[SCMP Column] Diminishing Act

December 10, 2016

As a wide-eyed seven year old primary school kid, one of the toughest moments of every day was to “run the gauntlet” of the bicycle snack-food vendor outside the school gate  on the short 400 yard walk back home.  This was one of the hungriest moments of the day. I rarely had any pennies to rub together, so I could usually do no better than listen to my tummy rumble and shuffle enviously by as the lucky rich kids picked over the goodies.

But on those happy days when I had some thick heavy pennies in my pocket, there was no more blissful moment than picking out a Mars bar, then the emperor’s feast of all chocolate treats. The size and caramel heaviness of it gave pleasure I have rarely felt before or since. It was almost too heavy to hold in a single hand. It cost a fortune, at 4d, but was worth every hard-earned penny. My sister and I could share it: cut into slices, it would last us for days.

So I was mildly disappointed to pick one up in a 7-eleven a few weeks ago. Feather-light in my hand, I wondered whether it seemed so comparatively insubstantial simply because I have grown so large and old. Then I noticed all the recent fuss about Toblerone, made in Switzerland by the US company Mondalez, which has had its crunchy triangular “mountains” reduced – and the chocolate valleys between them widened – in order to cut costs as chocolate prices relentlessly rise. I was introduced to the bemusing concept of “shrinkflation”.

And of course, it is not just Toblerone that has fallen victim to the curse of “shrinkflation”. I have subsequently learned that a 1kg tin of Quality Street chocolates now weighs in at 820g. And six-packs of Cadbury’s Crème Eggs have become five-packs. A pack of Pringles has been shrunk 18% from 134g to 110g as the diameter of the Pringles box has been shrunk from 7.8cm to 7.0cm and each individual chip has been skinnied down.

This flurry of “shrinkification” stories have all erupted as confectionary input costs have soared by an estimated 40% over the past year. They have erupted in the UK in particular as sterling has tumbled in the wake of the Brexit vote, hoisting the price of most ingredients and prompting UK food manufacturers to worry about profit margins.

But my clear memories of the progressive slimming down of the once magnificent Mars bar reminds me that there is absolutely nothing new in “shrinkflation”. On the contrary, it has been a quiet, insidious constant across the food industry probably for as long as a food industry has existed. We surely have to regard goods offered for $9.99, “Buy two, get one free”, and for ‘lucky” prices like $8.88 as classic shrinkflationary ruses to fudge true costs and buoy profit margins by stealth. Bottled drinks have developed dimples all over the place, supposedly to make them easier to hold, but at the same time reducing the liquid inside. And how come the price of a bottle of wine shrank not one iota when the government cut tax on wine in 2008?

And of course, “shrinkflation” applies to far more than our food and drink. Our own distinct Hong Kong speciality comes in the form of residential apartments, with property developers selling 160sq ft “homes” as cheekily as Pringles have shrunk the diameter of their boxes. Many Hong Kong visitors would also claim that our hoteliers have done the same with hotel rooms as it often becomes increasingly hard to find room to park a single suitcase.

And “shrinkflation” goes further still. Our banks have steadily reduced the number of ATMs at our service across the city. Centres that service or repair anything from electronic goods to gas cookers or washing machines have become so rare and remote that one has little choice but to throw them into land fill if anything goes wrong. Retailers are into the “shrinkflation” game by choosing not to open until 10.00, sometimes 11.00. Health or travel insurance policies do it by using shrinkflated small print to trim out elements that they would prefer no longer to afford. You could even say that manufacturers have used robotics and other forms of automation to shrinkflate jobs out of the workplace.

But many shrinkflationary ploys must on balance be regarded as helpful. It strikes me that efforts to reduce overpackaging, even if motivated by a desire to reduce costs and bolster profit margins, are a good thing. So too efforts to reduce the use of plastic bags, and to trim food waste, and to make us print on the clean side of printed sheets of paper. So are the efforts to miniaturize mobile phones or cameras, which greatly reduce the pace at we exhaust so many raw materials. Those little devices in public toilets that ration the use of soap and speedily turn off the water tap surely also have beneficial shrinkflationary effects.

Computer-aided design has not only made cars and buildings look more elegant, but has helped to reduce resource use and improve environmental performance. So too has improved battery technology. I’m sure that nano materials in many forms will also in due course reduce our resource use.

One area where “shrinkflation” is neglected but urgently needed must surely be government bureaucracy. My recent application for a dependent visa for my newly-minted wife took an awesome ten weeks, and at my last count involved photocopying around 400 pages of documents of one kind or another. My company tax returns are still largely a manual affair and could surely be radically shrinkflated. Come to think of it, tax returns for companies earning less than (say) HK$5m a year could be abandoned completely. The cost of processing them must surely be higher than the tax revenues raised. That’s the kind of shrinkflation that I could truly celebrate.
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