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The Bottom Line: Product Downsizing Part 2

Updated: Friday, August 2 2013, 10:17 PM EDT
ALBANY -- With the cost of everything going up these days, it might be no surprise that companies are scaling back their products and giving you less for your money.
 
Remember, companies only have to clearly display the amount you're getting on a product, no matter how small.
 
So how else do you spot when an item is downsized?  And how do the companies use "psychology" to put these changes past consumers?
 
Dori Marlin gets The Bottom Line, by focusing on the fine print.
 
It's pretty common for products to look identical on store shelves - but sometimes the closer you look, the less you get.
 
Take a box of Apple Jacks cereal:  The net weight dropped from 11 ounces, down to 8.7 ounces.
 
And when products like that are downsized - so, too, are the disclosures.
 
"No company's gonna put a splashy sign on their product that says 'Now, 20-percent less!'" says Dr. Brian Wansink, a marketing professor at Cornell University and author of the book Mindless Eating.
 
But that's precisely why he stresses the need for consumers, to avoid mindless shopping.
 
"It's not as good of a 'deal' as we think it is - it's our psychology that makes us believe it was a good deal in the first place," he says.  "Whether we need it or not, that doesn't matter.  In some cases, let's say manufacturers want to keep something at a $2.99 price point - they say, 'But we gotta raise the price somehow' – well, they raise the price by dropping the fill level of the product."
 
Lowering the fill level give you less product, but more air space - for example, inside a bag of Lay's potato chips.
              
But how about changes on the outside?
 
"Are there certain visual elements that people pick up, as opposed to others?" Dori asked.
 
"Oh absolutely," Dr. Wansink answered, "We judge the size of something by its heighth, not its width.  We totally underestimate width."
 
That's something the companies know, and use to their advantage.  As long as you see that the height of an item stays the same, you might not even notice that the width of it has been reduced dramatically.
 
Another tip-off to downsizing:  Products that say "New!" and "Improved!"
 
And something else, shown in the case of two Kashi containers:  One box might have a net weight of 10.4 ounces, and another a net weight of 10.3 ounces.  But the company reformulated the flakes!
 
So, the secret then - is searching the nutrition statement.  The old box gave you 9 servings per container, while the new box only gives you 5.
 
"If it's a personal care item, or it's a cleaner, just look to see that it's a nice round predictable number or figure," says Dr. Wansink, "And if it's not, that can sometimes be an indiciation it's changed."
 
Because when one company changes, Dr. Wansink says, the rest tend to follow suit.
 
"Can we legislate better practices when it comes to the sizing of these products?" Dori asked.
 
"At the end of the day," he answered, "Companies know that we've got money, we want food and cleaning products, and we're gonna buy 'em.”
 
Outside of looking for the signs, Dr. Wansink has two other suggestions for consumers to make their money go further:  Make more specific shopping lists for yourself - and use coupons.
 
He says that way, you'll be more mindful of the "sizes" in buying what you need.
The Bottom Line: Product Downsizing Part 2


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