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Downsizing strikes food industry

March 19, 2009|By TIM ROWLAND

We're all aware of the great grocery downsizing scam that's taking center stage at your local supermarket.

But strangely enough, I'm not mad about that. I've always admired creative thinking, and for that reason alone I have to stand up and applaud the consumer-product packing divisions across this great land of ours.

First, this isn't new. Vending machine candy bars were way ahead of the curve, and they were pretty slick about it. They'd say, "Hey, we're lowering the price on Snickers. Yay!" They were also lowering the weight of the candy bar, but that didn't get as much press. After a few months, the price of the candy bar would go back up to what it was originally, but the weight would not.

Today, however, foodlike products don't even bother with that little song and dance, which, with the perspective of the times, seems rather quaint.

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True, some of the downsizing has been rather unimaginative. Keep the same size can, just put less tuna in it. Blow up the snack-food bag full of air and hope the public won't notice that there are only three chips in the bottom.

One step above that is the false bottom. Juice bottles with a big mound of empty plastic hidden from view; cardboard containers with an empty, inch-high lip around the lower edge.

But soon, we get into the territory of genius. My runner-up prize goes to the "Our product is healthier because there's less of it" marketing scheme.

"Now, with 50 percent fewer calories!" That's because the product is half the size that it used to be, but no matter.

Restaurants have jumped on this bandwagon. Because the U.S. Department of Frowning has recommended a portion of meat the size of a credit card, although not as thick, chains use the "healthy" label to whittle away at their steaks. (This reminded me of the old joke where the waiter checks up on his diner, asking, "Sir, how did you find your steak?" and the guy says, "Well, I just looked under the kale leaf and there it was.")

But even this is nothing compared to my grand-prize winner in the cheapskate sweepstakes, the ice cream industry. Yes, they were early to the false bottom game, but then, in a true stroke of brilliance, raised the bar: They went metric.

Remember back in 1975, when Congress tried to stuff the metric system down our throats and the nation rebelled because we couldn't noodle through the notion that a meter was a little more than a yard?

That played right into ice cream's hands. We were accustomed to pints, quarts and half gallons. Correctly, the ice cream industry surmised we'd never be able to figure out what this amounted to in liters.

So it began putting 1.75 liters, which is 46 percent of a gallon, into containers that plausibly looked like half gallons. This went so well that they ratcheted down to 1.65 liters. Pretty soon we'll be in the checkout line with 2 milliliters of butter pecan.

I think this breed of subterfuge has real possibilities for other products that, on the face of it, would appear to be difficult to downsize. Like, what do you do about a dozen eggs?

Under the ice cream paradigm, egg producers could switch to a Base 6 math system, where a dozen is really 10.

So rather than criticize the foodlike industry, I would challenge it to go on to smaller and better things. Figure out how you can downsize a cantaloupe. See how few grains of rice you can put in a bag before people notice any are missing.

This isn't a recession, this is an opportunity. And if I know corporate America, it will be more than up, or down, to the challenge.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com.

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