The Shrink Rap

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If you think your grocery bags have gotten a little lighter lately, you might be right. Manufacturers are quietly trimming the content of their packaged products — from yogurt and ice cream to laundry detergent and diapers — and often they aren't dropping prices to match. Called a "weight out" in industry parlance, product downsizing lets companies maintain profit margins without raising prices. Faced with a flagging economy and increasingly finicky, cost-conscious consumers, manufacturers have been using this decades-old tactic more aggressively in the past year.

Dannon, for one, recently reduced its 8-oz. yogurt container 25%, to 6 oz., saying "most people prefer a 6-oz. cup of yogurt." The company did lower its suggested retail price (though only 19%), but grocery stores don't always make the recommended price adjustments, and people often end up paying more for less.

Last year Unilever shrank its industry-standard 100-oz. jug of Wisk laundry detergent to 80 oz. Kimberly-Clark nipped the diaper count in its Huggies packages about 18%. Dreyer's and Edy's Grand ice creams no longer come in the familiar half-gallon (64 oz.) tub; the 12% smaller cartons hold only 56 oz. Hewlett-Packard has even downsized a ream of paper: packages of its Everyday Inkjet Paper contain 400 sheets instead of 500. "It's almost like going to buy eggs and finding 11 in the carton," says Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org, a consumer-advocacy website. Most shoppers never notice a couple of ounces missing from a can of soup or a few feet gone from a roll of paper towels — which is what manufacturers are counting on. "Consumers really don't have in their minds that they have to check the net weight or net count every time they buy something," says Dworsky. "It's the perfect consumer scam — when consumers don't know they've been taken."