About two or three years ago I noticed toilet paper had shrunk.
The website The Consumerist has been tracking shrinking consumer products, mostly grocery items and consumables, for some years. They call it the Shrink Ray, and it refers to the devious practice of reducing the amount of product but keeping the price the same, in packaging designed to conceal the reduction. Some products lend themselves easily to this treatment. Potato chips and cereal, for example, can be packaged in the same size bag or box and simply left half-empty. You don’t buy a bag of chips any more, for example; you buy a crispy pillow of air which happens to also contain about 1/3 of its volume in chips. When they can’t do that, they manipulate the package size so that it looks the same on the shelf. A half gallon of ice cream is now only three pints, but the container looks the same on the shelf; they just made the packages shallower instead of narrower or shorter, so the consumer doesn’t immediately see the difference. And of course the changes come gradually, an ounce or two at a time, so that like the frog in the pot, you don’t notice the gradual change.
Back to the toilet paper. I had already kind of half-knew that rolls didn’t seem to last as long, but it hadn’t really become a conscious realization yet. Who tracks how long their toilet paper lasts? I suppose I thought I was using more. But then one day I put a new roll on the holder and there was an awful lot of space left from side to side. It looked undersized and pathetic hanging there, and that made me wonder, so I went to another bathroom, got an older roll, and put them next to each other, and sure enough, the new rolls were narrower by about a third of an inch. I was irritated, so next time I went to the store I checked the width of the rolls being sold, and they were all different. All the manufacturers were reducing the rolls by various amounts. The Shrink Ray strikes again. So I thought I’d just have to put up with it, and I started buying toilet paper based on the square footage in the fine print on the package instead of going by the number of rolls or vague, meaningless terms like “double roll” or “big roll.”
This made me a little more conscious of what was going on, and soon I noticed another thing: the center core was getting larger. So not only were the rolls shaving off width, but they were selling us more empty space in the center too. And I also noticed that everything was a “big roll” or a “double roll” now. Occasionally “single roll” packages would show up, as loss-leader advertisement flyer items, but the rolls in those would be dollhouse sized. It was getting harder and harder not to notice you were being systematically cheated.
But what was the old normal before they started messing with it? I didn’t know, until this Consumerist article came out, with helpful links to the complaints of many other shoppers who had noticed the same thing and come to the same conclusion. It turns out the standard width was 4.5″ for over 70 years until the manufacturers decided to start pulling this trick. It also turns out that there are still a lot of holders that will only work with that width, which reveals the reason we have standards in the first place. They’d also been messing with the length of the sheets. I hadn’t noticed that, because I don’t count sheets, but apparently if they put the perforations closer together, they can say there are the same number of sheets while actually reducing the length of the roll. Sneaky? You bet. And a lot less noticeable than reducing the width. I’m guessing they took that trick as far as they could go before they had the idea to make it narrower too. And by now some of them have been through multiple reductions, down to under 4″ wide. Charmin’s apparently down to 3.8″.
I’d had enough. By this point I was feeling cheated every time I even looked at toilet paper. So instead of buying any more at retail, I ordered a case of commercial grade paper, meant for hotel and restaurant use, from Amazon. I had to buy a lot of it – 96 rolls. But it was – guess what – 4.5″ wide. And the moment I unwrapped a roll I remembered what toilet paper used to be like. This roll was solid and had weight; the retail rolls were featherweight and puffy by comparison, and I realized at that moment how much loosely rolled airspace I’d been buying for years. You could compress the retail roll by 2/3 just by squeezing it between finger and thumb. Not so the commercial paper. And in spite of the loose, cushy feeling of the retail paper, its actual quality in use was no better or worse than the commercial stuff.
Of course I did the math. Did I have to pay more? Well, no. The last bale of retail toilet paper had worked out to about 50 cents a roll; the commercial stuff, 72 cents a roll. So yes, a roll cost more – but the retail rolls had 21 square feet per roll, whereas the commercial rolls have 68 square feet. So I’m saving a bunch of money in the long run. I figure I won’t have to buy paper again for two years.
If you think about this, it’s easy to see why the commercial product is different. Unlike consumers, businesses watch costs methodically, and they don’t want to pay labor costs for someone to walk around changing loose, short rolls of paper all day. So it’s wound tightly to last longer. People browsing in retail stores don’t notice that and will buy whatever looks biggest for the price. Put succinctly, retail shoppers are easier to con, and conning shoppers is what’s going on.
Every time shoppers notice the Shrink Ray and complain, the manufacturers try to spin it as if they’re doing you some sort of colossal favor by selling you a smaller product for the same price. Usually they pretend there was a great public demand for it in some way. The toilet paper companies are claiming the product has been improved and so now you need less. This is all bullshit, and everyone knows it. Charmin was so inundated with complaints about reducing their size and quality that they simply gave up responding.
Why do I think shrinking toilet paper is worth fourteen hundred words of blog space? Because it’s not just toilet paper. It’s ice cream, and chips, and laundry detergent, and bacon, and orange juice, and all kinds of other things. It took me years to notice I was getting cheated; the water had to get pretty hot before this frog noticed, and a lot of frogs haven’t noticed and apparently aren’t going to notice. And even people who do notice are still being deceived. Here’s a case in point. In the comments section of this article, you’ll find this quote from “D’Ann”: “Pasta is now another example. One pound (16 oz.) is now 12 oz. A 25% PRICE INCREASE.” Now, this is from a woman who took the time to document a whole list of sneaky price increases, and yet her math is wrong here. Charging the same price for 12 ounces that you used to charge for 16 ounces is a 33% increase, not 25%. So here’s someone who’s certainly sensitive to what’s going on, yet she’s still being successfully deceived about how much she’s been cheated.
It’s worth writing about because it’s dishonest, sneaky, and devious. As a society, why aren’t we past the point where we have to worry about being systematically cheated when we buy food or soap? Or toilet paper? Why is this permissible? Who sits in an office and decides it’s just dandy to try to cheat customers just a little more today than yesterday? When did this behavior ooze out of the used car lots of America and into the boardrooms? I’m wondering how far it can go. Ten years from now, will people be buying chip bags the size of car seats that contain six chips, eating Hershey bars the thickness of credit cards, and using 2″ wide toilet paper? How much longer until there’s nothing left to chisel?
Where’s the bottom?