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Your Guide to Fight Big Brand's Clever Tricks That Make Us Pay More for Less

Supermarket inflation skyrocketed over the last few years - COVID, conflicts; everything is an excuse for the prices to go up. But, while the prices go up, the value for money of our products has dropped tremendously due, in part, to predatory marketing tactics. From 'shrinkflation' to false pricing of maxi-packs - big brands manage to keep selling us less for more. Here's an easy guide to help you keep money in your wallet and detect harmful marketing while you browse the supermarket.

A female showing an empty wallet

Let's look at the different ways in which Inflation, i.e. price increase, can be camouflaged when you stroll in the supermarket.

Tactic 1: Shrinkflation

Raising prices on our favorite goods is not popular. Instead, big brands keep the price untouched, but discreetly remove some of the product - effectively selling less quantities for same price.

Shrinkflation can be more or less subtle, for instance:

  • Tesco Express used to sell apples in packs of 6 for £1.70 (i.e. 28.3 cents/apple), but over time they changed the size of the package to sell 4 apples for the same price (i.e. 42.5 cents/apple).

  • A more famous example is Toblerone. In 2016, a new Toblerone bar was designed with larger gaps between peaks, using 10% less chocolate, but... the price tag didn't change. Smart marketing move, but bad news for our wallets.

Two Toblerone chocolate bars
Shink-unwrapped ... the Toblerone bar before and after it was ‘shrinkflated’. Photograph: Alastair Grant/AP

Shrinkflation has 2 adverse consequences for us, consumers. First, we get less for our money, which is a bad news. But, on top of this, once we get us used to get smaller quantities for a specific price point, big brands can introduce "family packs" or "maxi packs" for a much higher price in order to create a infinite inflation mechanism.

Here's the playbook non ethical brands and supermarkets follow, e.g.:

  • In April 2022, sell packs of 6 tomatoes for £1 (i.e.

  • 16.7 cents/tomato)

  • In May 2022, "shrink" quantities to sell 4 (of the same) tomatoes for £1 (i.e. 25 cents/tomato)

  • In August, introduce a "maxi pack" of 6 tomatoes for 1.2£ (i.e. 20 cents/tomato). This now looks like a bargain compared to the 4-tomato pack (25 cents/tomato) although it's 20% more expensive than 4 months ago. After some time, getting customers used to pay a specific price for the 6 tomato pack, the supermarket can repeat the operation by shrinking quantities again, offering 4 tomatoes for £1.20, re-introducing a "maxi pack" etc etc.

To find many more examples of shrinkflation in supermarkets worldwide, see:

Online supermarket selling ice cream and iced tea
Do you remember 1.5L bottles and 1L ice creams? Today's formats become smaller and smaller. That's great to save space in the fridge, but that also saves space in our wallets!

Next times you go buy groceries, have a look at how many tomatoes, apples, tea bags and other items you've got in the packs you're buying. Pay attention to the size of the bottles you're buying, the weight of items etc. You might notice changes over time which means you got 'shrinkflated'!

Tactic 2: Stretchflation

Big brands & supermarkets know our love for maxi packs and bargains. This is why they invented a new predatory marketing tactic called "Stretchflation" to make us pay more for less.

Here is how it works:

  • Create a "maxi format" for a product by raising the quantities being sold. In doing so, you appeal on consumers' love for maxi packs and promotions, but...

  • Set the price of the pack to be proportionally (much) higher than the quantity increase.

Online supermarket selling frozen buns
Source: | Quantities rose by 15 % by prices increased by 35%!

By increasing the quantity of product, consumers logically expect to see the final price increase (but expect a better value for money). As such, consumers are less vigilant, and check out without paying attention to the real amount of inflation. However, the latter is very real. For a few grams of additional food, the manufacturer excessively increases the selling price.

Tactic 3: Cheapflation

As consumers, we absolutely love to see lower prices. So much so, that manufacturers can use this to trick us to spend a little less money for much less product, lowering the value for money of the products we purchase.

Here is how cheapflation works:

  • A shower gel brand sells a bottle of 450ml at £4.5 (i.e. £1/100ml)

  • To make more money out of their customers, they decide to do a promotion: the same product is now sold in a 350ml bottle for "only" £3.7

Looks like a bargain, right? Except that the 17.8% price decrease (i.e. 80 cents) comes with a 22.2% decrease in quantities. So, as a consumer you end up saving a little bit to lose more!

How to protect yourself again shrinkflation, stretchflation, cheapflation and all other future tactics?

Supermarkets and big brands are in the business to make the most money our of their suppliers and consumers. A few key retailers control most of the market and define how the game is played.

Usually, supermarkets are filled with traps to appeal on their customers to spend more. Be it flashy colors, big promotional banners, limited offers, they know what nudges will make our money leave our pocket. This is why the most effective way to get better value for your money is to shop at local ethical places that put people and planet on the same level as profits.

  • Volunteer ran coops like Fareshares or the Borough Food Cooperative are extremely price competitive, offer very good products and actively work against food waste. You can find them, along with many other similar shops on Ganddee.

  • Vegetables and fruits box schemes are a great way to get organic veggies from a nearby farm around you. The prices are competitive, the food is better for your health and for the planet, and you can get delivered at home (e.g. see here to find a box scheme around you:

  • Zerowaste (or low waste) shops offer bulk buying solutions which make prices more transparent. Price transparency makes it much easier for us, consumers, to compare products and detect inflation. You can find hundreds of zerowaste shops across the UK on the Ganddee app.

  • Finally, if you need to shop at your local supermarket, be sure to always look at the price per kg for what you buy. Do not get tricked by packaging, "special offers" (that aren't special) and nice colors. The real thing that matters is how much you pay for the quantity you buy. If you pay attention to this, you will defeat the marketing tactics mentioned above.

That's it! You're now a super shopper!

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