Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Incredible Shrinking Everything (Except Me!)

Downsizing is happening to an alarming degree these days, isn't it? For instance, last week I saw all these women at the pool for the first time since last summer, and they'd all downsized. Damn them, squeezed into teeny bikinis like they were. Of course that's the good type of downsizing. The rampant scaling back, the kind we hate, involves jobs and salaries and such. And groceries. And that, alas, is everywhere.

I first noticed a large and steady uptick in grocery prices a couple of years back, when practically overnight ethanol became embraced by Washington lawmakers as the alternative fuel of the future (despite its not being such a great alternative fuel).
All of a sudden those ubiquitous mono-culture corn fields draped across the heartland became fields of gold. And then the fields producing wheat, soy and oilseed crops soon got flipped over to grow yet more corn to feed the Archer Daniels Midland ethanol beast. So anything made with corn products—pretty much everything falling under the categories of food, clothing and shelter, from soda to wallpaper paste—doubled in price. And products made with flour, soy and most other staple crops also ratcheted up in price because there were half as many fields devoted to producing those crops. Remember when a trip to the bakery was the best bargain in town? Now you better re-mortgage the house before you seek out pastries, what with the cost of flour these days. That is if the bank will let you.

Now I'm no economist. In my college Econ 101 class, when asked on a test the definition of "economics," forgetting the exact answer, I replied, "Economics is the dismal science." To which my professor wrote on the margins in bold red ink, "perhaps for you it is." And he was indeed right about that.

My finance skills are equally lacking, but we'll save that for another day. But I am a grocery store economist and I can tell we're all getting hosed when I see it. And I see it. First, of course, came the rapid doubling of prices. Then came the shrinkage of products.

A roll of paper towels went from the diameter of a healthy adult's thigh to that of an anorexic gangly-legged 'tween. That pound of pasta? Now twelve ounces. Same great price; a bit less filling. And they thought we wouldn't notice how much smaller the box has gotten. It's as if food companies have decided to put America on a diet, since we are all so bad at doing it for ourselves (but for those bikini-clad moms at the pool, damn them).

I'm not a big fan of grocery shopping. There are only two things I like about it: Running into friends mid-aisle and chatting, thus temporarily forgetting that I’m grocery shopping; and the self check-out. I'll be forever grateful to Giant, despite all they have done to make their product selection less desirable to us shoppers over the past few years, for trailblazing with self check-out machines. Nothing can be more momentarily thrilling while at a grocery store (and yeah, it's not like much of anything would be thrilling at a grocery store, I'll grant you that) than being able to scan your purchases, making that bar code force a beep out of the scanner. Power at your fingertips. Till you have to pay for it, that is.

Even better? Learning your numbers and foodstuffs in Spanish. I figured I could kill two birds with one stone by checking out in Spanish, though it occasionally backfires when I don't know what certain produce items are called in Spanish. Who knew "apples" begin with an "m" (manzanita)? But I can tell you now that an awful lot of groceries end in noventa y nueve centavos (99 cents). Yeah, make it a penny less than the next highest dollar price and you don't feel so ripped off paying what you do for undersized groceries these days.

Apart from the sticker shock, the other thing that has made me loathe grocery shopping that much more these days is the less-than-subtle ways in which stores are economizing. It was bad enough when times weren't so tight—I'd shop at three stores to fulfill the grocery mandate, bulk at one place, organic another, the main things a third locale. But now most stores have sneakily swapped out national brands for their own product. It used to be that store brands were often fairly comparable. Nowadays, the store brands don’t usually tend to stack up to the name brands. I mean how else are these stores cutting costs but for cutting quality?

Sure, the packaging has come a long way from the days when generic products came in no-frills black and white boxes (remember those?). Now the outside looks great. But the inside? Not so much. So if I want to find the products I used to buy at the closest store to me? Sorry, gotta add at least one more store into the grocery round-up, often two. These days pursuit of groceries can take on part-time job status. And cost about the much as a salary from a part-time job, sadly.

I guess in a twisted way this less is more happening is a good thing. We're all learning to do more with less, and to expect less for more. Something about lowered expectations can actually make life simpler, bizarrely enough. And perhaps we'll just have to focus on that forced diet all of these grocery store shrinkages are bound to result in down the road. Who knows, maybe by next swim season I'll be the one flaunting the bikini…Although since I barely wore a bikini when I was in my twenties, perhaps I'm morphing into fairy tales now. Let's just stick with less products at the store means less time shopping. And that can't be such a bad thing, now, can it?


Estella said...

Going to the grocery store makes me want to cry!

Sleeping with Ward Cleaver said...

me too! A) it's so crazy expensive, and B) my mother had me doing the family grocery shopping from when I was about 12, so I am sooooo sick of doing it!

Alison said...

Oooh, yes, prices have shot up in the UK too!

Kytaira said...

I've started doing some serious coupon clipping. Luckily i found a source where I can get stacks of the sunday coupons. I stock up.

I'm one of those an.l people that keeps a spread sheet of prices. It is amazing how much some items have gone up just recently. In December, I could buy a can of olives for .79 cents. Now, just 6 months later, I paid 1.59 a can.

Sleeping with Ward Cleaver said...

wow--spread sheet is really organized! But it's so true--you spend the same amount now for 4 bags of groceries that would've yielded 8 a year ago...Hate that!

Suzanne Macpherson said...

The weird thing for me is the overblown amount of choices we have- really do we REALLLLLLY need 165 kinds of toothpaste? IF they cut back on those would the price be less? I think that I once had a panic attack in the grocery store (a rare occurrence I assure you) When you think about it it has all the ingredients to make anyone slightly nuts. LOL

Sleeping with Ward Cleaver said...

yeah I agree we have too many choices. I often think about people from poor countries who come here---they must be stymied by the vast wealth and the enormity of what is already at our fingertips.
I'm definitely becoming of the "less is more" mentality...