A lesson in ice cream economics

Food suppliers and supermarket patrons focus on getting the most for their money.

The woman was angry. She was standing a few feet away from me in a neighborhood grocery store, unaware that I was eavesdropping as she verbally assailed an ice cream deliveryman who was restocking one of the freezers.

The cause of her anger was a packaging change that I had not previously known about. Next time you pick up a round, half-gallon tub of your favorite flavor, look closely at the fine print on the container. Many producers have now downsized the round tubs to 1.75 quarts.

To the unhappy woman, this trend was an example of a business trying to bump up profits by selling a smaller product without reducing the price. In a plaintive voice, the deliveryman tried to offer an explanation. "Well, the cost of ingredients goes up, you know," he said, and the woman immediately snapped back, "My income isn't going up!"

Moments like these are what motivate me to go grocery shopping at every opportunity. No disrespect to the Zogby and Gallup polling folks, but I get a lot of insight about the hopes, fears, and household budget woes of average Americans by simply pushing my cart up and down the aisles each day.

Supermarkets are contact points where national economic trends and sales strategies intersect with millions of real lives, and a huge amount of collective effort is focused on squeezing the maximum return from every dollar spent. Since the profit margin for most stores is small, they're under steady pressure to sell at a brisk pace, and that pressure requires constantly restocking the shelves.

Suppliers have their own worries about fuel costs, vehicle maintenance, and schedule deadlines. And way back at the start of this giant pipeline are the folks who produce the stuff we eat, and most of them have been getting squeezed for a long time. While I sympathize with that woman's anger over downsized ice cream tubs, I also know that milk production is not a glamorous career opportunity and very few young people are rushing to start up new dairy farms.

I grew up in a town with several great ice cream parlors that made their own products, but small independent dairies have steadily evaporated during the past few decades. Should I ever become fabulously wealthy, my dream is to start a nonprofit foundation that will fund a chain of parlors specializing in giant milkshakes served in those big steel mixing cups, the price will be $1, and it will never go up.

For now, I'm just grateful that hard-working, responsible employees are willing to toil in the retail food chain in spite of the financial squeeze that affects so much of the process. The clerks I know aren't driving fancy cars. Every Sunday the local want ads have positions available for beverage sales routes. Setting up and taking down soft drink displays for the Super Bowl and other big sporting events cannot be an easy routine.

And I urge all supermarket patrons to give truck drivers a break as they maneuver through the parking lot. After all, they're delivering products that keep us all alive. If one of them blocks your path for a minute or two while backing up to the loading dock, please be patient. Especially if the truck happens to be carrying a load of fresh ice cream.

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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