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Tips to deal with shrinkflation at the mall as some shoppers question discounts

At first glance, it might seem like the deals have never been better as posters in store windows and online ads trumpet a steady stream of holiday sales.
People navigate through Yorkdale Mall in search of Black Friday sales in Toronto on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

At first glance, it might seem like the deals have never been better as posters in store windows and online ads trumpet a steady stream of holiday sales.

But some consumers say the discounts are more hype than real, giving shoppers the illusion of a bargain rather than actually saving them money. 

Call it shrinkflation at the mall.

"The promotions seem good this year but regular prices have often gone up, so even if something is on sale it may be more expensive than someone expected," said retail expert Shobhit Khandelwal.

Higher regular prices, smaller percentages off and fewer items on sale are just some of the trends consumers say they've noticed in recent weeks at stores in Canada. 

Online shoppers also say they've encountered higher free shipping thresholds, a surcharge on some returns and smaller discounts overall. 

While deals are now spread out over a longer period — giving people more time to hunt for bargains — experts say the spiralling cost of living is still leaving some consumers feeling squeezed.

New research from Interac Corp. found more than seven in 10 Canadians say rising inflation has made it more important than ever to feel in control of their money.

For shoppers on a budget, retail experts say there are tips and tricks to keep in mind to save cash and not be duped by the illusion of a deal. 

"We've seen a return of promotions this holiday season but it's important to pay attention to the fine print," said Tamara Szames, Canadian retail industry adviser with The NPD Group.

"If the sale is up to 40 per cent off, the consumer really needs to be aware of the 'up to,'" she said. "Not every item in the store is going to be included in the sale, so you need to try not to get sidetracked."

Consumers should make a list and research prices before shopping so they know whether or not something is actually a good deal, Szames said.

While inflation has pushed up prices in some stores, other retailers have used different methods to handle rising costs.

In grocery stores, for example, food manufacturers have used shrinkflation to keep prices the same — or slightly higher — by making the product smaller.  

It's a technique used in other areas of the retail industry, including the apparel sector. 

"When we're talking about fashion, the closest thing to an ingredient in food is fabric," Szames said. "If your favourite sweater used to be 100 per cent cashmere, you should look closely at the label before you buy it again. It's now maybe 90 per cent cashmere and 10 per cent polyester."

Advances in fabric technology could mean the new blended fabric is just as high quality, but it's important for consumers to be aware of the change, she said.

Khandelwal said holiday discounts have always been hit or miss as retailers try to pull customers into the store with doorbuster deals while keeping other items at regular price. 

The difference this year is that inflation is making all prices — even sale prices — higher, the co-founder of startups ShyftLabs and Minoan Experience said. 

The trick for shoppers trying to rein in spending is to not buy more than they need — even if it's on sale, he said. 

"Make a list and stick to it and if you spend too much, most retailers have good return policies."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2022.

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press