On the radar: shrinkflation
Picture the scene: it’s late afternoon and you’re suddenly beset with a chocolate craving. You rush to the local shop, grab a packet of your favourite sweet treats, and hand over your hard-earned cash. Returning to your desk, you rip open the packet and dig greedily in. But before you’ve even started, it’s all over. Surely there should be more? That was barely a mouthful. And then you check the packet’s weight and realize the truth…
You have become a victim of shrinkflation: a phenomenon where popular treats reduce in size or quantity while remaining at the same price. In a nutshell, you’re paying the same amount for less.
This sad scene has been occurring all too often in recent times. Back in November 2016, the redesign of the iconic Toblerone bar caused outrage, as the gaps between chunks grew, leaving it unrecognisable – more a scattering of hillocks than a lofty mountain range. As consumers bewailed the change, it quickly emerged that many other products had also become suspiciously smaller, and we saw a leap in the use of shrinkflation. In the last few days, the word has spiked in use once again, as it was revealed that sharing bags of Maltesers, Minstrels, and M&Ms were all shrinking for the second time in a year.
Shrinkflation is a portmanteau, made from combining shrink: ‘to become or make smaller in size’, with the economic sense of inflation: ‘a general increase in prices and fall in the purchasing value of money’. Several –flation words have already become established in the language, such as stagflation: ‘persistent high inflation combined with high unemployment and stagnant demand in a country’s economy’, first seen in the 1960s, and agflation: ‘rising food prices caused by increased demand for agricultural commodities’, a more recent coinage from the early twenty-first century. Shrinkflation is a somewhat different case, referring to a reduction in size, rather than a rise in cost – it is, after all, a way for manufacturers to furtively maintain their profit margins without overtly increasing the price of a product.
While disappearing chocolate has driven shrinkflation into the spotlight in recent months, the first evidence of the term shows it used in a rather different sense. In 2009, the economic historian Brian Domitrovic used shrinkflation in his book Econoclasts to describe an economy that was contracting while prices surged, contrasting it with the more established stagflation. However, it took shrinking snacks to really capture the public’s imagination, and it’s this sense that has seen a steady increase in use since it first emerged in 2013.
Even so, shrinkflation still has a little way to go before it earns its place in our dictionary. While it’s definitely on the rise, right now there isn’t quite enough evidence of use to prove that it’s here to stay. However, if those so-called sharing bags keep getting smaller, then we won’t have to wait much longer.