Why Consumers Will Pay a Premium to Get Less Product

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With the super-sizing of meals, restaurants found easy profits from consumers willing to pay a little extra to get what seemed like a lot more. Now, to appeal to health-conscious consumers who’d happily pass along the responsibility of trimming calories to someone else, restaurants and food manufacturers are rolling out snacks, beverages, and meals in tiny portions. And miniaturizing could prove to be just as profitable as super-sizing.

Here’s a simple, surefire way to cut calories: eat less. Easier said than done, of course. Where self-control fails, restaurants and food manufacturers are now stepping up to the plate—with mini-snacks and mini-meals appealing to consumers who tend to finish everything on their plates, regardless of the portion size.

Dairy Queen and Starbucks are among the eateries to have recently launched tiny menu item treats, such as 7 oz. mini Blizzards and “Petite” bite-size desserts. These treats aren’t expensive—$1.50 to $3 or so—but you get what you pay for. Actually, considering how small these menu items are, customers arguably get less than what they’re paying for.

But that seems to be OK to many consumers who accept the tradeoff of paying a premium in order to avoid eating more than they’d hope.

(MORE: Odd Consumer Behavior Files: When Stuff Is Free, We’re More Likely to Buy)

USA Today reports that the expansion of the miniaturizing movement continues with Starbucks “Bistro Boxes” (small meals with salads, wraps, or noodles under 500 calories total). Minicans (7.5 oz., 90 calories) of Coke have proven to be so popular that they’re now available for Sprite, Fanta, and Cherry Coke as well.

In terms of unit-size pricing, larger containers generally give more bang for the buck. Everyone of a certain age must recall that 3-liter bottles of soda used to be the mainstay at kids’ birthday parties—because they offered better value than handing out individual cans to each child. Now, I suppose, you might be worried that each child would drink an entire 3-liter bottle himself. But with items in small containers, you’re paying more for the packaging and less for the actual product. And why do we want that? Some insight from an expert quoted by USA Today:

“Americans don’t want to think about it,” says Carolyn Costin, a food psychologist. “We’d like to be able to stop in a place and have our food made, packaged and certified for us as just enough.”

In purely financial terms, the mini-treats, mini-meals, and mini-cans are bad deals. The trend is mostly good regardless. For decades, American consumers have gotten used to portions getting bigger and bigger, and the extras that used to be brought home in doggie bags seem to increasingly wind up finished in one sitting.

So, in the same way the best way to stop snacking, or smoking, or drinking is to get the snacks (or cigarettes or vodka) out of the house, there’s some logic to handing off the caloric-intake responsibility to someone else. If the option to indulge and overdo things is removed, more people will refrain from indulging and overdoing things. That’s good for their health, though not so good for getting the most value for their money.

(MORE: All New Packaging! Less Food! Same Price! What a Deal!)

Just as with dieting, there’s a simple, surefire way to save money: spend less. Again, easier said than done.

People figured out ways to save long before the advent of computers or smartphones, but tons of consumers and personal finance experts swear by the effectiveness of apps and websites such as SmartyPig and Mint.com to help aspiring savers—young savers in their 20s and 30s, especially. According to a story in today’s Boston Globe, these technologies, and online banks like ING Direct, have managed to make saving seem cooler than dropping off rolls of quarters at the dusty neighborhood bank branch.

(MORE: Capital One Buys ING Direct, and Customers Start to Freak Out)

Because these services often involve automated savings, or guilt-ridden reminders of what the member was trying to save for—new iPhone, car, vacation—they’re often more effective as well. Whereas with the miniaturized foods movement, consumers pay a premium for healthier options, there’s not much downside to saving via app and/or online bank. Neighborhood banks are more convenient in some ways, but they also tend to have more fees.

Whether the goal is to save more or cut calories, self-control often comes up short. That’s why every little bit of help, well—it helps.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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