Have your hands gotten bigger? No, your ice cream's gotten smaller!

I've discovered that one of the joys of city shopping is that, rather than relying on one or two stores for all purchases, city shoppers get to go to dozens of stores, each of which carries one or two items. While some people may be able to resist the siren call of the specialty joint, I can't. Having discovered the perfect cheese shop or the best place for pesto, I always feel like I'm cheating myself if I go back to the supermarket. This, by the way, is one of the reasons that it takes me an insanely large amount of time to shop.

One of my specialty stores is the Indian market around the corner. They have great spices, outstanding flatbreads, superb desserts, and amazing samosas. The thing that keeps me coming back, though, is the almonds. The Naveen market's almonds are perfectly crunchy and have a great taste. Now that I've gotten used to them, I can't even imagine going back to stale almonds that taste like cardboard. Added to the great taste and texture, there's also the fact that the Indian store has great prices on almonds. When I first bought the nuts, they were going for $5.99 a pound and $8.99 for two pounds, prices that are insanely good for my area.

A few weeks ago, though, the market started trying to pull a fast one on me. Although their prices remained constant -- $5.99 for the small bag and $8.99 for the large bag -- they reduced the weight of their products. The small bag now contained 14 ounces and the large bag contained 28 ounces. Given that I was now getting a quarter of a pound fewer almonds for my $8.99, this was a markup of roughly 13%. I tried other stores and other almonds, but I eventually returned. The Naveen market was still charging the lowest prices and they still had the best almonds. I wasn't happy about it, but there it was -- I was stuck with paying nine bucks for the 28-ounce bag.
As it turns out, my local Indian store isn't the only company that's playing the weight game. As inflation and fuel costs drive up the price of foodstuffs, many companies are saving money by resorting to smaller sizes. Edy's, for example, still charges $5.99 for a tub of ice cream, but the tub has shrunk from 1.75 quarts to 1.5 quarts, a 15% reduction. Other companies, from Tropicana orange juice to Wrigley's gum, are using the same tactic of keeping a consistent price while decreasing the size of the product. Even bars and restaurants are getting into the act, often offering a 14-ounce glass of suds for the same price that they used to charge for 16 ounces.

Most analysts agree that the primary impetus that drives a purchase is brand loyalty. As someone who came from a Crest family, drank Minute Maid orange juice every morning and wiped his butt with ScottTissue every day until the age of 18, I have to admit that there is a lot of power in brands. In fact, I know many shoppers who buy their groceries on autopilot, picking up the same packages every time they go to the store with barely a glance at the labels. Manufacturers seem to be banking on the fact that, while people notice a rise in prices, they aren't quite as quick to pick up on a drop in size. In that context, the new packaging method is a masterstroke.

On the other hand, if your favorite brand is trying to trick you, it might be a good time to reconsider your loyalties...

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. A 14-ounce beer? Are you kidding me?
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