When food manufacturers face price hikes in essential ingredients such as wheat, sugar or rice, they essentially have two methods for passing on these higher food costs to retailers and customers. One way is to increase the price of the current products, which might not be a popular choice with consumers, and the other way is to reduce the amount of product sold at the established retail price. This practice of shrinking packages in order to avoid raising prices is known as short-sizing.
Short-sizing involves changing the package size of popular items such as breakfast cereal, ice cream, coffee and laundry detergents in order to avoid a substantial raise in retail prices. A traditional half-gallon container of ice cream, for example, may be redesigned to hold only 1 1/2 quarts of actual ice cream, although the dimensions of the carton may not change noticeably. The only outward sign of short-sizing a carton of ice cream may be a slightly slimmer profile when compared to an older carton.
One of the first products subjected to short-sizing was canned coffee. A can of coffee purchased during the 1970s would most likely have weighed a full 16 ounce pound. By the 2000s, the size of an average coffee can could easily be as little as 10 ounces. Because coffee prices have risen dramatically during the intervening years, it is easier for coffee producers to practice short-sizing instead of charging an exorbitant price for a full pound of coffee.
Short-sizing does not work for every consumable product on store shelves, however. Cooks who depend on standard measurements for raw ingredients can still find containers of flour, sugar, pasta and other staples in full-size containers. Other consumables such as canned foods and snacks, however, may appear to be in standard size packages, but the weight has been reduced by a few ounces. Food manufacturers are not required to disclose the practice of short-sizing; it is the responsibility of the consumer to compare weights and sizes to see if a one-pound bag of potato chips actually contains a full pound of product.
One way to determine if short-sizing has occurred in a familiar product is to look at the pricing information provided by the grocer. The unit price should reflect the relative amount of money a consumer would pay for similar product amounts. A rise in the unit price without a comparable rise in package size would indicate some short-sizing has occurred. A national brand of potato chips may be the same price as a store brand, for example, but the unit price would reveal if the national brand only contained 12 ounces of chips compared to the store brand's 16 ounces.
Short-sizing is not considered an illegal practice, even without full disclosure, but it can be problematic if the product size becomes noticeably smaller while the price continues to rise. Raising the price for a full-size container may be seen as more honest, but it also raises the possibility of an economic panic if every food company stopped short-sizing altogether. Some products, such as candy or snack foods, can usually be sold in smaller sizes without causing much distress among consumers.