It is hard to spot what happened this year in the peanut butter aisles of local supermarkets.
But a careful look at the jars of Skippy on the shelves might reveal a surprise: The prices are about the same, but the jars are getting smaller.
They don't look different in size or shape. But recently, the jars developed a dimple in the bottom that slices the contents to 16.3 ounces from 18 ounces — about 10 percent less peanut butter.
The only way to know you are buying less is to look at the weight on the label and recognize it's lighter than before Unilever, owner of the Skippy brand, switched out containers.
Across the supermarket, manufacturers are trimming packages, nipping half an ounce off that bar of soap, narrowing the width of toilet paper and shrinking the size of ice cream containers.
Often the changes are so subtle that they create "the illusion that you are buying the same amount," explained Frank Luby, a pricing consultant with Simon-Kucher & Partners of Cambridge, Mass.
Shoppers might see themselves as getting less, but foodmakers say cutting the quantity is often a way to avoid raising the price.
It's an age-old dilemma for food companies as they juggle prices, container sizes and profits — at the same time coping with rising prices for ingredients and greater competition on supermarket shelves.
At international food giant Unilever, "We have chosen to reduce package sizes as one of our responses (to rising commodity and business expenses)," said spokesman Dean Mastrojohn. He also noted the new smaller sizes are clearly marked on labels.
Shoppers understand the manufacturers' dilemma but also say they feel deceived at times.
Kathy Yukl of La Crescenta, Calif., north of downtown Los Angeles, says she's tired of going to the store and finding dimples in the bottoms of jars — she buys Skippy only when she has a coupon. She is annoyed that containers that once held half a gallon of ice cream, or 64 ounces, now have only 48 ounces. And she's frustrated that cereal boxes are shrinking in size.
"What these companies don't realize is that their chronically deceptive marketing ploys tell us loud and clear that we absolutely cannot trust them for anything," Yukl said.
Other shoppers agree. "I think the whole thing is deceitful, and yes, it does irritate me, and I do feel they are tricking the consumer," said Bill Stone of Long Beach, Calif. "This practice, however, has been going on for many years and apparently the manufacturers feel it is to their advantage to try to slip these changes by the customer rather than announcing it."
When asked whether the new packaging was deceptive, Mastrojohn said only that the lower weight was listed clearly on the package.
Unilever also changed the shape of its Breyers ice cream containers, reducing the contents to 1.5 quarts from 1.75 quarts. Competitor Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream did the same, shortening its carton.