Zombie Metric Reform

by The Metric Maven

In recent months, numerous media stories have discussed a market phenomenon called shrinkflation. National Public Radio (NPR) had a segment called Shrinkflation: Inflation’s Sneaky Cousin. Edgar Dworsky, a long-time consumer advocate, who had been an Assistant Attorney General in Massachusetts, has been tracking shrinkflation on his website. (And, of course, there’s a subreddit for shrinkflation). Edgar noted that a grocery store had replaced all the old General Mills cereal boxes with newer ones. He found some of the earlier boxes on an end display, and selected an old box of Cocoa Puffs. He returned to the main aisle, and put the old box next to the new one. General Mills had downsized the contents of their “Family Sized” box from 547 grams to 513 grams. Edgar took both boxes to the price scanner, and they both scanned the same price. This is very similar to real fraud.

Shrinkflation is where a company reduces the amount of contents in a box, and charges the same price—or even more. NPR’s Planet Money seems to be reporting this problem in a farcical tone (after NPR had injected two commercials). The “reporters” said that inflation is “old news” and skrinkflation is “brand new.” Edgar Dworsky has catalogued dozens of examples of shrinkflation over the years, including Maxwell House Coffee, Tropicana Orange Juice, Tuna Cans, Peanut Butter Jars….etc.

Dworsky diagnoses why this tactic works:

Because consumers are not net weight conscious, they’re price conscious but not net weight conscious. It is a sneaky way to pass on a price increase.

The presenters point out that if human beings followed the classical economic assumption, that they are rational consumers, then this should not be a successful tactic.

Planet Money reached out to General Mills for an explanation. Here is GM’s reply:

The change is all about creating consistency and standardization across the cereal products. [This allows] much more efficient truck loading, leading to fewer trucks on the road, and fewer gallons of fuel used, which is important in both reducing global emissions as well as offsetting increased cost associated with inflation.

As Dr Sunshine used to say, “I have two words to describe this: bull and shit.” Well, its not much of a standard if the amount can be changed in a capricious manner. The consistency is only in making uniform stealth changes. Oh yes, and if you buy this line of BS, then you will also believe General Mills is saving the planet one reduced sized quantity at a time.

Edgar Dworksky does not. He points out that you will run out of cereal sooner, and go to the supermarket sooner than expected, to replenish your Cocoa Puffs, and use more cardboard. Planet Money’s view is that hey,

…to be fair to General Mills, like a lot of companies these days they are dealing with increased business costs, you know higher gas, higher cost of grain, and shrinkflation is their way of dealing with it.

Spoken like a truly fair man, who accepts corporate humbug, as long as its in the open, like a magical illusion that fools everyone—so no one is hurt. Thank you for setting us straight propagandist Greg Rosalsky, who continues to chuckle as he moves along in jovial dialog with Stacey Vanek Smith. This not an intellectual fraud, it’s just business. The consumers don’t realize they’re being taken—and that’s ok today—and fun to talk about.

So what does all this have to do with metric reform? Well here is a quotation from Metrication in Australia:

In hindsight, the early conversion of quantity statements on packaged goods and changes in package sizes had an insignificant impact on public education due largely to the universal existence of the supermarket method of marketing, in which packages were selected by the customer by visual size rather than by quantity name in either imperial or metric.

The US Metric Association, and Elizabeth Benham at NIST, are apparently convinced that if we finally allowed all 50 states to present metric labeling on products, suddenly consumers would embrace an understanding of metric values. This idea has been discussed over and over. Clearly, business understands that people are often not only innumerate, but worse, substitute perception for quantification. It is a belief in the existence of a rational “classical economics” consumer, who will then “punish the market” into relenting, that is at the heart of this flawed notion. During their metric switch-over, Australians learned that metric labeling in supermarkets, as an educational tool, was a fiction. Even with overwhelming practical evidence, as shown by the implementation of shrinkflation across essentially all consumer goods, will these metric advocates rethink and redirect their efforts? This view is a zombie idea that entrances and then eats the brains of some metric advocates. No matter how many times I point this out, the zombie idea arises again, as a parasitic red herring that wastes people’s time and intellectual effort. Please, put salt in this zombie idea’s mouth, and sew it shut.