Christmas Suffers From Diminishing Returns As Festive Fare Gets Smaller

From a lighter box of Quality Street to shrinking packets of cheese crackers, Christmas treats are being sold in ever smaller sizes.

Does the size of your favourite Christmas treats seem to have shrunk this year? Well, the good news is that they won’t make you any bigger, because those goodies really are getting smaller. The bad news, however, is that you’re paying as much as 25% more for less.

Seasonal treats ranging from boxes of chocolates to packets of cheese crackers have all shrunk, according to research carried out for the Observer by the price comparison website Across a basket of seasonal goodies – including Cadbury’s Roses and Asda’s chocolate coins – every single item weighed less than it did this time last year. Even the Advent calendar we compared had lost weight.

Yet, of eight items, only two had been reduced in price; one cost the same; and five had actually gone up, despite being smaller. On cost per unit, which is a more accurate measure of value as it shows how much you pay for 100g, all the products cost more this year.

That annual favourite, a box of Quality Street chocolates, has been shrinking for the last three years from 1kg in 2011 to 820g last year. This year it has shed a further 40g to 780g – yet it costs 13p (or 8%) more to buy this year than last. At the same time, a box of Cadbury’s Roses is up in price by 24p but down in weight by almost 100g from last year. That translates to a 13% price rise.

Children across the country will unwrap chocolate coin bags that are 15g lighter than last year, though their parents (or Santa) will have paid the same £1 for them – making them 18% more expensive.

“What has changed is the sheer scale of this downsizing,” said Vince Mitchell, professor of consumer marketing at the Cass Business School in London. “Whereas shrinking products used to crop up occasionally, which is when they made the news, what this [Observer] research shows is that now this appears to be being done on a massive scale.”

Earlier this year consumer group Which? found that the size of everything from bags of crisps to packs of dishwasher tablets was dwindling. Between March 2013 and the same month this year it found that a bottle of Persil Small & Mighty Biological Colour Liquid had shrunk by 17%, for example, while a box of Nestlé Matchmakers and Birds Eye Takeaway Feasts Original Chicken Popstars had become 14% and 12% smaller, respectively.

However, product shrinkage may be more prevalent at this time of year when the number of price promotions is particularly high. “Bars and blocks of chocolate have become smaller, not as a result of government health pressure, but to maintain price,” said Nicola Scrafton, research director at shopper retail consultancy Visuality Group. “The Christmas tub of confectionery, for instance, has reduced in size over the last few years to keep within the £4 to £5 price tag.”

Manufacturers argue they have had to respond to rising commodity prices, while at the same time dealing with retailers that do not want to lose out to competitors by putting prices up.

“The advantage of this [shrinking] approach for the branded goods manufacturers is that they can change the weight without formal approval of the retailers, whereas a price increase either cuts into the margin or profit of the retailer, or forces the retailer to increase his own selling price,” said Gino Van Bleck, a professor at Vlerick Business School.

Manufacturers don’t want shoppers to notice that they are getting less for their money, so they have become particularly crafty at concealing their shrinking products. While some brands simply reduce the external size of the product and hope no one will notice, many others retain the same packaging but reduce what is inside it – or change the shape of the product.

“Manufacturers will do things like give their product a more round and curvey shape to cut off the edges of chocolate bars, for example, or they will use a more concave-shaped bottom for bottles,” said Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos, a psychologist at University College London (UCL). “There are a number of regulations and guides regarding retailers’ price practices, but none regulating the content of the product. Reducing product size is a form of invisible price increase.”

At the same time many brands are now producing a wider range of different-sized boxes to introduce “size complexity” to further baffle shoppers, said Mitchell.

Nestlé told the Observer that it had reduced the cost price of Quality Street – the price at which it sells the chocolate boxes to retailers – by a corresponding amount to the weight reduction (5%), but it was up to retailers to pass on this reduction. It also said on its Facebook page: “Our competitors all reduced their size last Christmas, so we’re coming in line rather than increasing our price.”

Mondelez International, which owns the Cadbury brand, said in a statement: “A range of economic factors across the board has meant we’ve had to reduce the size of some of our gifting products. By doing this we have been able to hold the product at the same price which we believe still offers an affordable gift for friends and family this Christmas.”