Why ‘Shrinkflation’ Has You Paying More for Less

Pardon the personal question, but have you noticed that you’re going through rolls of toilet paper faster than usual? There’s a good reason for that — toilet paper rolls are shrinking.

In the past couple of years, major brands like Charmin, Angel Soft and Costco’s Kirkland Signature have all reduced the number of individual sheets on each toilet paper roll. The packages still contain the same total number of rolls, but each roll is slimmer.

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Charmin’s mega roll shrunk from 264 sheets to 244 sheets, a 7.5 percent reduction.

Angel Soft’s mega roll plummeted from 425 to 320 sheets, a 25 percent reduction. (The manufacturer said it thickened the sheets 20 percent at the same time.)

Kirkland Signature’s rolls shed 45 sheets each, from 425 to 380 sheets, a 10.5 percent reduction.

Most importantly, while there are fewer sheets per roll, the price per roll is exactly the same! Welcome to the infuriating world of shrinkflation.

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What Is Shrinkflation?

“Shrinkflation” is a simple economic concept. Inflation rates are high around the world right now, which means that manufacturers are facing higher prices for raw materials, ingredients, packaging, shipping and more. To continue to make a profit, companies have two options: a) raise the price of their products or b) charge the same price for less of the product.

Brands know that consumers are price sensitive, meaning they’re likely to notice when the price of a frequently purchased item, like toilet paper, goes up. But what kind of crazy consumer would notice if their mega rolls of toilet paper were just 8 percent thinner, especially if the packaging and branding were otherwise unchanged?

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Edgar Dworsky would notice. Dworsky is a consumer lawyer and the genius behind the consumer advocacy websites Consumer World and Mouseprint.org, where he maintains a long list of products that have fallen victim to shrinkflation. (That’s where we sourced our stats for the incredible shrinking toilet paper rolls.)

Dworsky has been tracking shrinkflation for decades but says that there was “a rash of products” that shrunk in 2021 and 2022 due to manufacturers grappling with record high inflation.

Recently the CEO of Kellogg claimed that when his company makes a product smaller, they also lower the price. But Dworsky, who has identified hundreds of examples of brands — including Kellogg’s Keebler line of cookies — charging the same or more for smaller products, calls that claim “ludicrous.”

“No company would go through the increased cost of retooling their manufacturing plant and redesigning the package if they just did an exact proportional drop in the number of ounces and the price,” says Dworsky. “It doesn’t make financial sense.”

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Egregious Examples of Shrinkflation

Some product categories are much more likely to fall victim to shrinkflation. These include:

paper goods like toilet paper, paper towels and tissues

snack foods like chips, crackers and cookies

breakfast cereals

liquid cleaning and shower products like dish soap, shampoo and moisturizer

According to a recent poll by Gartner, 62 percent of American consumers said they might stop buying a brand that practiced shrinkflation. If that’s true, then these brands should be sweating (again, all stats are courtesy of Mouseprint.org):

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Arm & Hammer laundry detergent shrunk from 75 ounces to 67.5 ounces, while still promising “50 loads” of laundry.

Quaker Instant Oatmeal quietly reduced its boxes from 10 packets of oatmeal to just eight, a 20 percent reduction for the same price!

Folgers instant coffee shrunk from 51 ounces to 43.5 ounces while still advertising “up to 400 cups” of coffee per container.

Gatorade, which has always come in 32-ounce (1-quart) bottles, introduced a new bottle with a tapered waistline that’s only 28 ounces, for the same price, of course.

If this is starting to give you a headache, notice that Aleve is now selling 90 pills per bottle instead of 100.

Breyers ice cream, like many other ice cream brands, hasn’t sold a proper half-gallon (64-ounce) container in years, but Breyers is now sold in 48-ounce containers, which is just a quart and a half (25 percent less than the original).

General Mills shrunk its entire line of “family size” breakfast cereals and packaged them in slimmer boxes.

“Frankly, I don’t know how some of those cereal boxes on the store shelves even stand up anymore,” says Dworsky. “There’s almost no footprint.”

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Can You Fight Shrinkflation?

Even Dworsky admits that it takes a very special type of consumer to spot shrinkflation, because manufacturers aren’t going to advertise the fact — “Now Slightly Smaller!”

“The only way to know if your product has shrunk is to know the size of the products you buy regularly and to double-check when you go to the store,” says Dworsky.

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Every once in a while, Dworsky or one of his vigilant minions on Mouseprint.org strikes gold and finds the newly shrunken product on the shelf right next to the old version, but that’s rare.

If you really want to avoid falling victim to shrinkflation, you’d have to remember that “Family Size” Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal usually comes in 19.3-ounce boxes, or that Gain laundry detergent comes in a 165 fluid ounce jug. That’s hard!

Because brands are doing everything in their power to divert consumer attention away from a product’s actual net weight or sheet count. Not only do old and new packages look almost identical, but they employ marketing terms like “family size” and “mega size” that don’t have any real meaning.

“I worry from a consumer protection standpoint that brands are habituating shoppers into buying by ‘size word’ rather than the actual net weight of the product,” says Dworsky. “Meanwhile, the new ‘mega’ roll from Charmin is almost 400 sheets less than the original 650-sheet Charmin roll of the 1960s.” (To be fair, those old rolls were single-ply, and the new stuff is two-ply, but still…)

If you notice that your favorite product is shrinking, your only real option is to compare its price with competitors, including store brands. To do that, don’t look at the retail price, because even competing products come in different sizes. Dworsky says that you need to look for the “unit price,” which is the price per ounce or pound or gallon. That’s the only way to make an apples-to-apples price comparison.

As a general rule, though, store brands (aka “generic”) are the last ones to downsize, says Dworsky. And their quality is usually just as good as the store brands, so they can be great substitutes.

Finally, watch out for words like “new and improved” on a package label. This might just be a tip-off that the packaging has changed or the product amount is less, rather than any real “improvements” being made.

In rare cases, a downsized product will upsize again. Costco shoppers were so upset that Kirkland Signature brand paper towels shrunk from 160 sheets per roll to 140 sheets that the company quietly restored the towel rolls to 160 sheets. Score one for the consumer!

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