Shrinkflation: Inflation hiding in plain sight

There’s less there than meets the eye.
Written by
Doug Ashburn
Doug is a Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst who spent more than 20 years as a derivatives market maker and asset manager before “reincarnating” as a financial media professional a decade ago.
Fact-checked by
Jennifer Agee
Jennifer Agee has been editing financial education since 2001, including publications focused on technical analysis, stock and options trading, investing, and personal finance.
Four grocery bags getting progressively thinner to visualize shrinkflation.
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You don't notice the squeeze … until you do.
© wildpixel––iStock/Getty Images

There sure is a lot of air in this bag of chips. A “fun size” candy bar was a lot more fun when we were kids. That new “easier-to-hold” sports drink bottle is the same height, but thinner in the middle. And why is Fluffy suddenly doing her “I’m hungry” meow two hours after dinner?

It’s not your imagination—it’s shrinkflation (a portmanteau of “shrink” and “inflation”), or what marketers sometimes call the “grocery shrink ray.” Shrinkflation is a gradual price inflation that affects all consumers. And not only do we take a hit to our pocketbooks; shrinkflation can also be inefficient and wasteful.

Key Points

  • Shrinkflation raises consumer costs by reducing the quantity of a product for the same price.
  • Steady inflation can be part of a growing economy, but shrinkflation can create packaging waste, and it can wreak havoc on old recipes.
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does its best to reflect shrinkflation in its Consumer Price Index (CPI) calculations.

Inflation vs. shrinkflation

For any good or service, the cost to you is its price in dollars (or your local currency) for a given quantity. In math terms:

Your cost = The price you pay / the quantity you get

Price inflation is an increase in the price of a good or service for the same quantity. With shrinkflation, instead of a rise in the numerator (price), it’s a decrease in the denominator (quantity). Either way, the cost to you as a consumer is higher than it was. Or as an economist would say, the “utility” is lower.

Shrinkflation example

Suppose you’ve been paying $5 for your favorite loaf of bread, which is packaged as 20 one-ounce slices. That comes out to 25 cents per slice (and 25 cents per ounce). But one day when you visit the store, that same loaf is $5.50. That’s 10% inflation.

Now let’s say you go to the “discount” grocery across town, and you find what looks like the same loaf, still priced at $5. But upon closer inspection, you see that those 20 slices are now in an 18-ounce package. Each slice is 10% thinner (and the package is 10% smaller). That’s 10% shrinkflation.

No matter how you slice it—or how you price it—you’re getting 10% less for your money.

Why do companies “shrinkflate” their products?

Whether it happens via price inflation or quantity shrinkflation, a little utility loss—over time—is a natural part of a growing economy. Moderate inflation tends to encourage spending and investing, which can drive innovation, employment, and overall economic expansion—so long as wages keep pace. In fact, the Federal Reserve has an “official” inflation target of 2%, and it uses its monetary policy levers to try to guide the economy up or down toward that 2% target.

Ideally, economic inflation shouldn't be too hot or too cold.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

But inflation—as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and other inflation indicators—soared to multi-decade highs during and after the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to labor shortages, supply chain disruptions, and geopolitical tensions in Europe and the Middle East.

With all these headwinds facing those who make, distribute, and sell goods and services—at a time when many consumers were reeling from the economic costs of the pandemic—some companies opted to hold the line on prices. But to maintain profitability, a snack foods company might shave the number of ounces in a package. A hairstylist might stop offering a free blow-dry. And an airline might tweak its seat configuration and/or no longer give you the full can when you order an in-flight Dr Pepper.

The P/E ratio: Measuring earnings inflation/shrinkflation

When you buy shares of a stock, you’re buying a claim on future earnings. But in a bull market, when the price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio is typically expanding, you’re essentially paying more and getting less in terms of current earnings. Is it inflation, shrinkflation, or simply locking in a price today for future (potential) earnings growth? Learn how to assess a P/E ratio and decide for yourself.

Sometimes product shrinkflation has more to do with nutritional value (or the appearance of nutritional value). A single-serving, one-ounce bag of pretzels might be 110 calories. Shrinkflate it to 0.85 ounces by removing a few pretzels, and you’re down to 93 calories. That’s only two digits, so it must be a healthier alternative to other snacks, right?

And according to a landmark 2004 study by Harvard economist John Gourville and Northwestern’s Jonathan Koehler, consumers have a greater sensitivity to price than they do to quantity. So, in a way, the grocery shrink ray is a response to our preferences.

Is shrinkflation bad for the economy?

Remember: A little inflation (or shrinkflation) is normal, and not insidious in and of itself. Nor is it necessarily a show of corporate greed. It has a lot to do with marketing. And marketing has been a fact of commerce for centuries. But here are four ways shrinkflation can be a net loser for consumers, and for Planet Earth:

  • Budget buster. Sure, a little inflation is healthy, but only if wages can keep up. If you’re struggling each month to stay within a reasonable budget (using the 50-30-20 rule, for example), eventually, shrinkflation will steer you away from your long-term goals.
  • Packaging waste. When producers shrinkflate, they often deliver products in the same size container. That means more packaging goes to our nation’s landfills.
  • Recipe for (kitchen) disaster. Why does Great Grandma’s spaghetti sauce recipe taste less robust than it used to? Check the size of those cans and containers; your ratios might be off.
  • Quality control. Perhaps the most insidious form of shrinkflation is when a company skimps not on the quantity, but on the quality of their ingredients. That might mean flour that’s not as finely sifted, a lower grade of cocoa, or (and try not to think too hard about this) fewer quality control inspectors on site.

The bottom line

In general, consumer costs tend to rise over time. Whether your costs are going up via a rise in the numerator (price inflation) or a decrease in the denominator (quantity shrinkflation), you’re getting less overall utility for your dollars. And, although shrinkflation may feel like a bait and switch, to economists, it’s the same force at work.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which compiles the Consumer Price Index, says its data collectors review both price changes and changes in packaging sizes when calculating the index. They won’t catch everything—they don’t spend their days counting the number of chips in your cookie dough ice cream, for example—but they will notice if there are fewer sheets per roll of toilet paper.

The takeaway? Watch for signs of shrinkflation—and all types of inflation—and plan your budget accordingly.