NEW YORK — Shoppers have been lugging ever-larger products to their ever-bigger cars for years. Now, more of them are feeling so pinched by the sagging economy that they are embracing a new behavior: buying a little at a time.
Consumers are trying to control their food bills by buying smaller-sized items as they grapple with soaring prices. Companies have taken note, experimenting with different measures like three-quart milk jugs and pies that have shrunk to 6 inches.
Data from research company Nielsen Co. and retailers including BJ's Wholesale Club Inc. that sell fuel show that downsizing is even occurring at the pump, with drivers limiting how much they fill their tank to avoid getting hit with a hefty payment at one time.
Part of it may be psychological: Consumers can't adjust to having to pay $60 at once to fill their gas tank or spend $150 on the weekly food bill. Some consumer advocates warn that the smaller packages are a way for foodmakers to pass on the increase in ingredient costs.
Food prices have risen 4.4 percent over the past 12 months, with prices for basic items shooting up even more: Bread is up 14.7 percent and milk is up 13.3 percent over the past year, according to the latest Consumer Price Index.
The last time consumers were buying a little at a time to conserve cash was in the 1970s, when food and oil prices surged to record highs, said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of Strategic Resource Group, a retail consulting firm.
"Consumers are constraining spending to a point that shoppers only buy what they need for today or tomorrow and not next week or next month," he said.
And some grocery chains and food companies are creating new options. Wal-Mart is making sure it has more smaller sizes of items like pasta, condiments like mustard as well as single rolls of toilet paper in the days before people receive government checks like Social Security and public assistance that arrive at the beginning of the month, said spokesman John Simley. But after payday, the discounter stocks up on bulk items as consumers have enough money to spring for bigger sizes that can last longer.
Kroger Co., the nation's largest traditional grocery chain, is testing three-quart containers of milk under its store brand — a rarity amid the usual half- and full-gallon sizes — while bottlers for PepsiCo Inc. and Coca-Cola Co. are experimenting with a 16-ounce soda bottle as an alternative to the traditional 20-ounce size.
Food companies say the new sizes are priced the same per ounce as the bulkier versions.