In the season of runaway prices, something odd is happening to your grocery items. Packets of biscuits, snacks, soap and tea have gone on a diet.
Next time you visit your neighbourhood kirana store, be sure to read the fine print on the packets. Maggi noodles, which always came in the familiar 100 gram pack, have gotten lighter by 5 grams. A 250 g pack of Red Label tea has slimmed down to 245 g. In both cases, prices have remained the same: Rs 10 for the noodles, Rs 52 for the tea.
As consumers were reeling under the impact of rocketing prices and the government was introducing duty cuts to lighten the burden on your wallet, branded grocery manufacturers held their prices — but cut the quantity of their products in a way you could not have noticed.
For some products, the difference is not so minor. Unilever’s Wheel washing powder has cut 200 g from its 1 kg pack to keep the old price of Rs 21. But mostly, the cuts are small enough for you to miss. You no longer get 100 g of Good Day biscuits for Rs 10 — you only get 92 g.
While this is technically not illegal, customers are chafing at the companies’ error of omission in not telling you that they’ve cut the weight of familiar, much-publicised packages. “Is this some kind of a joke? Companies advertise loudly whenever they increase quantity for the same price. What about now?” Pushpa Dhamija, homemaker from Rohini, asked.
What consumer experts, manufacturers say:
“This is clear deception,” said Dr Sri Ram Khanna of Delhi University's Department of Commerce, an expert on consumer affairs. “Earlier, companies were not allowed to do this. But recent rules allow them to get away. No buyer usually checks the net weight of familiar packs. Companies are using that to their advantage. Ideally there must be a public declaration on this,” he said. Companies are calling it “grammage adjustments to hold on to price points”.
Himanshu Manglik, spokesman for Nestle — makers of Maggi and Every Day — said, “Every change... is clearly mentioned on the pack.”
Britannia's vice-president Neeraj Chandra explained: “Biscuit companies did not increase prices for seven years. In the face of rising prices of wheat flour and other input items, we had to alter pack sizes and refine recipes to retain the price. But this is not detrimental to consumer interests. In any case, we are declaring the right net weight,” he said.
A Unilever spokeswoman said: “Such grammage adjustments are in line with recent changes in Packaged Commodities Regulations Order rules.”
Bejan Misra, executive director of Consumer VOICE, a forum advocating consumer rights, said, “These are unfair trade practices. The government is reducing excise duty and other taxes to make goods more affordable to buyers but companies are using that to earn more profits by reducing quantity. New PCRO rules, which are the result of intense lobbying by industry, allow them to do that legally.” Sunil Aggarwal, a shopkeeper in Kolkata, said, “The companies’ agents did not tell us they had reduced the weights.”
(With Karan Choudhury in New Delhi, Saptarshi Banerjee in Kolkata and Suman Layak in Mumbai)