All New Packaging! Less Food! Same Price! What a Deal!

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It would be one thing if food companies acknowledged that due to rising costs, products had to be shrunk to avoid price increases. But the latest marketing gimmickry barely acknowledges shrinking products at all—and instead calls attention to the idea that smaller packages and less food is better for the environment and healthier for consumers. Consumers are being told that packages of Saltines with 15% fewer crackers and subbing 13 oz. cans of vegetables for the old 16 oz. units—while charging the same price as their older, larger equivalents—are amazing new advances shoppers should get excited about. So next time at the grocery store, pay no mind to the impression that somebody is peeing on your leg. The marketers will tell you it’s really just raining. And that the rain is “NEW & IMPROVED” no less.

There’s nothing new about shrinking products. Companies have periodically tweaked packaging and slashed the amount of product inside. This is standard practice when the economy takes a dive, or when commodity prices rise, and just when companies feel like it. Hence, we have the 5 oz. can of tuna (formerly 6 oz., and before that, 7 oz.), and incredible shrinking Girl Scout cookies, and the feeling among some consumers that their butts are getting bigger (when, in fact, it’s just that toilet paper is getting smaller).

Now, though, as the NY Times reports, product reduction is so widespread and significant that it’s nearly impossible to disguise it. Rather than resort to even more absurd levels of optical illusion—how big can that carved-out dimple under a can of peanut butter get?—companies are stretching reality by pumping up the plus sides of paying the same for less. Per the Times:

Trying to keep customers from feeling cheated, some companies are introducing new containers that, they say, have terrific advantages — and just happen to contain less product.

Kraft is introducing “Fresh Stacks” packages for its Nabisco Premium saltines and Honey Maid graham crackers. Each has about 15 percent fewer crackers than the standard boxes, but the price has not changed. Kraft says that because the Fresh Stacks include more sleeves of crackers, they are more portable and “the packaging format offers the benefit of added freshness,” said Basil T. Maglaris, a Kraft spokesman, in an e-mail.

Well, you have to give Basil T. Maglaris credit: He’s trying.

I’m sure that at some point, consumers will also hear that these products are NEW! as well. Which is true. It’s also true—well sorta true anyway—that, as many marketers claim, products with smaller packaging are more environmentally friendly, and packages with less food contain less calories. Well, duh!

All of these claims insult the intelligence of consumers, which would be really offensive if consumers weren’t so gullible. Some insight from a source in the Times story:

“Consumers are generally more sensitive to changes in prices than to changes in quantity,” John T. Gourville, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School, said. “And companies try to do it in such a way that you don’t notice, maybe keeping the height and width the same, but changing the depth so the silhouette of the package on the shelf looks the same.”

Most consumers don’t notice. Or if they do, they’re annoyed for a moment, but then pick up the Oreos or tuna or whatever anyway. What can you do?

Well, CNNMoney offers one suggestion. While it may be impossible to avoid rising food prices, there are ways to make money from the price hikes. Namely: investing in agricultural stocks.