with bigger holes in front.
  • Chocolate eggs with five in a box, not six.
  • Biscuits that are filled with lemon cream or chocolate cream that is paper thin and almost imperceptible in flavour. (When I challenged one manufacturer, they implied that it was my taste buds that had changed because I was getting old! Eventually the truth came out when the company representative mentioned “product reformulation.")

I’m willing to bet that this covert practice is more widespread than these few examples, but it is the underhand way in which these changes are introduced – with customers being none the wiser – that leaves a bad taste in the mouths of customers. And it’s not limited to package sizes becoming smaller. There are other examples:

  • Crisps in bags that are inflated with air – which still weighs extra.
  • Chickens that are injected with brine before freezing, resulting in customers paying for up to 20% water – and it’s legal.
  • Tins of tuna with 20% less meat and more water.
  • Boxes of tea bags with 88 bags instead of 100.
  • Expensive imported cream cheese that is runnier, and is labelled “Lite” and with “less fat” but is in fact just watered down.
  • Dog food brands that include more soya and even sawdust in the mix.”
  • It is impossible to find thinly sliced bread anymore. The packages only come with thicker slices, which means quicker consumption. (Probably because your standard loaf of bread must, by law, be of a certain weight.)
  • And who can forget the international scandal of horse meat going into hamburgers and sausages?

Please don’t get me wrong about paying higher prices for better quality and convenience. I am happy when my grocer peels and cleans fruit for me, or pre-cooks a rotisserie chicken. They are more expensive and are smaller than buying the original, but I’m happy to pay for the added value. It’s the devious secretiveness that gets to me.

Most pricing policies from most large organisations are confusing for consumers at best, and in many cases it is done with the purpose of confusing customers. Prices bounce up and down like a ping-pong ball almost daily, and confuse customers – so the brands can reduce the size without the customer ever realising. How can companies get away with this? Because most of us today buy on price, and are probably too rushed and stressed to notice these subtle changes. It appears to be the same pack at the same price, but it is actually more about theft and greed.

I believe that customers prefer transparency and price increases to this practice of shrinkflation – and there is some evidence that this is true. They would much rather hear you saying: “We’re sorry but we have no choice but to do this because our raw materials are in short supply,” or at least offer the original pack as well as the smaller pack at a reduced price. I know that consumers would be much more understanding, but we don’t like being duped when we realise what companies are up to.

Of course, many companies have become very good at explaining their motivation for doing this. Often they blame the government: “We are reducing the size of the chocolate bar or the can of cold-drink because the government puts us under pressure to reduce obesity in society.” Another trick is to describe the new products as “New, Improved, Product Relaunch”, and perhaps even do a small “Special Offer” to hide the actual truth.

Come on! If you believe this, you probably also think that the cow jumped over the moon, and the dish ran away with the spoon.

When will this all end? In today’s highly connected world, practices like these will be eventually exposed, and your customers will react very negatively by boycotting the cheats. All the social media have created what one writer called “Twinsumers” and whistle-blowers all over the world that share information about these practices. As Chris Anderson writes in his book The Long Tail, “The ants have megaphones now!”

The great news for you is that smaller, hungrier start-up competitors, (without the massive overheads of a corporation seeking to please shareholders,) can take advantage of this and not only highlight the practice, but offer customers a better deal too.


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