In spite of renderings showing exterior windows, the UC Santa Barbara Munger Hall student dorm rooms will in fact be windowless—an example of skimpflation.
courtesy University of California, Santa Barbara In spite of renderings showing exterior windows, the UC Santa Barbara Munger Hall student dorm rooms will in fact be windowless—an example of skimpflation.

Recent concerns about economic inflation have cast light on a related trend in the product sphere called shrinkflation. As the name suggests, shrinkflation occurs when a manufacturer sells less product for the same price. The recent shortage of materials has inspired companies to offer items like cereal, toilet paper, potato chips, and chocolate in incrementally reduced sizes without a discount. (NPR offers one example with the cereal Cocoa Puffs. A family-size box weighs 18.1 ounces today, while the previous version weighed 19.3 ounces.) Shrinkflation, said to be coined a decade ago by economist Pippa Malmgren, refers to this insidious phenomenon whereby consumers are tricked into focusing on price-point parity while there is a less conspicuous quantitative disparity.

Architecture also suffers from shrinkflation. The elevated real estate market is the most obvious example, with buyers’ purchasing power shrinking over the past year in most locations. However, this trend in architecture is more obvious than consumer product examples. The less obvious form of product downsizing—and its related variants skimpflation and scrapflation, discussed below—may also be found in building products.

A common example of shrinkflation is the 2x4, which is smaller than its name implies.
courtesy Kindfolk on Unsplash A common example of shrinkflation is the 2x4, which is smaller than its name implies.

One of the best examples of shrinkflation is the reduction of wood framing member sizes. As architects and builders know well, a 2x4 is not, in fact, 2 by 4 inches in dimension. Rather, the ubiquitous framing element is 1.5 by 3.5 inches in cross-section. So, what happened to the missing 0.5 inch of material in each direction? The actual—as opposed to nominal—dimensions result from a decades-long disagreement between multiple U.S. lumber producers. Similar to today’s material shortages, limited supplies during and after World War II motivated the use of less wood for the same building function. In the ensuing years, 2x4s were incrementally downsized until a dimensional standard was finally agreed upon in 1964. This reduction in a third of the volume represented the act of “selling air”—to use a trade expression—compared with the original size. Thus, the current 1.5 -by-3.5-inch format was a product of resource and economic pressures such as we experience today—although standardization has inhibited further diminution.

Another, more recent variant of shrinkflation is skimpflation. With skimpflation, the quality of a product changes while its quantity and price remain the same. This approach is evident in reductions in service, such as airlines that no longer offer free meals or hotels that have eliminated daily housekeeping. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics uses the term “hedonic quality adjustment” to describe qualitative changes reflected in the consumer price index. “In price index methodology, hedonic quality adjustment has come to mean the practice of decomposing an item into its constituent characteristics [i.e., its component ingredients], obtaining estimates of the value of the utility derived from each characteristic, and using those value estimates to adjust prices when the quality of a good changes,” the Bureau’s website states. The hedonic quality adjustment enables the estimation of a fair price for a qualitative change, which is good to know if the listed price is unchanged. In the construction industry, skimpflation is present in the substitution of a lower quality product ingredient, such as the use of an inferior adhesive or filler material in a composite. The phenomenon is also evident in the elimination of expected architectural provisions, such as in the controversial University of California, Santa Barbara dormitory building design that has windowless bedrooms, and has been described as a "torture experiment."

I will venture to add a new term here: scrapflation. This describes changes in the composition of a product while price, quantity, and quality remain the same. Today, many building products are manufactured from greater numbers of smaller and less desirable components than previous versions, based on reduced feedstocks and new processing capacities. Although previously, these ingredients might have been considered less appealing—that is, “scrap”—advances in technology have enabled high-quality outcomes. One example is taconite, a low-grade iron ore. In the early history of Minnesota’s Iron Range, taconite was deemed a waste material. However, engineers developed a method to transform taconite into pellets from which iron ore can be readily extracted. Another example is laminated veneer lumber (LVL). Similar to plywood, LVL is made from multiple layers of wood veneer and is intended for structural applications. LVL’s composition enables the creation of sizable structural members from smaller, less mature, and less homogeneous timber resources. Although inherently a “scrappy” material, LVL exhibits high performance and consistent quality.

As material resources remain scarce, approaches like shrinkflation, skimpflation, and scrapflation will continue to offer possible solutions for manufacturers to deliver products under challenging conditions. The fundamental issue, exhibited in the first two phenomena, is not resourcefulness but greed. Shrinkflation is distasteful to consumers not because there is less product but because the decrease is intentionally downplayed. Skimpflation is unpopular because it can be excessively parsimonious.

Though scrapflation employs similar methods—using smaller elements of lesser value—it ultimately maintains quantity and quality in the final product. Scrapflation also offers the environmental benefits of using resources more effectively. This third approach, then, will continue to offer significant advantages while preserving consumer trust in our ever resource-conscious world.