Dec. 15, 2009 at 9:00 AM ET
When you open a bag of potato chips, a box of pasta or many other supermarket products, you probably notice that many companies are selling you a lot of air. Bags of chips, for example, can be half empty. Earlier this month, Consumer Reports caused a stir by calling out firms for selling products with "air to spare." Most responded by claiming that what's called "slack-fill" in the industry is necessary to ship, store and preserve products.
Are you buying that? Edgar Dworsky, a longtime consumer advocate and former Massachusetts state assistant attorney general, sure isn't.
While it's clear some extra space is needed to cushion potato chips or to allow proper seals, Dworsky said it's impossible to separate the slack-fill issue from another topic that's near and dear to his heart -- hidden product downsizing.
On his Web site, Mouseprint.org, Dworsky has chronicled dozens of products that have mysteriously lost volume. In recent months, he showed containers of Haagen Dazs ice cream that shrank from the 16 ounces of a pint to 14 ounces; Bounty paper towels that dropped from 138 sheets per roll to 128 sheets; Purina dog food that slipped from 20 pounds to 18 pounds; and Kleenex tissues that shrank from 8.4 inches to 8.2 inches.
In each case, the product container appeared, to the naked eye, to be the same size.
It's no wonder consumers are skeptical of claims that air-filled chip bags are really for their own good, he said.
"The problems are cousins," Dworsky said. "It's really the same problem, isn't it? Making something look like more than it is?"
While he says slack-fill has been an issue for at least two decades, he recently renewed efforts to study it – including one recent column that he illustrated with a picture of a fat-free grated cheese bottle under intense backlighting to reveal empty space.
"It's like you need X-ray vision to see these things," he said.
Dworsky, who's best known for his continuing fight to keep price tags on supermarket products in Massachusetts, carefully tracks supermarket product sizes. He's seen companies use the same technique over and over - slowly shrinking their products, then reintroducing the larger size with a fancy new name like "family size."
Dworsky said he has in his collection a Lays potato chip "family size" bag dated December 2008 that weighed 16 ounces, and another from earlier this year, still emblazoned with the "family size" tag, that tipped the scale at 14 ounces.
In each case, the products were properly labeled by weight, which is the most important criteria consumers should notice. But his problem with product downsizing is that it's nearly impossible for consumers to grasp how much they are being shortchanged.
"You have to have a memory of what the product weighed before, the last time you bought it. And that's almost impossible," he said. "People tend to have very poor visual memories ... and the problem with downsized items is they kind of look the same."
The incredible shrinking package
Todd Marks, who ran the "air to spare" research for Consumer Reports, has his own name for this phenomenon. He calls it "the incredible shrinking package."
"Chocolate bars that were 8 ounces became 6, then 5. And as the bar shrinks, the firms use hyperbole like 'giant size' on the product to distract consumers," he said.
Time after time, companies explain that shrinking the size of products helps them contain costs, and they often claim consumers would rather get 29 ounces of mayonnaise in a "quart-sized" jar than suffer a price increase. Marks, however, said shoppers told Consumer Reports in a recent survey that just the opposite -- they'd rather products stay the same size.
And that brings us back to slack-fill and air to spare.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons why cereal boxes and vitamin bottles aren't jammed-packed with product. Here are a few:
*Companies use the same size containers to sell different-sized products and thereby save money on packaging costs
*Some companies always leave room for free offers, like "25 percent more."
*Some package sizes fit better on store shelves than others
*Added space helps air circulate, preserving freshness. Or, with coffee beans, it helps oxygen escape and allows C02 to act as preservative.
However, it only takes a week in a marketing class to learn that perceptions and emotions play a large part in consumer choices. If two products on a shelf next to each other are the same price, shoppers will almost always buy the one in the larger box, assuming it's the better value.
Meanwhile, despite all of these shrinking packages and hot air, federal regulators appear to be asleep at the wheel. The law designed to protect consumers from misleading packaging, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, is essentially unenforced. There hasn't been a case brought in five years.
So it is no surprise that consumers feel they are being cheated by air-filled products. Where once product sizes were simple and obvious -- a quart, a pint, a half-pound -- now, 5.2 ounce boxes have become the norm. Given this track record, the burden should fall on companies to prove that they aren't being deceptive.
"We live in a society where everybody is very cynical and for good reason," Marks said. "We see package sizes shrinking before our eyes in very misleading fashion. ... It's trickery, a shell game. They are obfuscating, resorting to techniques that are less than candid."
What's the solution? Dworsky has one, though he's pretty sure no company wants to hear it.
"Put, 'Look, new smaller size,' right there on the front of the package in one of those starbursts. How about not hiding what you're doing?" he said. "But it will never happen."
RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS
Only one: Ignore the package and zoom right in on the product net weight or volume. Compare unit prices (price per pound, per quart, etc.) provided on store shelves. That's the only way to compare apples to apples, cereal to cereal and one bag of potato chips with another.