Those heart-shaped boxes have lots of love – but little chocolate

REUTERS/Jeenah Moon/File Photo
A person carries balloons during Valentine’s Day in Times Square in Manhattan, New York City, New York, U.S. February 14, 2021.

It’s a clutch decision. You buy your sweetie the Valentine’s Day box. You know the one. Red shiny cardboard, heart-shaped, fancy-looking and boasting an assortment of milk and dark chocolates. One is made by Russell Stover, the other the classic Whitman’s Sampler (which, incidentally, are owned by the same company). It sets you back about $7.99 at Walgreen’s or your oh-geez-is-it-really-Feb.-14 store of choice.

The box is about is about 9.3 inches wide and 10 inches tall, a good size. But inside the Whitman’s box are 11 candies. Inside the Russell Stover? Nine candies.

If you take out the molded plastic insert, the chocolates occupy less than half of the box.

This is not an example of “shrinkflation,” said Ed Dworsky, founder of Consumer World, a consumer advice website. That’s the practice of companies slightly downsizing paper products, salty snacks and other package goods to avoid raising prices when ingredient, labor and transportation costs go up.

Rather, he alleged, it’s something called “slack-fill.”

“That’s when a manufacturer deliberately over-packages a product using a package substantially larger than the amount of content inside,” he said.

Ghirardelli Chocolate Company did not respond to requests for comment Friday. Patrick Khattak, vice president of marketing for Russell Stover Chocolates, said the number of candies in a 5.1-ounce box hadn’t changed from last year. “We work to clearly indicate to our customers what is included in our packaging,” he said. “This includes sharing the product weight and how many pieces are in all of our Valentine’s Day boxed chocolates.”

Dworsky said he didn’t have evidence that the amount of chocolate in these boxes is any skimpier than in previous years. But candy companies have been dinged for slack-filling their boxes before.

Under federal law, most packages are not allowed to have unnecessary or nonfunctional empty space. To test for slack-fill, regulators measure the capacity of the package and compare it to the volume of product it actually contains. Then they determine whether the empty space is necessary for protecting the product – like the air cushion at the top of a half-full bag of potato chips, for instance – or serving other functions.

The government frowns upon this and occasionally does crack down: In 2019, candy makers Ghirardelli and Russell Stover (both owned by Swiss chocolate giant Lindt & Sprüngli) were fined a total of $750,000 after California prosecutors said the companies were selling certain products in “oversized containers” that were “predominantly empty” and misleading consumers.

Without admitting wrongdoing, the companies agreed to modify or discontinue packaging for certain products. Ghirardelli changed its signature tent bags to include a transparent window so consumers could better see inside. Whitman’s Sampler and the Russell Stover Holiday Season Box with 52 pieces got new packaging and new dimensions that did away with what was, essentially, a false bottom.

Consumers are grouchy about what they perceive as deceptive packaging for boxes of chocolates. “Whitman’s chocolates not what they use to be,” said one Reddit user, who claimed to have a box from the 1990s that showed a higher density of chocolates in each box than now. “I thought I would spoil myself with some chocolates that I remember fondly, but was highly disappointed.”

Dworsky said he learned of the sparsely filled candy boxes when a consumer sent him an email this week after picking up a Whitman’s Sampler.

“He sent me a picture of it and he was in shock, called it a rip-off. I contacted him to get more information. Then I went to my Walgreen’s in Sommerville, Massachusetts, and bought two boxes,” he said. The plastic dividers, Dworsky observed, took up a huge amount of space.

“What ever happened to the fluted paper candy cups? They did a good job of separating the candy and protecting it and they were much cheaper. You used to get a box of candy and it was packed with the candy, one right next to the other,” he said.

In recent years, candy makers have openly reduced the sizes of their treats in the name of health.

In 2017, Mars Wrigley, Ferrero (which owns Nestlé’s American candy business), Ferrara Candy Company and Lindt announced they would decrease calorie counts, offer a broader range of portion sizes and provide front-of-package labeling that lists calories. The National Confectioners Association announced last year that 85 percent of chocolate and candy now sold comes in packaging that contains 200 calories or less per pack – whether that’s individually wrapped products or multi-packs that contain smaller packages inside.

This was an attempt at greater portion control and transparency with American consumers whose waistlines were on a precipitous rise. But shrinking candy and packaging sizes also helps companies manage skyrocketing inflation on the basic building blocks of candy: cocoa mass, cocoa butter, sugar and dairy solids. Cocoa prices have risen steadily since the beginning of November, according to the Nasdaq, and sugar prices have continued to rise, according to research by Rabobank, which anticipates little price relief for the new crop year.

Lovers are feeling the squeeze, too.

According to market research firm IRI, prices for Valentine’s candies are up 9.4 percent from a year ago – dollar sales are up about 4.3 percent from last year, but volume sales are down about 4.7 percent, which means candy is more expensive and consumers are purchasing less of it.

But maybe these heart-shaped boxes are a test of your significant other’s outlook. Do they see the box as half full or half empty?