You might not have noticed it, but your Easter eggs this year were probably a little bit smaller than they were last year.

Or maybe there were fewer little chocolates in the bottom of the box. Or smaller bars.

This is a phenomenon known as 'shrinkflation', and it's one of the ways companies quietly pads its bottom line - or manages rising costs.

What is 'shrinkflation'?

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People by now are all too familiar with inflation – where prices rise. Shrinkflation is kind of its covert cousin.

What it refers to is the practice of making the product itself smaller while keeping the price the same. It’s effectively the same as raising the price – because you’re paying more per gram or litre. But it’s a bit harder to spot unless you’re paying close attention.

The term ‘shrinkflation’ is actually relatively new. It’s attributed to economist Pippa Malmgren, who first used it in 2015. But the actual practice goes back much further than that.

So when people say it was better "back in my day", they’re right?

About certain things, yes.

If you remember a Curly Wurly being the size of a small ladder, it’s not entirely because your mind is playing tricks on you. Chocolate bars have been getting progressively smaller over the years.

That’s usually the product type that people notice most often, too, but it happens in all kinds of consumer goods.

A study by the Office for National Statistics in the UK – which is their version of the Central Statistics Office – identified 2,529 products that shrank in size between January 2012 and June 2017.

Because they’re common consumer goods in Britain, it means they’re generally common consumer goods here.

And generally, the ONS found, that when the product got smaller the price stayed the same.

It should be said that the ONS also identified cases where some products increased in size during that time period – again, with price tending to stay the same – but it was far more common for things to get smaller than to get bigger.

Where is ‘shrinkflation’ most common?

According to that ONS survey, food and drink account for most of the decreases in product size.

It said that 71% of the decreases it measured were in food and drink (though that category also accounted for 70% of the increases).

Shrinkflation was most common in bread and cereals, meat – and then lots of sugar-heavy products like jam, syrups and sweets.

Outside of food and drink, the kinds of products most likely to see shrinkflation were things like toilet rolls, nappies and tissues; as well as kitchen roll and washing up liquid.

What are some examples of shrinkflation…

There are plenty to choose from over the years – so it’s worth looking at the different ways that shrinkflation is achieved.

Back in 2017, McVities reduced the number of Jaffa Cakes in a standard packet from 12 to 10. So customers simply got fewer cakes in the box.

The size of a Toblerone has shrunk considerably in the past decade or so – first from 200g to 170g in 2010, and then to 150g in 2016.

This was partially achieved by making the gaps between each alp a bit wider.

Innocent Smoothies used to sell their drinks in one litre cartons – but now 750ml is their standard size.

And back in 2017 Kimberly-Clark took 21 sheets off each roll of Andrex toilet paper – meaning consumers were effectively getting two rolls fewer in a pack of 16.

And in the past year consumers have probably been hit on the double – because we have of course seen prices of pretty much everything increase, while also seeing shrinkflation continue.

McVities is a culprit again – it’s taken three biscuits out of a packet of digestives in recent weeks. Meanwhile a packet of Cadbury’s Buttons has shrunk by around 23%.

So in some cases people may actually be paying more while getting even less in return.

Why do companies do this, rather than just raise prices?

Price increases are bad for business, and companies like to avoid them if they can.

Perhaps the oldest recorded example of shrinkflation goes back to French bakers in the 18th Century – who were expected to charge a ‘just price’ for their goods.

And they knew that increasing the price of a loaf of bread could spark a riot – probably resulting in them being killed too –so it was best avoided.

But, of course, the price of flour would go up and down – so they couldn’t simply keep everything static. So while the price was constant, it was generally accepted that you might sometimes get a smaller loaf of bread.

Now, modern consumer brands probably don’t have to worry about sparking a riot – but they are aware of just how price-conscious consumers are, especially at times like this when our budgets are under pressure.

They don’t want to do something that will put a consumer off making a purchase – which is possible if you’re talking about a luxury item like chocolate. They also don’t want to allow the competition to look more attractive than them, because you might never win that consumer back.

And so shrinkflation is a way of raising the price in a way that’s somewhat under the radar.

Because the truth is that we often don’t notice these changes… people don’t tend to count their toilet sheets, so they might no realise that they’re effectively paying more.

In fact in the toilet roll example, the price of Andrex also fell; just not by as much as the product size.

But it was enough for it to appear as though the consumer was getting better value than before, even though they were worse off.

But while people may not notice shrinkflation – it has a very real effect on their pockets....

Absolutely – a lot of the examples might sound somewhat insignificant, but when you do the sums they actually represent a significant price increase.

Taking two Jaffa Cakes out of the packet doesn’t sound like a big deal – but it’s equivalent to a 16.6% increase in price if you think of it per cake.

A Toblerone now, effectively, costs 25% more than it did in 2010 – not counting any change to the actual price that’s been made in the meantime.

If they had just jacked up the price by 25%, people may have thought twice about buying them to begin with.

And that’s possible when you’re talking about luxuries or little treats like chocolates – people tend to just adjust their spending when price becomes a factor – but it’s more significant when you’re talking about basic household items like toilet roll.

By reducing the amount of paper on a toilet roll by 10% you’re effectively forcing shoppers to buy more toilet rolls, or buy them more often.

The same goes for kitchen roll, things like cling film, or tin foil – cleaning products and so on.

And it’s part of the reason why people will often feel like their euro just isn’t stretching as far as it used to – even though, on paper, their shopping trolley and shopping bills have stayed the same.

Do companies have any defence for this practice?

Well they will often say that this is simply a way of helping consumers by avoiding a price increase… even though it is, effectively, a price increase.

But, in their defence – there is sometimes more to this than simply cutting costs or padding out profits.

Food and drink tend to be the main culprits when it comes to shrinkflation – and in some cases at least they’re doing so at the behest of the Food Safety Authority.

It has a four year ‘food reformulation’ roadmap that runs until 2025. It’s voluntary but the aim is to get food companies to reduce the stuff that we tend to have an excess of in our foods.

So, for example, it wants a 10% reduction in the salt in some of the most common foods; it wants a 20% reduction in sugar and a 10% reduction in saturated fat.

And, overall, it wants 20% reduction in the calories in products that contribute most to childhood obesity.

For some types of food, that’s as simple as reducing certain ingredients – or changing the recipe to swap things in or out.

But when it comes to things like chocolate, while attempts have been made, it’s not too easy to swap out the sugar or fat without having a significant influence on taste. And, just like on price, food companies don’t want to put customers off by changing their product to something they don’t really want to eat.

So, for them, reformulation often relies heavily on reducing portion size. If you want to reduce the calories in a chocolate bar by 20%, you make one chocolate bar 20% smaller.

The problem is, though, no matter what way you cut it, even if it’s good for us, it still represents the consumer picking up the tab and the companies’ bottom line being unaffected… or in some cases even boosted.

What other invisible inflation techniques should we be on alert for?

Another common tactic companies use is Skimpflation.

The word hasn’t caught on quite in the same way as shrinkflation – but the concept is one people will be very familiar with.

It’s the idea of a company cutting corners on a product or service in order to reduce costs.

So it will cost the same – and it might even look and feel the same on a superficial level, but under the hood it’s a lesser product.

And the problem with this is that it’s even harder to spot than shrinkflation.

So with food you might be talking about using inferior ingredients to what it used before.

Or it could be a hotel that charges the same rate as before for bed and breakfast – but when you check in you realise that maybe the room hasn’t been cleaned to the same standard as it would have been before (because they’ve cut back on housekeeping).

Or when you go for your breakfast the next morning you find that the complimentary breakfast, which used to be a freshly-made fry up, is now a selection of cereals and stale pastries.