Whether in Cookies or Cars: Buyer Beware

I just opened a pack of Girl Scout cookies. The Samoas (chocolate caramel and coconut. To me, one of the basic food groups) are the size that LifeSavers used to be. (And LifeSavers are the size of Jujubes.) They are part of the incredible shrinking packaged goods phenomenon. Like frog not jumping out of slowly increasing water temperature until they're being boiled -- the stuff we buy has been shrinking, shrinking, shrinking over the years. The more companies tell consumers they love us; the more they show us that they don't. Some say that modern retail is really a "war to con consumers."

Yes, the Girl Scouts are hardly alone.

The Consumerist reports that just in the past couple months, we've lost count and content in many of our most popular brands: turkey, toilet paper, detergent, pasta sauce, yogurt and peanut butter -- a few examples from a long and growing list.

This downsizing is so common that it now has a name: "The Grocery Shrink Ray." When grocery companies need to boost margins, they have a binary choice: higher cost, or less product. With a country still a little unsteady from the financial system's new-death experience, less product -- especially when it goes unnoticed -- is the prudent choice.

Manufacturers have their talking points down cold. It's all about the rising cost of materials and ingredients. Funny thing though, inflation has been low for years. And when there is inflation, prices have a way of rising well ahead of manufacturing costs. And -- once shrunk -- no matter what happens in the economy, products never seem to go back to their former size, even though the price eventually goes up.

The most amusing part of this is how manufacturers try to divert attention from the shrinking.

According to the Consumerists consumer watchdogs: Last month, Del Monte Pasta Sauce proudly introduced redesigned cans with the pronouncement -- "New look, same great taste." The hope is that consumers will be so dazzled by the new tomato art on the label that they will overlook the fact that there is two and a half fewer ounces in the can.

Kellogg's Crunchy Nut last year pulled off an exceptional store-shelf sleight of hand. They made the box taller, but also skinnier, taking out about one bowl worth of cereal in the process.

These are strange times in the world of consumer products. Pick up any marketing text, and you'll find that "consumer loyalty" is passé. The standard today is consumer advocacy -- a brand love so strong that you use social media to share it. Conversely -- the texts warn -- let them down, and their disappointment will spread like digital wildfire.

So why are companies doing things like changing labels to hide decreases in content? There are economic realities, I know. But I can also paraphrase an old adage: "You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time -- and that is usually good enough."

Putting profit ahead of people has recently taken on darker dimensions. Toyota just paid a $1.2 billion fine for hiding an accelerator defect that spawned hundreds of suits over injury and death -- including a horrific crash that killed a state trooper and his family. Does the total $5 billion in fines, settlements and penalties hurt? Apparently not, according to U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, "Toyota was positively jubilant about the results, noting in an internal email that it had saved '$100 billion plus in unnecessary costs.'"

Now comes General Motors, and 12 deaths -- so far -- known to be caused by an ignition problem the Company knew about 11 years ago and, according to charges, hid in a massive cover-up. A Center for Auto Safety study found evidence that 300 people died when, related to the ignition problem, airbags failed to deploy.

We can talk about the age of the consumer. We can talk about the quest for brand love. We can listen to the warm voice of an announcer telling us they're on our side. But the reality in a profit-driven economy is the same as when miraculous tonics were sold from the backs of wagons. Whether in cookies or cars: caveat emptor.