/ Food & Drink, Shopping

Why clearer unit pricing is on my shopping list

In this guest post, Jo Swinson MP explains why she supports Which?’s campaign for clearer unit pricing in supermarkets, and is sponsoring a Private Members’ Bill to encourage the government to take action.

Everyone’s feeling the squeeze at the moment. Prices are going up with pay not keeping up, so making your money go further is more important than ever.

We all want to get the best deals at the supermarket, but it’s not always straightforward. Are those bananas cheaper individually or in a bunch? Is that ‘buy one get one free’ offer really a bargain or would buying just one larger pack be better value?

Let’s get unit pricing in parliament

That’s why I’ve introduced a Bill on unit pricing in parliament, taking up the challenge of Which?’s Price it Right campaign. The Bill will make supermarkets use clear and simple price labels that feature visible and user-friendly unit prices to help people save money.

We should all be able to go into a supermarket and quickly and easily be able to tell which apples, jars of mayonnaise or boxes of cereal are better value for money.

With busy working and family lives, finding time to whizz round the supermarket is enough of a chore without stopping to do mathematical calculations. For people who are trying to shop with excitable young children or for those who find it difficult to see the unit price because it’s often very small, this is so much harder.

No one likes the feeling of having the wool pulled over their eyes, so it’s always annoying when special offers turn out to be nothing more than a marketing ploy – even more so if you only notice this once you’ve got home with the shopping!

Make it clear and consistent

Improving unit pricing is one simple thing that the government can do that will have a big impact on all of us – making it easier to save money on a regular basis.

To help get my Bill through parliament, I’m working with Which? to build a groundswell of support. I’m asking my fellow MPs to join me in writing to the minister responsible for pricing, and telling our constituents about the campaign.

Have you signed the pledge yet? The more people who sign, the more likely it is that we will succeed. I want to make sure supermarkets price it right.

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Jo Swinson MP – all opinions expressed here are their own, not necessarily those of Which?

Comments
Profile photo of osseo
Member

If this is such a good idea, why aren’t supermarkets doing it already? Perhaps they could explain. They’re there to meet public demand. Do they want to conceal their best bargains from the public, in case the public buy too many? (probably not). I predict that, if this becomes the law, unintended consequences (labelling expenses? enforcement costs?) will make us at best no better off. I go further – let’s apply the Precautionary Principle! Let no change be made until it can be proved that there will be no adverse consequences!

Profile photo of helenmuir
Member

They’re not there to meet public demand, but to create it and manipulate it according to their maximum profit. Your average Which reader is probably more savvy and/or has more time than the average harassed woman, fitting in shopping between work and household. The supermarket bosses are very smart and have all the time in the world to think up new ploys to trick her into spending more money. Personally as a retired person I have time to think about my shopping and can avoid supermarkets as much as possible.

I agree with the idea of the Precautionary Principle, though predicting possible c onsequences is nearly impossible. Clear standardised unit pricing can surely do no harm.

Profile photo of osseo
Member

maaji, thanks for your comment. I am less cynical, or more naive than you (or both). I think the prime objective of supermarkets is to make profits by meeting their customers’ needs – and that meeting real needs will work better than tricking people (I told you I was naive!). If their customers want unit pricing, I would expect it to be provided. Supermarkets offer bargains in order to sell goods, and (it seems to me that) when they offer bargains they will want to make this as clear as possible. You might think that standardised pricing could do no harm (I thought this about GM food, but ‘Which’ doesn’t agree with me), so let me offer some possibilities:
More regulations will mean extra expense for shops (regulations are not to be multiplied without necessity). Who will pay? – customers!
Regulations will need to be enforced, adding to public sector expenses
Parliamentary time will be wasted that could more profitably be spent over something else.

But perhaps we can agree that, given that at least some supermarkets are not doing this, it would help if they would explain to us why they don’t?

Member
Haydon Luke says:
18 August 2012

Can’t agree with your arguments, Tim. The present labelling and unit pricing regs are a mess, are not in the public interest and need revising. Your point about the cost of new labelling is spurious given that manufacturers happily produce new packaging very frequently for their own reasons in order to persuade us that some aspect of their product is ‘new’ or ‘improved’ or a ‘new size’ which is usually camouflage for ‘smaller but at the same price you used to pay’. And customers already pay for those changes since the costs are just part of the price you pay at the checkout. Since we already pay for these things, let us at least get a system that is open, fair and transparent and which doesn’t give the vendors countless opportunities to mislead and otherwise bamboozle hard pressed shoppers.
As to parliamentary time being more profitably spent on something else; what do you suggest? Clearly in the global scheme of things, yes, some other things are more important such as climate change and world peace but it is naive to think that those issues will be forced off the agenda by debating food labelling and pricing regulations. If something (whether big or small) is not fit for purpose, as the current regulations are not, then it is time to change them.

Profile photo of william
Member

When my local Tesco had Sweetex 600 tablets pack on offer it was still showing the same price per unit as the 1200 pack, yet you could get 2 of the 600s for less than the price of the 1200.

The units they had chosen to use, wonder if you can guess …

per tablet ( 0.3p per tablet ) when clearly per 100 tablets would have been a better start.

Do we know who decides on the units to use in the price per unit, the supermarket, the manufacturer or a magic 8 ball ?

Profile photo of johnrowe
Member

went to Sainsbury’s in Norwich yesterday. I needed some Bramley apples. Loose Bramleys were £1.55 a kilo and a pack of 5 £1.80 As there was no weight per kilo on the pack I weighed it on nearby scales and to my surprise the weight was one kilo, about 16% more!

Member
Chris says:
16 August 2012

Supermarkets always put the price per kilo on the label or the unit price which makes finding the cheapest easily, but usually in very small letters, if by law these were the same size as the actual price there would be no problem.

Member

“Supermarkets always put the price per kilo on the label ” They don’t that’s the point. Next time look at say apples, loose will be price per KG as will some bagged ones, other bagged apples will be priced per unit. This means you have to weigh them to compare and in my experience the bags of X number of apples priced each are more that the one’s priced per KG.

The whole point is to get a common price by weight or volume so you can make a quick informed decision on which one to buy.

Member
Monika says:
16 August 2012

This is very commendable action, but should this not be already covered by the EU legislation? For me it is inconceivable to have fruit measured in units- after all, apples are all different sizes, but the nutritional content varies with the size, not with weight. Small apple may provide half the nutritional value of a big apple and after all we buy apples to eat, not to look at. All food should be sold by weight, otherwise it is misleading.

That aside, and not entirely on the subject, most fruit in the supermarkets is picked underripe and “ripening in bowl” advised on a packet will only make the fruit soft, but still inedible. And the prices of decent, wholesome fruit are inaccessible for most people.

Member
Principled says:
16 August 2012

Let’s get one thing straight. Although supermarkets purport to be looking after the consumer, they are in fact just a business that sells goods and food to make money. The more profit they can make, the better.
Price obfuscation didn’t come about by accident, it is a simple marketing ploy to make the consumer think they are getting a “good deal” whether they are or not. The supermarket marketing departments must spend an age designing “offers” whose only aim is to separate the punters from their money. Has anyone ever seen a supermarket announce a price hike? Has anyone ever seen a label where the “Was” price was less then the “Now” price ? No, I thought not. Price reductions continue to be advertised, yet food price inflation is outstripping normal inflation. How can that be?
Thank goodness when I learnt arithmetic we had no calculators and it was pre-decimal coinage and weights. The ability this gave me to do complex mental calculations has helped immensely in ensuring I’m not sucked in to believing that every “offer” is really worth having.
As well as clear, LARGE PRINT price information we also need to ensure that price RISES are given equal billing to those of price reduction. Simples

Profile photo of william
Member

“Has anyone ever seen a label where the “Was” price was less then the “Now” price”

I think it was the last series of Watchdog which queried a sofa special offer which was in fact more than one of the previous prices.

Member

Unit pricing is definitely not shown on all items on line. I shop with Tesco on line & have been annoyed by similar items, especially fruit & veg, that have one priced per kilo & one per bag. I recently contacted Tesco about this & they said that it was because it’s the way their suppliers pack things. Oh yes, & Tesco buy without knowing the weight of those bags?? I don’t think so!

Member
James Andrews says:
16 August 2012

Visited a new Sainsbury local store to buy some bananas. The shop sells bananas individually, big or small at 30p each. All fruit is sold in this way or in pre-packed boxes which are pre-priced. The shop has no scales as this method makes check-outs quicker.
Will not return and I did not buy as it was an obvious rip-off. Expected better from Sainsburys.

Member
SteveH says:
16 August 2012

The email attracting me to this says
Which is cheaper – three bananas for £1 or three at 30p per kilogram? If you can’t tell without a calculator, the prices aren’t clear enough.

I’ll take the second offer any day, your average banana is 125gm (= 1/8 kilo) so the 3 for £1 amount to over £2/kilo, 7 times as much

Profile photo of aq
Member

In response to SteveH – I agree that this is a misleading pricing strategy (I say strategy because I suspect this is a deliberate ploy by retailers to hoodwink their customers). However, it is some years since bananas were sold at 30p per kilo (they’re about 68p per kilo typically at present). That said, legislation needs to ensure that consumers can make price comparisons by a common denominator across all stores. In the case of food / drink this has got to be price by kilo or litre. People should not have to take calculators to work this out or even rely on mental arithmetic skills to work out what needs to be a retail responsibility to present products with clear pricing by weight or volume. As I said before, processed food manufacturers could help by adopting standardised packaging for everything, so that tins or jars of this and that are sized the same regardless of manufacturer (eg 400g, 750g or 1Kg etc). Why pack these foods as 370g, 395g, 425g, 567g etc etc, if it’s not to deliberately mislead people ?

Member
James Andrews says:
17 August 2012

Manufacturers make jars, cartons and tins of various sizes to cover for higher prices. Most people do not notice as they just see the product. Orange juice is sold in various packaged amounts which are always changing. I shop in Waitrose and they display the price per .100ml. There are terrific differences when you check-up on this basis. I feel that the notices whilst good, should be in larger print. You can see the price of various articles in this manner, eg toilet paper per 100 sheets. We have also been conned since metrication and this is still going on as advantage is taken of peoples generally lack of numeracy skills.

Member
Ray Tolley says:
17 August 2012

In Response to AQ: Two Points:

Standardised sizes would never work – a packet meal produced by one manufacturer, for instance of 300gms, is far too small for me but another of 400gms is just right – it’s the story of Goldilocks and the 3 bears!

However, more devious, instead of increasing the price of a packeted product, a subtle reduction in weight attempts to con the buyer into believing that it is the same as previously bought.

Profile photo of aq
Member

Well, we used to have standardised packaging years ago (with tins and jars at least) simply because there was no choice of suppliers to provide these to the food processing industry. Remember when jam was always 1lb (453-454g in metric). The standard 1lb tin (beans, tomatoes, soup, even catfood) can now be anything from 385g to 440g, even for the same commodity. The point is that these variations for very similar sized products are bound to confuse people – you would need to read every label for different brands of the same commodity to compare price for weight (quality differences are a separate issue) and you would need to do this every week because changes are made without warning. These things don’t happen accidentally – the processed food manufacturers (often under pressure from the supermarket chains) make decisions to alter the size of the product and the packaging suppliers meet their demands. Why do they do this ? Not because of any changes in consumer demand (when did anyone get asked ?), but because they can give us less for the same price in the hope that few people can be bothered or indeed find the time to inspect the labels every time they shop. In other words to try and hoodwink their customers.

Profile photo of Rachel Blain
Member

Thanks to everyone so far who has commented. We are working hard to fix this issue and your comments will help us convince the powers that be that this needs to change.

To answer Monkia – yes there is an EU law covering this. However, UK law has a certain amount of flexibility in implementing this. Also – the UK law cross-references other pricing laws, some of which are defunct and some of which are contradictory. All these factors are accumulating to create a unit pricing mess in our supermarkets. We want the government to sort it out.

Profile photo of Rachel Blain
Member

Please keep your comments and personal experiences coming!

Profile photo of osseo
Member

Luke, thanks for your comments. You make a good point about reprinting – I think. The point about the existing regulations being a mess may also be good – I see that others have said this – though I’d be interested to hear more about the problems. I also am somewhat sceptical that such a mess will necessarily be easily put right – change, however well-intentioned, often does not have the intended effect (which is another way of stating the precautionary principle). I remain unconvinced that new regulations will necessarily assist the situation, or be worth the time spent on them by all involved. What most shakes my confidence in my position, however, is the failure of any supermarket to defend their current practice (unless I’ve missed this?).

Profile photo of brat673
Member

I agree supermarkets play smoke and mirrors with us. Buy one get one free or half price should also stop. It creates waste, perhaps excessive consumption. It discriminates against the less well off and pensioners. When all said and done the price is raised to compensate.Lets have fair and honest pricing. Forbid at or below cost selling. Politicians have courage lets have a motto- KISS -“Keep it Simple Stupid. ” Act quick, not kick it into the long grass for consultation. These issues have been aired for long enough.
A quick question I would ask why are the government having private meetings with the supermarkets? Sounds corrupt! When do we get to meet with them? Keep Sunday Special,well whats left of it.

Profile photo of brat673
Member

Lets also stop Supermarkets getting suppliers to fund deals. This ploy seems like the big boys bullying the small suppliers! Initial promotions perhaps to get a product known maybe.

Profile photo of whirlygirl
Member

Although supermarkets appear to be trying to help consumers by displaying some comparative data on products, some of the data is not particularly helpful. I have noticed that in many cases the comparative data is different between different manufactures in the same supermarket so for example one porridge manufacturer could be displayed as price per 100gm and another as price per sachet (which is not 100gm) making it difficult to compare.
I have seen a number of people standing with 2 different packets in their hands trying to decide which is the better value.
The contents of packs seem to be a deliberate attempt to keep consumers baffled. Why have teabags in 40s, 80s, 160s, 240s? As a former Maths teacher I enjoy doing the comparisons but am all too aware of the number of people who would struggle even if they had a calculator.

Member
Roanne says:
21 August 2012

I shop periodically at Waitrose and even there I noted prices for 1lb of tomatoes and next to them more at 1K which led me to buy the wrong ones.

Profile photo of helenmuir
Member

Just seen the Co-op at it again. Pack of 4 yes only 4 apricots ‘were £4 now half-price’ £2 for 4 apricots?

Member
Ray Tolley says:
23 August 2012

I have been a loyal customer of ASDA for almost 20 years. However, I cannot accept the downright dishonesty of claiming a price-cut on items that have regularly been on sale at the same price if not lower! I have spoken to the floor-manager of the store but the same racket goes on week after week.

Profile photo of helenmuir
Member

Isn’t it interesting that noone from any of the supermarkets targeted have seen fit to reply to our complaints?

Member
brat673 says:
24 August 2012

Many of these practices should have been outlawed years ago but our MPs draft the Acts full of loopholes that they were able to drive a double decker bus through. Have we any faith that this Govt has the will to push through reforms?

Profile photo of aq
Member

Yes, you would think that this would have been put right by now. However, MPs do not draft legislation, lawyers do that, so what does it say about the legal profession. As bad as all this may seem, the UK has some of the best consumer protection in the world, even though some of it is poorly drafted. Unfortunately, whilst there has been a political will to force through tons of legislation as the “solution” to the country’s ills of all kinds, this has not been matched with the legal competence to ensure that the legislation is drafted to be completely effective, nor an adequate system for “policing” to ensure its compliance.

Member
JamesB says:
25 August 2012

The other one that confuses me is when items are reduced or half price or say 3 for 2. Is the price per kilo based on the original price or for just 1 item OR is it the based on the new price or multiple items?

Sometimes I also see two very similar products (even the same brand) where one is in £/kg and othe other is £/100g. Its easy to work out shouldn’t be necessary?!

And often shops want to sell items such as meat and vegtables at a set price. So the shop sets all the weights the same (ie lies) and price per kilo. But I want to know which pack has the most stuff in it for the price I’m paying.

Profile photo of omegafrankie
Member

It would help me enormously if the price per kg / 100ml EVEN IF STATED AS ” APPROXIMATELY ”
was shown against offers per unit or multiple units. Or, would this be EU illegal?

Member
Numskull says:
14 September 2012

I admire and support you for championing this cause. Price per article and per (dare I say it) pound or kilo. for packed and individual items and price per 100 gms on all items which are tinned, bottled, wrapped and encapsulated would greatly assist in procuring the “best” or “better” buys.

Profile photo of ostridge
Member

The price per 100 grams is often used for lighter items. I find it easier to compare when the price is per Kg (1000 grams) often there are these 2 methods in the same shop, and I’m fine with manipulating the decimal point – however not everyone is bright enough to do the maths and PRICE PER Kg should be standard for all weights whether in supermarket, convenience store, or market etc.
For liquid measure such as milk please standardise on Litres (even for 4 pint containers).
Unit prices are acceptable for things always sold by number such as paracetamol; but please not for fruit and vegetables. I cannot tell if a melon is good value unless the price is per Kg as I dont carry a caliper around to measure it, nor do I know the density per unit volume.

Education in schools needs to focus more on unit pricing, and how to compare dissimilar packs, and how it is the little numbers per Killogramme per Liter etc. that make your pocket empty quicker.

If children were taught always to compare on these little numbers, there would be more of a hue and cry about this.

In shops I always focus on the unit prices, re-calculate into Kg, or Litre that way I should know the cheapest; EXCEPT that Tesco have been known the get the unit price wrong as they calculate it manually and not on computer. I noticed a 4 Kg bag of rice priced at $4.50, and unit price at £0.01 per Kg. They wouldn’t let me have it for 4p. 😉

Member

In Sainsbury’s today in Chichester a 250g pack of Red Label tea cost £1.25 and the 500g multipack was £2.75. There wasn’t any label to say it was a special offer and last time I bought the tea the larger pack was cheaper per 100g so why has this been reversed? An honest mistake or trying to fool the shoppers?

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Member

As the mulitpack clearly states Bigger Pack better value and it isn’t, that Sainsbury’s are in fact misleading the customer and therefore breaking the law. I’m surprised Tesco is changing the wording on anything it sells to remove that claim so they never break it.

Profile photo of wavechange
Member

Even if Tesco and others remove labelling that indicates that larger packs are better value, the customer will assume that they are. Ignore the price and look at the unit price on the shelf label.

There are problems to be sorted out with unit pricing, particularly with multi-buy offers, but unit pricing is the best way of finding out what really is best value for money.

Member
Multimummy says:
2 July 2013

Unit pricing is all very well as long as its accurate – I’ve seen unit prices which don’t tally with the selling price before now, and mix in the problem of shrinking packs and supermarket websites not necessarily displaying the pack size you’ll actually get (as happened to me this morning) and it makes a nonsense of the whole thing.

My Mum used to take me shopping with her and I remember her calculating the cost per sheet of toilet roll! Whilst I don’t do this myself it did teach me to check how much things really cost when making comparisons.

Member
Haydon Luke says:
15 July 2013

I really hope that Jo’s initiative bears fruit but I am not holding my breath! Why? Too many vested interests, weak-kneed regulators and watchdogs afraid to act in the public interest.
One really simple and effective move would be to insist on unifrom pricing by weight of fruit and vegetables irrespective of whether the goods are loose or prepacked. Then we’d get away from the nonsense of not knowing whether apples (average price 30p per fruit in a prepack of 6) were more or less expensive than loose apples at £2.40 a kilo. And why aren’t there more scales for customers’ use near the fruit and veg? Apparently the law no longer requires it. Another triumph for deregulation!
Despite their protestations of innocence, supermarkets deliberately use the loopholes in the present pricing regulations to confuse and obfuscate.

Member
Paul B says:
22 July 2013

All of the big four supermarkets use complex unit pricing for fruit and veg which make it extremely difficult to compare the price per pound/ kilogram. Prices can sometimes be double the price! I wrote to Tesco customer service raising this issue, the person who dealt with my enquiry agreed that the pricing structure made it extremely difficult to compare the unit cost of loose and packed produce. The question was passed to the Tesco pricing team, who unsurprisingly decided not to make any changes, whilst citing that their practice is consistent with the legal pricing framework.

All of the supermarkets currently use strap lines such as “Saving you money everyday” “low prices everyday” “helping you to live well for less” etc seem of limited value given the lack of pricing information available to assist the customer. Please can parliament discuss this further?