Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Honey, I shrunk the groceries

My mother, who pays better attention to these things than I do, has been pointing out to me for some time now how many of the products she buys have shrunk in size — although not in price. Curious, I did some reading and discovered that not only is this a thing, it’s been a thing for years and it has a name: “shrinkflation.”

As a phenomenon, it apparently knows no borders, as Veronique Greenwood explained in this 13 May 2018 BBC article:

According to the UK’s Office of National Statistics, 2,529 products on supermarket shelves decreased in size or weight in the five years between 2012 and 2017.

Greenwood’s article is well worth reading as she explores the subject in some detail and talks to people like Edgar Dworsky, a retired American consumer rights lawyer with “a collection of old bottles, boxes, and packets stored in his home in the Boston area that document how products in US grocery stores have downsized over the past few decades.” (He also maintains a website called where he tracks such things.)

Edgar Dworsky with some of his containers. (BBC photo)

Edgar Dworsky with some of his containers. (BBC photo)

Dworsky explains that, faced with rising costs — whether for ingredients or transportation or packaging — and the need to keep profits as high as possible, companies have three choices: “raise the price; make smaller packages; change the ingredients.”

Consumers respond very badly to price hikes (in part, I would argue, because while increases in input prices lead to price hikes, decreases never seem to result in price reductions). As for messing with recipes, Mark Lang, a professor of marketing at University of Tampa, Florida, told Greenwood:

“From the late 1970s to the late 1990s, there was some egregious reformulation going on”…

This reformulating ­– switching in hydrogenated oils, artificial sweeteners, and other substances to stand in for more expensive ingredients, for example – helped with the bottom line. But for many people, it marked a breach of trust between consumers and food manufacturers. Lang says that while activists and foodies have rejected such practices for a long time, in the last few years there has also been an unmistakable backlash from shoppers.

Greenwood gives the example of soft-drink manufacturer Irn-Bru, which responded to a new British sugar tax by adding an artificial sweetener and “suffered a backlash against the decision, although the firm insists that the response to its new recipe has been encouraging.”

With price increases and ingredient changes off the table, what’s left is downsizing:

If consumers mostly don’t notice the change, the company can continue to sell the same formula with a higher effective price but no customer exodus.

bounty paper towels shrinkflation

Packages can be designed to look like they contain the same volume even though they don’t. (Quirks of human perception enter into the picture here.)  But in an AP article on the subject that appeared a few days after Greenwood’s, Dalhousie food prof Sylvain Charlebois argued that downsizing is not really misleading as “Weight and volume information can easily be found on any labelled package.” (Charlebois’ article, which I found in the Globe and Mail, is weird in that he seems to have borrowed generously from Greenwood’s BBC piece without citing her or any of her sources.)

Charlebois argues that by downsizing, companies are just “delivering what consumers are asking for.” Because consumers, it seems, are asking to pay more for the same amount of a product.

But for Dworsky, companies aren’t giving customers what they’re asking for, they’re demonstrating their “low opinion of their customers’ intelligence.”

Over his years as a professional observer of grocery shelves, [Dworsky] has noticed an interesting pattern: it is common for a downsized product to come full circle. First a product drops from 16oz to 14.5oz. Then, as the years pass, maybe it goes down to 11oz. Perhaps it even drops to 8oz. Then, a 16oz size appears again. But this time, it’s the super or mega size. And the cost is much, much higher than that of the original.

It isn’t clear whether companies plan this bizarre roundabout of change, but it certainly is part of the life cycle of goods that are sold by the package – the same thing, presented as if it were new, and with a price that’s grown.

Greenwood asked Dworsky if he would prefer companies just raised prices instead of playing games with size and he said:

“In my fantasy, I would love to see manufacturers have to put a big bold disclosure on downsized products that says, ‘Look, New, Smaller Size’. But that will never happen.”


Au revoir, Madeleine!

Almost before you could say, “There’s a ship at the second berth!” she was gone.

The MV Madeleine, recently retired from service between Souris, PEI and the Magdalen Islands by the Coopérative de Transport Maritime et Aérien (CTMA), tied up at Sydney’s second berth last week to great local acclaim as the berth’s first customer.

MV Madeleine

MV Madeleine at second berth. (Photo by Tom Ayers via Twitter)

A March 16 CTMA press release explained that 22 members of the car ferry’s crew were sailing her from Cap Aux Meules in the Magdalens to Sydney, where they would stay two days before returning to the Magdalens by plane. The press release (translated by Google) explained that “wharf keepers” would “watch over the vessel until Transport Canada’s call for tenders for dismantling” it was completed:

The departure of the Madeleine is part of the preparations for the arrival of the new ferry. It was necessary to make room for maneuvering in the port and also to ensure the safety of ships in the event of bad weather ” underlines Captain Bernard Langford, who is responsible for putting the Madeleine II into service in collaboration with the captain[,]Valmont Arsenault.

I took that to mean the vessel would remain in Sydney until the shipbreaking tender was awarded and if you read the tender itself, which was posted on March 15 and closes on March 29, that seems to have been the plan:

Transport Canada has a requirement to dispose of, through Ship Breaking, the MV Madeleine. The Contractor will be required to prepare the vessels for transfer, transfer the vessel to the Approved Site and subsequently break (dismantle and dispose or recycle) the vessel in an efficient and environmentally responsible manner in accordance with the Statement of Work – Annex A.

The Contractor will have until May 31, 2021 to remove the vessel from Port Sydney, Nova Scotia, and from the removal date, twelve (12) months to complete the Work.

MV Madeleine, 2015 by Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

MV Madeleine, 2015 by Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But the vessel left Sydney for Souris the very next day, on March 18, and Marc-André Charbonneau, a communications person with Public Works and Government Services Canada, told me in an email:

The MV Madeleine is now out of service. The vessel is now docked in Souris, PEI at the Souris Harbour Authority wharf adjacent to the Souris Ferry Terminal, where it will remain until the tender is awarded.

I asked why the change of plan, and he directed me to CTMA director of communications and marketing Claudia Delaney, who sent me a press release that said the company had decided not to dock the vessel in Sydney after all for safety reasons:

À Sydney, en cas de mauvaises conditions météo il aurait fallu avoir un équipage à bord pour assurer la sécurité du navire. Puisque ce n’était pas possible (nos équipages étant aux Îles), le port de Souris est plus abrité et assure la sécurité du navire en ayant seulement des gardiens à bord, » explique le directeur des opérations maritimes Mario Landry.

That is, in Sydney, in case of bad weather, there would have to be a crew aboard the vessel and that’s not possible because the crews are on the Islands. The port of Souris is more sheltered and the safety of the vessel can be assured just by having guards aboard.

And that, as Paul Harvey would say, is the rest of the story. (Although not entirely — I haven’t considered what this means in terms of the Port of Sydney’s ability to attract future, non-cruise, business to its second berth. That’s a tale for another day.)


Paving and Properties

Speaking of the rest of the story, I have updates to two I wrote this week.

First, the story about the new Fire Station and the parking lot at Pitt and George. As you may recall, a reader prompted me to ask if the parking lot — which has appeared only recently — is intended for use by the fire department.

Battleship, game

CBRM spokesperson Christina Lamey told me the lot is being leased by the municipality from Irving Oil for downtown parking. My reader then asked me who paid to pave it (a good question, which I should have thought of myself).

The answer is: the CBRM paid for the paving. But I don’t know how much because I didn’t ask and Lamey didn’t volunteer the information.

The second update relates to my story about land acquisition in support of the NSCC Marconi waterfront campus. I was trying to figure out how the number of properties acquired for the waterfront location compared to the number that would have been necessary at the other three locations considered for the campus.

The Department of Labour and Advanced Education (LAE) had told me it dealt with eight owners but I wanted to know if that translated into eight properties or if some owners had more than one property. In response to my follow-up question, LAE spokesperson Shannon Kerr told me:

We have completed 8 purchase and sale agreements. There are several parcels of land that were purchased within each agreement.

So I still don’t know how many properties in total were purchased because LAE won’t say.

I can now send a follow-up to my follow-up question but this process is really maddening — it’s like playing battleship with the municipal and provincial governments, if your question isn’t precisely targeted, they won’t answer it.

Unlike battleship, of course, governments can also refuse to answer when your question has been targeted with pin-point accuracy.


Muck Rack

In the course of some research this week, I ran across this entry on Muck Rack (why “Muck Rack” and not “Muck Rake” I couldn’t tell you), an internet site that creates journalist bios based on information gathered from the web and then invites the subjects to create accounts — presumably to exercise some control over the content:

Muck Rake bio Mary Campbell

I looked up this other Mary Campbell and she’s a Mary Pat Campbell, which means we share not just first and last but middle names. (Although I do not answer to “Mary Pat” so don’t even think about it.)

I’m guessing she hasn’t seen this entry or she would probably — as a cranky conservative — have taken steps to dissociate herself from my writings.

Interestingly, there is another Mary Campbell bio on Muck Rack that includes my picture and links to 271 articles I did actually write. (Then there is a third, picturel-less, Mary Campbell bio that purports to be for a Mary Campbell at the Three Rivers Progress, a Texas newspaper, but that also links to some of Mary Pat Campbell’s articles, so I’m not sure if this is a separate Mary or not.)

Muck Rack advertises itself as “the new standard in public relations software” and if that’s true, I’d hate to see what these bios would have looked like under the old standard.


This is the Law

I loved CBU Prof. Tom Urbaniak’s most recent Cape Breton Post column in which he took readers on a tour of all the relevant Canadian legislation governing in camera municipal meetings.

I particularly enjoyed this paragraph:

I don’t think the Act is too onerous. The requirements for transparent municipal council meetings were gradually put in place at the insistence of concerned citizens in many cities and towns. Councils seemed to be hammering out too much in the backrooms, as if the councils as a whole were party caucuses or confidential, unified cabinets, and not genuine local assemblies that you can watch. Some developers or groups had too much influence. Citizens were not getting the full picture of who had the ear of the full council.

What he said.