P&G says less Tide is more

Volume is cut 20%

price, box are same

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August 10, 2006|By THE BOSTON GLOBE

Tide, the nation's best-selling laundry detergent, has slimmed down.

With no "new and improved" fanfare or notice to consumers, Procter & Gamble Co. has cut the weight of its powdered detergent by 20 percent with no corresponding reduction in price.

The downsizing looks very much like a stealth price increase, but P&G officials say that's not the case. The officials say they were able to improve their powdered detergent formula so a 70-ounce box of Tide can clean just as many clothes as the old 87-ounce box.

"It's a very positive development for the consumer," said Ross Holthouse, a spokesman for P&G. "We're not taking out 17 ounces. We've realigned the formula so, in bulk, it weighs 17 ounces less. We've come out with an overall improvement in cleaning performance."

Manufacturers often make such claims, but usually they are accompanied by new advertising or product packaging to draw attention to the change. Tide didn't do that. Its new 70-ounce box is the same as the old 87-ounce box, except the new box weighs a little more than a pound less. At many stores, the old and new boxes sit side by side on the shelf at the same price.

Holthouse said similar weight reductions have been accomplished with the company's other powdered detergents, including Gain, Cheer, Bold, and Ivory Snow.

P&G, which bought Boston shaving firm Gillette last year, reported strong quarterly results last week, fueled in part by price increases on many products. The Cincinnati consumer-products giant didn't detail the price increases but said net sales in its fabric care and home care unit increased 9 percent to $4.35 billion. Powdered detergents such as Tide are part of the fabric and home care unit.

With rising energy prices narrowing profit margins at most manufacturers, companies have been busy raising prices. In June, the Consumer Price Index, which tracks inflation at the retail level, rose 0.2 percent from the previous month and was up 4.3 percent compared with a year ago.

Dozens of manufacturers, from Poland Spring to Frito-Lay to virtually every ice cream and tuna fish company, have used downsizing in the past to slip a price increase by their customers. It's an effective tactic because most consumers remember a product's price, not its net weight.

Kimberly-Clark Corp., for example, is famous for its steadily shrinking Scott bathroom tissue. Scott is known for having 1,000 sheets per roll, but the sheets themselves keep getting shorter. They started out at 4.5 inches long, then shrank to 4 inches, and recently fell to 3.7 inches. The net result is a toilet paper roll that costs the same but is 30 feet shorter.

Kimberly-Clark officials say the reduction in sheet size was necessitated by improvements that made the tissue softer and thicker. The only way to make the new tissue fit dispensers was to either reduce the number of sheets or reduce the size of each sheet. Scott decided to shorten each sheet.

The new Scott tissue rolls carry a banner that says "Now Improved!" Ads don't mention the shorter sheets, but they point out that the new Scott tissue has "improved long-lasting volume. America's favorite 1000-count roll has never looked better."

Edgar Dworsky, the editor of Consumerworld.org and Mouseprint.org who has written extensively about product downsizings, said Kimberly-Clark might have improved its Scott tissue but was still charging customers the same price for less tissue.

"It's a sneaky way to pass along a price increase," he said.

Holthouse said P&G isn't passing along a price increase with its Tide downsizing because the new, lighter Tide still has the same number of uses. For consumers, he said, nothing has changed.

Holthouse said the new formulation increased the cleaning power of Tide's surfactants and allowed P&G to remove inert materials that previously had been included primarily to make the product easier to scoop.

The lighter Tide looks very similar to the old Tide and takes up about the same amount of space. Both boxes contain identical scoopers and have the same recommended usage amounts.

Many liquid detergents have been reformulated to offer more bang per ounce. The All brand, for example, sells a 32-ounce "Small & Mighty" detergent that purports to wash the same number of loads as a 100-ounce bottle of conventional liquid detergent.

A spokeswoman for Unilever, which makes All in liquid and powdered forms, declined to comment on the weight loss of powdered Tide.

Holthouse said only a few consumers have asked about the Tide weight change, and they were satisfied once the reformulation was explained.

Dworsky was skeptical. "I believe they've changed the formula, but I also know more than a pound of product is missing from the box. But the box hasn't shrunk an inch. What did they do? What's really missing is an explanation to the consumer," Dworsky said.

Holthouse said no attention was drawn to the Tide weight change because it was just one of many refinements that the company routinely makes each year.

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