Friday 30 September 2016

'Shrinkflation' process lacking in vision

The Chocolate Fingers scandal confirms that anything good in this world is under constant threat, writes Declan Lynch

Published 19/04/2015 | 02:30

Illustration: Jim Cogan
Illustration: Jim Cogan

We all love the story of the man who had this great idea to save a matchbox manufacturer a fortune - an idea which he would only divulge if he was given an absolute guarantee that he would receive a large sum of money if indeed his idea caused the manufacturer's profits to rise.

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The idea was to use one side of the box only, to strike a match.

Traditionally, the sandpaper-like substance on which the match would be struck, was on two sides of the box, a practice which our man realised was just a waste of good sandpaper.

The company realised that he was right, and gave him a million pounds - according to legend.

We rejoice too in the story of the man who approached a toothpaste manufacturer seeking a large sum of money in exchange for an idea of his that would greatly enhance profitability year on year - he told them that the hole through which the toothpaste was coming out, was too small, that people would use far more toothpaste if the hole was bigger, and of course he was right.

A million pounds to that man too, a small price to pay.

Whether these stories are true or not, we take delight in them because they speak of the genius of the individual being superior to that of the conglomerate, genius here being a kind of extreme form of common sense - "ah, it was so obvious, wasn't it?"

We imagine that we too might stumble upon some such discovery, something that is so obvious but that we alone have the eyes to see. It suggests that there's always a nugget of gold out there somewhere, with somebody's name on it.

So what then, do we make of the grave announcement last week that Cadbury have taken two fingers out of each packet of their much-loved Chocolate Fingers?

On the face of it, there seems to be a similarity here, with the company saving money by making a small change to the product, one that you mightn't even notice if you weren't paying attention.

Yet this move is despised. Indeed it is despised almost as much as the legend of the matchbox is admired.

Because once you get past any superficial similarities, you can see that the forces in play here, are quite different.

For a start, the product has been made slightly worse - even with the sandpaper gone, you still got the same number of matches in your box, whereas Cadbury are now giving you fewer delicious chocolatey fingers for the same price.

"Shrinkflation" it is called, this insidious practice whereby manufacturers prefer to give you a lesser product, rather than having you pay more for the existing one. They've been doing it with Creme Eggs, they've been doing it with teabags and tins of tuna, they've been doing it with crisps and beef burgers, they've been doing it with dishwasher tablets and furniture polish and anti-bacterial wipes.

And we despise it not just because it is making everything slightly worse, but because it is so horribly unoriginal. The man with the matchbox thought of something that hadn't occurred to anyone else, whereas it doesn't seem to occur to these guys that there is anything else they can do.

But there is a sharper sadness with the chocolate fingers, because this is Cadbury, after all, and the greatness of Cadbury was built around a view of the world which was just about the opposite to the one that apparently prevails in that domain in its present Kraft-owned incarnation.

Essentially if you were working for Cadbury or just working your way through their superb range of confectionery, they couldn't do enough for you. Rather than trying to do you out of a couple of chocolate fingers in order to meet some wretched quarterly target, Cadbury as "Quaker capitalists" were famously progressive, forever building model villages and providing opportunities for their employees to improve themselves in all sorts of ways, while supplying the consumer with some of the finest chocolate bars available to humanity at the most competitive prices.

It is called vision, this thing that they had.

You could call it creativity, or maybe it's just that extreme form of common sense to which we alluded earlier, with a bit of philanthropy on the side.

But when you put it all together you had this thing called vision.

It is an elusive thing, this vision, hard to describe. So perhaps it is easier to say what it is not.

Taking two fingers out of a packet of Chocolate Fingers - that's what it's not. Putting five eggs instead of six into a bag of Creme Eggs - that's what it's not.

Against that, you had the restless idealism of the founding fathers who would hardly let a day go by, without embarking on some deeply ambitious undertaking, driven by the belief that on the whole, you needed to keep doing things better all the time.

Not worse... better.

On that belief system was founded an empire of smooth chocolate pleasure.

And perhaps they were driven by another energy, a kind of a heightened awareness of one of the eternal verities:

Anything in this world that is any good is in constant danger.

Sunday Independent

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