Is that box of cereal you just bought smaller than the last one?

After two COVID years of ordering my groceries online, this week I returned to my local supermarket to do my first full instore shop in what felt like an eternity. It was a strange feeling setting foot in the store after such a long break, but I soon settled into my old routine, going up and down the aisles in the same order as I’d always done.

Another routine I got straight back into was price-checking. I’ve always been a numbers person and someone who loves a bargain, so that sort of thing comes easily to me.

It didn’t take long for my ‘price alarm’ to ring. In the cereal aisle, I was after a pack of Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain. There was a 470g box on special but also a larger box. My immediate reaction was to see which would be cheaper by the 100g. The 470g box was cheaper so I popped two of those in the trolley.

But as I was checking the larger box, the marked weight caught my eye – 765g. Hang on a minute, I thought, didn’t the large box used to be 805g? I let it go and kept moving. That might have been the last I thought of it had I not come across a separate display of Nutri-Grain, marked ‘Clearance’.

At first I thought, oh, these are just the same 470g ‘on special’ boxes, but on closer inspection I could see they were marked ‘500g’.

And at that moment I realised I was right. The larger box was previously 805g, and the smaller one 500g. Woolworths was clearing out its old stock of 500g boxes, conveniently placed well away from the new 470g packs.

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This practice of changing package weights is one of my biggest bugbears. I’ve seen it before. Earlier this week, I did a bit of a pantry cleanout and discovered somewhat of an oversupply of Woolworths brand Sea Salt Crackers.

Looking to check the ‘use by’ dates to see if any boxes were ‘too far gone’, I happened to notice that the oldest box was marked 200g and all the others 185g. Another example!

What really annoys me about both the crackers and the Nutri-Grain reductions is that, despite the weight being reduced, the boxes are exactly the same size! Surely that sort of thing should not be allowed.

In the ACCC’s advertising and selling guide, it states: “It is illegal for a business to engage in conduct that misleads or deceives or is likely to mislead or deceive consumers or other businesses.”

I’m no expert on law, but I would think that changing a food portion size without changing the size of the packaging is pretty likely to mislead. Let’s face it, very few people possess my level of pedantry (which is probably a good thing), so most are going to miss such a subtle change.

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What I found even more galling about the change in the Sea Salt Crackers was that Woolworths now displays a sign next to the lower-weighted box that reads, ‘PRICES DROPPED – Range was $2 13/05/20’ next to the current price of $1.80.

Presumably using the word ‘Range’ covers the fact that the size has changed. And technically the price has dropped – $1.80 for 185g is slightly cheaper than $2 for 200g – but not by the amount most would have assumed.

This tactic is nothing new. It’s been annoying me for years! Way back in 2008, I wrote to Kraft, then owners of Vegemite, complaining about a relative price increase after it had replaced 455g jars with 400g ones.

Kraft’s response was predictable: “We trialled and tested a range of new sizes with our consumers who supported the change and validated these new sizes as being most relevant to meeting their needs.”

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Pardon me for raising my eyebrows at that reply. I wonder if Kellogg’s has a record of customers saying, “Oh yes, we’d much prefer a 470g box of Nutri-Grain to a 500g box!”

I realise that this is very much what many would term a ‘first world’ problem. But such misleading (deliberate or otherwise) practices really make my blood boil.

My solution? Introduce a rule that mandates a ‘NEW PACKAGE SIZE’ label in prominent colours that must cover at least a third of the package for a minimum of six months after any size change is made.

Of course, the chances of that happening are pretty much zero, so for now I’ll just cry into my bowl of Nutri-Grain, knowing that the next time I buy a box, it will be 30g lighter.

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Written by Andrew Gigacz