Meet the man on a mission to expose sneaky price increases – Twin Cities
SOMERVILLE, Mass. — A few weeks ago, Edgar Dworsky got a promising tip by email. “Diluted cough syrup,” read the message, accompanied by a photo of two packages of syrup with a curious difference: The new one appeared to be half the strength of the old one.
Dworsky gets emails like this frequently, alerting him to things like a bag of dog food that discreetly shrank from 50 pounds to 44 pounds. A cereal box that switched from “giant” to “family” size and grew about an inch taller — but a few ounces lighter. Bottles of detergent that look the same, but the newer ones come with less detergent.
Dworsky has dedicated much of his life to exposing what is one of the sneakier tricks in the modern consumer economy: “shrinkflation,” when products or packaging are subtly manipulated so that a person pays the same price, or even slightly more, for something but gets less of it.
Consumer product companies have been using this strategy for decades. And their nemesis, Dworsky, has been following it for decades. He writes up his discoveries on his website, mouseprint.org, a reference to the fine print often found on product packaging. Print so tiny “only a mouse could read,” he says.
He writes about shrinkflation in everything — tuna, mayonnaise, ice cream, deodorant, dish soap — alongside other consumer advocacy work on topics like misleading advertising, class-action lawsuits and exaggerated sale claims.
One recent Mouse Print report explored toilet paper shrinkflation. “Virtually every brand of toilet paper has been downsized over the years,” Dworsky wrote, documenting more than a decade of toilet paper shrinkage.
Dworsky, 71, is a semiretired lawyer whose career began as a market researcher before he briefly became an on-air consumer reporter for local television alongside a young Bill O’Reilly, the former Fox News personality.
At the height of his career, he worked with the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, on his way to becoming a self-employed consumer advocate and possibly the world’s foremost expert on shrinkflation.
It’s difficult to catch shrinkflation, Dworsky said. But if he’s lucky, he can find examples in stores when new inventory arrives, putting newer and older packages on the same shelf side-by-side.
Dworsky also looks out for clues like “New and improved” on packaging. But most importantly, he examines the weight.
“Look at the products you buy all the time, note what the net weight is,” he said. “When you go back to the store, double check that it’s still the same as your last bag, box or bottle.”
But the case of the cough syrup would be even trickier to investigate, he said, because it’s a possible case of what he calls skimpflation. He would need to examine whether the contents were, in effect, watered down — changing the formulation so that people were paying the same for fewer doses of cough syrup. The tipster had sent in images from a supermarket-brand, similar to Robitussin DM, showing that the adult dose had doubled to 20 milliliters for the new bottle, from 10 milliliters for the old.
Dworsky plans to reveal his findings on Mouse Print, but he said he believed it was a case where Robitussin had changed its formula several years ago and its store-brand competitors had just recently followed.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.