This Country Will Police ‘Shrinkflation’ at the Supermarket
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This Country Will Police ‘Shrinkflation’ at the Supermarket

South Korea will soon require companies that slim down products to show the old and new sizes on packaging

By TIMOTHY W. MARTIN
Wed, Dec 27, 2023 7:30amGrey Clock 3 min

SEOUL—Food prices have risen so much that Kim Soo-yeon has developed a suspicious new habit at the grocery store. She has taken to shaking bags of her favourite brands of potato chips to see if they feel lighter.

“If companies are reducing the amount of food by unnoticeable amounts, it feels deceptive,” said the 32-year-old office worker in Seoul.

South Korean authorities will soon be backing her up in the supermarket aisles.

Seeking to temper the effects of inflation, many countries have sought to use political pressure to dissuade food makers from gouging consumers—with higher prices or lower volumes. South Korea is taking things a step further.

Starting next year, the country will require companies to disclose on their packages and websites when grocery items drop in volume, but not price. To ensure firms comply, South Korea is establishing a dedicated price-investigation team to monitor any fluctuations. Officials are considering levying fines, too.

South Korea’s muscular response to “shrinkflation” reflects how a sluggish economy—its projected full-year growth of 1.4% is roughly half that of other wealthy countries—has become a major problem for President Yoon Suk Yeol, whose approval ratings remain stuck in the mid-30s. Those unhappy with Yoon most commonly cite economic issues.

The new proposals to fight shrinkflation came as the government unveiled an initial list of violators. Following a monthlong investigation, authorities said the offerings of everything from beer to Vienna sausages to dumplings had quietly gotten smaller. Some 16 variants of flavoured almonds had shrunk, too.

Choi Si-yeon, a 28-year-old office worker, said she was angry when she found out about what had happened with her favorite wasabi-flavored almonds. Each bag contained 20 grams less, a seemingly undetectable amount.

“If they had raised the price, at least some consumers would notice,” Choi said.

The maker of the snack, a South Korean firm called HBAF, for Healthy But Awesome Flavors, said it had disclosed the product-size changes on its website. The firm pointed to the pandemic, a rise in labor costs and almond prices as factors.

Other companies also claimed to have made online disclosures or argued the slimmed-down offerings were part of flavour revamps.

Shrinkflation backlash has emerged elsewhere, too. France’s second-largest supermarket chain, Carrefour, has put up bright orange signs to highlight products it deems subject to shrinkflation since September. In the U.S., Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) recently issued a report on shrinkflation, citing facial tissues and Oreos as examples.

With costs rising, what is often lacking is transparency over potential changes, creating room for a sense of injustice when shrinkflation occurs, said Rajiv Biswas, chief economist for the Asia-Pacific region at S&P Global Market Intelligence. “Consumers can’t check the website of hundreds of products,” he said.

Headline inflation in South Korea topped out at 6.3% in July 2022 from the prior year, below the recent peaks of 9.1% in the U.S. and 11.1% in the U.K. But food prices in the East Asian country had remained relatively low for decades, so the recent upticks have triggered outsize anger. Wages haven’t kept pace with rising prices. The country’s housing market—the main source of wealth for many South Koreans—has stagnated.

A majority of South Koreans plan to spend less money next year, according to a recent poll, with nearly half of respondents citing inflation as the chief reason.

Low inflation had been a particular policy priority for South Korea over the decades, helping the country’s export-heavy economy maintain a good environment for private investment, said Randall Jones, a former senior official at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development who led the group’s economic reports on South Korea.

“People aren’t used to inflation in South Korea,” said Jones, who is now a distinguished fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

South Korea is conducting daily price checks for more than two dozen staple items such as milk and ramen noodles. The country’s antitrust regulator will list any shrinkflation examples on a newly created website and will handle enforcement of the new measures. The government wants to ink agreements with large South Korean retailers to build a joint monitoring system for some 10,000 everyday items.

That sliced cheese and other inexpensive items were among the first named shrinkflation violators irks people like Lee Hyun-woo, a 23-year-old university student. “If even processed food is shrinking, I feel betrayed,” Lee said.

In recent weeks, the country’s shrinkflation suspicions have touched everything from the cubed white radish accompanying Korean fried chicken to the cream density of a slice of strawberry cake.

Kim Young-hee, a 42-year-old homemaker, is glad about more government transparency. But the extra knowledge likely won’t change her habits, such as her occasional purchase of honey-butter almonds for her children.

“I’ll still buy the almonds,” Kim said, “but I don’t want to be tricked.”



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The Loneliness of the American Worker

More meetings and faceless chats. Fewer work friends. How the modern workday is fueling an epidemic of isolation.

By TE-PING CHEN
Wed, May 29, 2024 6 min

More Americans are profoundly lonely, and the way they work—more digitally linked but less personally connected—is deepening that sense of isolation.

Nick Skarda , 29 years old, works two jobs in logistics and office administration in San Diego to keep up with his bills. After a couple of years at the logistics job, he has one friend there. He says hi to co-workers at his office job but doesn’t really know any.

“I feel sort of an emptiness or lack of belonging,” he says. Juggling two jobs leaves Skarda exhausted, with little energy or time to grab drinks with co-workers . “It makes it harder to go in and give it your all if you don’t feel like anyone is there rooting for you,” he adds.

Employers and researchers are just beginning to understand how workplace shifts over the past four years are contributing to what the U.S. surgeon general declared a loneliness health epidemic last year. The alienation affects remote and in-person workers alike. Among 1-800-Flowers.com ’s 5,000 hybrid and fully on-site employees, for instance, the most popular community chat group offered by a company mental-health provider is simply called “Loneliness.”

Consider these phenomena of modern work:

It is a marked shift from even a decade ago, when bonds fostered at work helped compensate for declining participation in church , community groups and other social institutions. As the American workday becomes more faceless and scheduled , the number of U.S. adults who call themselves lonely has climbed to 58% from 46% in 2018, according to a recent Cigna poll of 10,000 Americans.

The faceless workday

The disconnection is driving up staff turnover and worker absences, making it a business issue for more employers, executives and researchers say. Cigna, the health-insurance company, estimates that loneliness is costing companies $154 billion a year in absenteeism alone.

“Work is social, it’s a lot more than a paycheck,” says James McCann , founder and chairman of 1-800-Flowers.com.

Earlier this year, 1-800-Flowers.com moved from three days in the office to four to boost a sense of connectivity among workers. It has also begun tapping workers across teams to serve as designated hosts during lunchtime, encouraging people to sit with colleagues they don’t know in common areas and chat, and suggesting conversation topics.

While today’s workers have more ways to connect than ever, “there are only so many memes and jokes you can send over Slack,” says Maëlle Gavet , chief executive of Techstars, a pre-seed fund that has invested in 4,100 startups. “We tend to have more and more people with back-to-back calendars, more meetings and less connections.”

Gavet says that is especially the case for hybrid workers on in-office days, which they tend to use to dash from one meeting to the next.

Paradoxically, meetings can make people feel lonelier—and even more so if the meetings are virtual, behavioural researchers say. A 2023 survey by employee experience and analytics company Perceptyx found people who described themselves as “very lonely” tended to have heavier meeting loads than less-lonely staffers. More than 40% of those people spent more than half their work hours in meetings.

In Cincinnati, Kelly Roehm says she came to chafe at the meetings—sometimes as many as 12—consuming her day after joining a consulting company in 2021. She would often feel her eyes glazing over as she multitasked on other screens.

“It’s like you’re a zombie, there but not there,” says Roehm, who lived 10 minutes from the office but worked mostly remotely because she says few colleagues typically came in. It is a more common setup as companies distribute teams across more locations: At Microsoft , 27% of the company’s teams all worked in the same location last year, compared with 61% in 2019.

She compares that experience with her time more than a decade ago at a company now owned by AstraZeneca . There, she enjoyed lots of social outlets at work: a Weight Watchers group and a lunchtime crochet club.

“Now if I were to think about asking, ‘Hey, do you want to participate in something like this,’ it would just sound weird,” says Roehm, who left this year to focus on her own career-consulting business. “There wasn’t that emotional attachment that made it difficult to say, it’s time to move on.”

The power of small talk

Office chitchat, sometimes an unwanted distraction, seems to provide more benefits than many people realise, says Jessica Methot , an associate professor at Rutgers University who studies social ties at work.

In a study of 100 employees at different workplaces, Methot and fellow researchers surveyed participants at points throughout the day. They found those who had engaged in small talk reported less stress and more positivity toward co-workers.

Even exchanging pleasantries with a co-worker you barely know can help, says Sarah Wright , an associate professor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who studies worker loneliness.

“We used to think loneliness has to be overcome by developing meaningful relationships and having that degree of intimacy,” Wright says. “More and more, though, we’re seeing it’s these day-to-day weak ties and frequency of [interactions] with people that matters.”

Such interactions are substantially harder to replicate in a virtual environment. “The default now is, I have to schedule time with you, even if it’s five minutes, instead of just picking up the phone,” says Katie Tyson , president of Hive Brands, an online food retailer founded in 2020 as a fully remote company.

The frictions add up, she says. Last fall, the company added an office in New York where employees voluntarily gather a couple of times a week to foster more cohesion.

Coming to the office, even on a hybrid basis, tends to yield a roughly 20% to 30% boost in serendipitous connections, according to Syndezo, which analysed survey data and email and messaging traffic from more than two dozen large companies.

Yet there are diminishing returns to time in person, says Philip Arkcoll , founder of Worklytics, which analyses workforce data for Fortune 500 companies. Coming in once a month provides a significant boost in ties; two or three times a month adds a little more, Worklytics data show. Once or twice a week results in a smaller increase, though, and working in-person four or five days a week makes almost no difference.

A business priority

Ernst & Young has asked managers to use the first five minutes of team calls to engage in conversation “as real human beings,” says Frank Giampietro , whose title, chief well-being officer for the Americas, was created in 2021 to help support employees during the pandemic.

The professional-services firm is also training employees to spot and reach out to co-workers struggling with issues such as isolation. To date, more than 1,600 employees have taken the training.

One challenge is that American workers have sacrificed connection for productivity, says Julie Rice , co-founder of fitness chain SoulCycle. These days, with more business contacts preferring video calls, she finds breakfast meetings and coffee dates on her calendar have been replaced with Zoom. Though efficient, such video calls are less likely to yield conversations that can turn into useful professional connections or lasting friendships, she says.

Julie Rice says that her work schedule, once packed with coffees and in-person meetups, is now an avalanche of Zooms. PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER GREGORY-RIVERA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Even people I’m meeting with here in New York, we’ll just Zoom,” she says.

Last year, Rice co-founded Peoplehood, a company that runs “gathers” to improve connectivity and relationship skills, and employers are signing up. One, a beauty-services business with hundreds of field employees who never see each other, asked Peoplehood to host a series of gatherings for workers to meet and share job advice. Another, a marketing company with far-flung employees, requested help after surveys showed staff wanted to feel more connected.

“Whatever relationships we had pre-Covid have sort of run out of gas,” Rice says.

Good luck prodding employees to socialise, though. Nearly all the 150-odd staff at the Pleasanton, Calif., headquarters of Shaklee, the nutrition-supplements company, used to attend annual Earth Day gatherings, which involved community service, lunch and breaking early for the day, says Jonathan Ramot , the company’s North American human-resources director. Office happy hours, bowling outings and “mix and mingles” were also robustly attended.

Now that the workforce has gone remote, last year’s Earth Day event attracted 20 staffers, even though most workers live nearby.

“We have a lot of people asking for in-person events, but when we plan them, they don’t show up,” Ramot says. “Then they complain they’re lonely.”

This past April, Shaklee instead held a mandatory get-together with the chief executive, who had relocated to Florida during the pandemic and was in town. About 100 employees gathered at a brewery for food, drinks and conversation—and no speeches from the bosses.

There was a buzz in the air, Ramot says, as staff hugged and delighted in seeing each other, some for the first time. “People were saying, I miss this,” he says.

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