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Is inflation leading to smaller toilet paper rolls or less toothpaste in the tube?

Toilet paper squares, the individual sheets that connect to make each roll, were once 4.5 inches square. That standard, however, has shifted to a point where companies are selling sheets that are a half-inch shorter or thinner, or both.  (Dreamstime/Tribune News Service)
Toilet paper squares, the individual sheets that connect to make each roll, were once 4.5 inches square. That standard, however, has shifted to a point where companies are selling sheets that are a half-inch shorter or thinner, or both. (Dreamstime/Tribune News Service)
By Alexandra Skores Dallas Morning News

A mega roll of Cottonelle toilet paper used to contain 340 sheets. Now, it’s 312.

A 32-ounce Gatorade is down to 28.

One of Crest’s toothpaste tubes once had 4.1 ounces of teeth whitening product. That’s become 3.8 ounces.

If you’ve noticed you’ve been getting less bang for your buck, you can likely blame it on shrinkflation.

Shrinkflation occurs when makers of consumer staples downsize a product to save on costs, rather than risk shopper backlash by upping the price. Many consumers may not notice the shrinkage since the price remains the same.

The newest read on core consumer prices, released this week, indicated that inflation will persist at elevated levels.

Sreekumar Bhaskaran, an associate professor at the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, said shrinkflation not only happens during times of inflation but also arises from industry issues like labor shortages.

“Everybody is thinking about inflation,” Bhaskaran said. “Everybody’s thinking about prices going up, and you don’t want to be in the same situation. Trying to keep the same price while trying to continue to make yourself available to the same set of consumers, that’s something difficult to do.”

Edgar Dworsky, founder and editor of consumer resource guide Consumer World, said the concept of shrinkflation has been around for decades. He pointed to the days of the nickel candy bar in the 1950s and 1960s – the lore that some believe created this concept.

“Someone came up with a brilliant idea: ‘Well, we’ll make the candy bar a little bit smaller and that way you can still charge a nickel,’” he said.

True or not, it makes for a good story Dworsky uses to explain the origins of shrinkflation. Growing up in the same era, he said he’s seen Charmin toilet paper, a Proctor & Gamble brand, shrink the equivalent of 90% for a single roll.

When raw material costs go up, manufacturers are faced with two options: drive prices up or shrink the product.

“(Manufacturers) know that consumers are price conscious and they’ll spot that price increase on their favorite item, but they also know that consumers are not very net weight conscious,” Dworsky said.

Paper products typically downsize the most, followed by snacks like cookies or chips, he said.

It’s not just Charmin – Irving-based Kimberly-Clark’s Cottonelle downsized from 340 sheets to 312. Chief financial officer Maria Henry told investors in a recent quarterly earnings call that inflation has cost it an additional $375 million to produce its products, which range from toilet paper to diapers and facial tissues. She cited volatility in oil and energy as drivers.

“We intend to build momentum as we go through the year when pricing is more in line with inflation,” Henry told investors in April.

Other factors might be at play, too. Gatorade, for example, said its change to 28 ounces came as it redesigned its bottle to be “more aerodynamic” and “easier to grab.”

Shrinkflation tends to come in waves and move with inflation, Dworsky said.

Inflation and shrinkflation could lead to changes in buying habits, Bhaskaran said, with shoppers opting for lower-priced products or reducing their consumption.

“It also prevents you from being able to reach the consumer in the future because their consumption patterns have dramatically, drastically changed,” Bhaskaran said.

So what should consumers take away from this? Know your products.

“The teaching message is you gotta get to know the net weight or net count of the products you buy, and consumers need to become more net-weight conscious,” Dworsky said. “How else are you going to know you’re getting this back door price increase?”

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