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Shrinkflation: Costco Paper Towels, Now with 20 Fewer Sheets per Roll (2012) (redflagdeals.com)
67 points by disgrunt 7 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 52 comments

I remember learning about this concept first hand years ago working in a grocery store. I was in charge of stocking the freezer at the time. We had a sale on for breyer's ice cream. the 500ml tubs. they used to come in packs of 5 on the pallet. Then one day they dropped the size to 473ml and started shipping 4 in a pack for the same price. I remember this vividly because i had to completely rearrange the shelves so the new containers fit properly.

Also, somewhat related, the same year dairyland stopped putting handles on their 4 litre ice cream pails. The little old ladies freaked out. Turns out, nobody likes the ice cream, they just wanted the bucket with the handle. I remember asking the dairyland driver why they took the handles off. He said someone figured out the company would save 1¢ per bucket if they removed the handles saving them over a million dollars a year or something. I still wonder whether the drop in sales from people annoyed at the loss of the handle countered the savings of removing the handle.

"I don't like the ice cream, I just want a bucket" -proceeds to shovel a whole bucket of ice cream into their face.

I mean... yes, right?

Why would I buy your bucket if I can get this bucket full of ice cream for super cheap? Who even cares if the icecream isn't great, the alternative is just air in an empty bucket?

Apparently people love them for Berry picking. People would actually get mad at me about this as though i had somehow deprived them of their handles.

I'm not sure I understand the math in the thread that arrives at 8.75% inflation (or 8.75% off).

160 / 140 yields 14% increase in price per unit, and (1 - 140 / 160) yields a discount of 12.5%.

But also, this isn't necessarily an indicator of inflation simply due to debt financing / monetary policy -- recall that in the early days of the pandemic, there were severe shortages of paper and cleaning products (TP anyone?). If inflation were in fact in the double digits, I'd expect to see it across the board (e.g. in the price of eggs / milk which you can't play as many games with).

People very often fail to translate a fraction like 0.875 into a percentage. It's really obvious when people try to calc death rates from covid. Say 1 in 1000 is then suddenly 0.001% instead of 0.1%

Houses in my city have gone up 10% since Jan. 1st. Rent is up in my complex about 10% since last year. And Procter & Gamble have already announced price hikes to come in the fall. Not to mention lumber up, what, 3x or something now?

Any chance there's correlation between a spike in the price of lumber and the cost of housing? As another commenter says, sawmills are capacity-constrained.

New construction being much more expensive would certainly add supply-side pressure. Add to that hesitancy toward showing places during a global pandemic and pent-up demand, and I'm not surprised that the cost of housing is up.

I'd expect that if your local cost-of-living increases were in fact due to inflation, we'd see it broadly across the country, which doesn't seem to be the case. Not to say that there aren't places with significant increases in rent! But it's more likely a local phenomenon than a nationwide one.

https://www.apartmentguide.com/blog/apartment-guide-annual-r... shows the biggest increase is in 2BR apartments at around 5%, but near the 10% that you're experiencing (meanwhile, studios are actually down in price over that same period). That suggests to me that demand is shifting toward larger apartments (perhaps in the context of wanting more WFH space). And, it seems largely driven by less-expensive rental markets -- the biggest declines were expensive places like SF and NYC where people decided there wasn't much value in being in the city when everything was shut down and they didn't need to go to the office.

(Also, YoY comparisons are maybe weird right about now since you're comparing the peak of pandemic fear/uncertainty with us hopefully rounding the corner with broader vaccine uptake and caseloads dropping in the US.)

The lumber thing is complicated - theres no shortage of timber, but there is a shortage in sawmill capacity. Why? Mills got hit hard in the aftermath of 2008 housing crisis / recession, and havent ramped up to any significant extent because they dont want to get hit with another crash after spending the money to increase capacity.

I was at the store today looking at packages and picking them up to see weight. Most of them could have held much more product.

I felt like (in some cases at least) it was deceptive implying the quantity of product was larger. The deception is a bit of a problem but the larger problem is "do we need that much wasteful packaging?". It's really environmentally unfriendly between useless production and disposal.

I personally don't care for bulk bins and cloth shopping bags, but this is a bit out of control.

Look at how much stuff you throw away each week. Maybe we could tax packaging somehow and make it more efficient?

Just require everything to be sold using a preferred number for volume/mass. Some countries have these laws already.


I also notice how traditional grocery stores have embraced some aspects of Costco/Sams warehouse stores by touting larger size bags/boxes of food. For example, at my grocery store, Barilla Spaghetti noodles are $1.28/lb in the 1lb box. But they prominently display a 2lb box for $3.12. Same with Lays Potato Chips, almost 25% more for the same weight when you compare the "Family Size" bag with the next size down.

I think the beancounters have realized we've all been so brainwashed to by huge packages that they've adjusted the pricing to compensate and take away any price savings

So customers usually cue off of visuals before written text and weight. Companies for this reason and tooling changes being expensive are more prone to shrink contents before raising prices or changing packaging.

it's suprising how far they take this. Kudos used to be size of full candybars in early 90s. By the time they were gone they never once retooled their boxes so 3 boxes of them could fit into one box.

The places I usually shop have usually have a price / volume calculation printed, if you find yourself spending too long deciding what to buy like I do.

Yes, but there are times where basically the same item will be priced seemingly randomly by ounce, by pound, and sometimes even by count (how many items in the bag or box).

Is $.33/oz a better deal than $5/pound? How about $.31/oz?

In Brazil this is so common that it is mandatory to put in the package the previous amount and how much was reduced with percentage.

Sounds good, but what about reducing contents by 20 %, then increasing by 5 %?

Zero idea if this would be correct but I’d assume the FTC equivalent would step in and not allow it.

We would need to look at this overtime. As someone said this is actually equaivent to a 14% price increase. How often does the happen? It might be kind of awkward if they took a fraction of a sheet out each year, and consumers respond to price increases. So they do this every decade with a combination of increasing the size and price you get the extra large size. And of course an increase of price of cherry picked products doesn't mean we are headed for huge hyper inflation. Is this happening for the same reason the price of lumber is increasing? Most examples of inflation people give can be explained by people expecting a collapse in demand when covid hit, but demand actually increased.

We noticed this last winter. Previously a roll of Costco paper towels didn't fit in our holder until a few layers were used up. Suddenly - a new roll would fit.

Reduced quantity as a feature

At least with paper towels the main adjustment is quantity purchased or how often purchased. When ingredients for recipes that come in cans/bottles/jars change very annoying. many recipes from 50s -70s call for 16oz can which has diminishes to 15oz for some products like beans and down to 10.5 oz for campbells soup cans. Chocolate bars from 4 oz ->under 3oz now. Milk may be the last bastion being sold by the gallon unless clever marketers start selling it by the liter.

I just saw this in real-time this past month with cat food. A 24pk of Rx Renal cat food went from 5.8oz to 5.1oz[1]. I buy two packs at a time and what used to cost $113.76 is now $114.72 Effectively they're charging me an extra buck to keep 33.6oz (5.7 old-cans / 6.5 new-cans) of cat food from me.

[1] https://www.chewy.com/royal-canin-veterinary-diet-renal/dp/2...

Cereal boxes are a great / terrible example of this. Have you ever noticed how many slightly different sizes of Cheerios there are?

In the U.S, you can get an 8.9oz box, a 12oz box, and an 18oz box.

Honey nut Cheerios? Oh, those come in a 10.8oz box, a 15.4oz box, or a 19.5 oz box.

You would be forgiven for thinking these boxes have remained constant over time, or that you could compare boxes between the exact same brand and class of product.

Don't you have compulsory labeling for price per kilogram (or the US equivalent)? Of course the effect is still there, but that's the price that generally matters.

I have never seen a US supermarket chain without it - I would imagine it's a legal req.

You're probably not going to see it in like a local corner store, but those places you know you're paying a higher price already.

Not that I know of. Many supermarkets label price per ounce, but I don't know if that's a legal requirement. On the packaging all that's needed is the net weight of the item.

Did not expect to see RedFlagDeals on Hacker News!

RFD is an amazing (Canadian) forum officially focused on shopping deals, but it is much more than that.

Just like HN, and maybe even more so, RFD has a user base very diverse in its expertise. People help each other make the best choice when making purchases.

As an example of this forum's impact on Canadian economy, consider this mega-thread started in 2006 (15 years ago) and still going strong (3668 pages) where a group mortgage brokers help people get significantly better deals compared to major banks (we are talking savings of $10-15k per 5 years): https://forums.redflagdeals.com/official-mortgage-rates-thre...

There are similar threads about renovating your house, buying a heat-pump, buying an electric car, buying a PS5 without scalpers, etc.

So all the years when a roll was 160 sheets at the same price meant no inflation for a decade?

What is your source that price and quantity were unchanged for a decade?

It’s possible that the person you’re replying to has been shopping at Costco for that amount of time.

Not sure if that is one of them. But Costco does carry a few loss leaders where they don't raise the price, even though they are no longer profitable. The hotdog and soda deal for $1.50 and the roast chicken for $4.99 are two of them.

According to the sign in the store, they also reduced the price.

i.e. the price per sheet is identical to the previous package. But the package is smaller.

Haagen-Diaz ice cream bars got a lot smaller recently too. Same width but not nearly as long. Looks off.

dang, this is not from 2012.


I really dislike it when people describe other people they disagree with as “shills”. It turns it from “I disagree with this person” to “this person is implicitly pushing a narrative for nefarious reasons”, which makes the conversation less productive and more toxic.

I'm curious to hear your approach for when people _are_ pushing a narrative for nefarious reasons.

In my experience, people who are quick to accuse others of shilling are usually actual shills themselves, or arguing for a position for which there are many obvious shill accounts.

Inflation is common and normal in a modern economy. This kind of quantity adjustment has been going on for decades. I think you are worried about high inflation and it will be interesting to see what the next few months bring.

But this paper towel example is not outside the bounds of normal inflation.

It's a 14% decrease in purchasing power... is that normal?

Depends over what time frame. If it's over a 5-10 year period, that corresponds to a 1-3% annual decrease in the purchasing power of the dollar, which is considered pretty normal. If it's happening much more frequently than that (to the same product), though, it could indicate worrying inflation.

Also note that "prices of consumer goods are rising by less than 2% per year" is not proof that the purchasing power of the dollar is roughly stable -- it's possible for consumer goods to get relatively cheaper than assets and positional goods such as e.g. stocks and bonds, housing, healthcare, and education such that it takes many more dollars to buy a certain lifestyle than it used to despite minimal rises in CPI.

The no inflation shills realize when inflation happens and when it doesn't. The inflation shills always say there is high inflation no matter what reality says.

I've never seen anybody argue that inflation doesn't exist.

Nobody argues it doesn’t exist, the take is always “there is a normal amount of inflation right now and it is good for the economy anyway”

I guess you've never seen a Fed chairperson speak.

Even if we have slightly elevated inflation in the coming few years (e.g. 3-4% YOY instead of 2% or less), it's basically a nothingburger and is healthy for the US economy.

Can’t tell if satire. Have you been to the grocery store lately?

Everyone's got a hot take on why CPI is wrong, but the official rate of inflation for food is 3.5%. Personally, I spend a lot more on groceries than pre-covid, but thats because I now eat out once or twice a month instead of several times a week.

How does the official 3.5% figure compare to your personal experience of the actual difference in price for a given item from last year?

Milk and oJ still relatively normal, considering gas is up nearly 30% in my hood

My water bill went up noticibly this year.

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