–Dan Kelly, Attorney

I laughed when I saw Steve’s post from earlier this week–he used one of my favorite phrases, which is a bit hackneyed and trite, but only because it is a great phrase:  “less is more.”  I laughed because of what I intended to publish today, and that is a recent trend in product packaging, where less isn’t more, but less really is less.

I first came across this issue about a year ago when I was following some recipe that called for a standard six ounce can of tuna.  I have known for a long time, and I’m not sure how or why (probably college days from making tuna mac) that a standard can of tuna is six ounces.  It just is–you can bank on it.  See?

Well, this is what I pulled out of the cupboard:

Five ounces?  That is almost 17% less tuna, but I paid the standard six ounce price.

I say I noticed this about a year ago, but this has been going on for much longer.  One person I know was appalled to learn that the “half gallon” ice cream containers she’s been buying aren’t a half gallon any more; they’re 1.5 quarts–only three-quarters of the way to a half gallon.

The pint of orange juice at the convenience store?  Not quite a pint.

Recalling our recent lesson on economies of scale, this “weight out” trend (as it is called in the retail industry) can translate into an enormous impact for a company’s bottom line, particularly where the new size does not carry a proportional price decrease–and it almost never does.  There are numerous facets to this issued worthy of exploration:

  • Is it deceptive to make a size reduction that cannot be seen in a side-by-side store shelf comparison (see the examples here), or is it a market necessity due to set shelf spacing allocations and requirements?
  • Should a manufacturer make the consumer aware of the new size?
  • Is there an obligation to lower the price?
  • What about the impact on recipes?  (I think my tuna mac will survive, but I don’t know about some finicky confection recipes keyed to longstanding sizes for cans of evaporated or sweetened condensed milk.)
  • Are there any products–food or otherwise–where consumers will not tolerate the “weight out” phenomenon?  (Motor oil comes to mind . . .)
  • Is this actually a good thing, given the “super sizing” trends of the last sixty years or so?

Many shelf tags in grocery stores frequently provide cost on a per unit basis so that a shopper often can easily compare to see the true cost of competing brands and sizes–it may even be required by state or federal law or regulation (it wouldn’t surprise me).  And, of course, a consumer can always check the label.  “Caveat emptor” (“buyer beware”) is always a good rule of thumb, but I think a company does itself favors when it educates its consumers about changes to its products.