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Do you use unit pricing when shopping?

Unit pricing is an effective way to compare value between products being sold in different sized packages or loose. But do you use it other than in supermarkets, our guest author Ian Jarratt wants to know…

The UK requires all retailers, such as supermarkets, pharmacies and hardware stores, to display the unit price (price per unit of measure) of most of the pre-packaged products they sell.

For example, the cost per kilogram of cheese in supermarkets, or the cost per litre of paint at a hardware store.

This was achieved thanks in part to Which?’s Price it Right campaign, which demanded supermarkets make clearer their pricing of items.

However, in some countries, including Australia where I live, only grocery retailers have to provide unit pricing.

Pricing power

Australia’s unit pricing laws are being reviewed and I and other consumer advocates want non-grocery retailers to be required to provide unit pricing for fixed measure pre-packaged products.

Almost all non-grocery retailers in Australia do not provide unit pricing voluntarily, so most consumers do not have experience of provision by non-grocery retailers.

And, I do not know of any research anywhere in the world on the provision and use of unit pricing at non-grocery retailers that we can refer to in our submissions.

So, it would be a great help to Australian consumers if you could tell me about your experiences with the unit pricing provided by non-grocery retailers in the UK.

We need your help

We know that most Australian consumers use unit pricing when provided in grocery stores, and many of the products sold there are also sold in non-grocery stores, for example shampoo, cosmetics and vitamins at chemists. And, in all non-grocery stores there are many pre-packaged products to choose from.

Therefore, I think there is a strong case for requiring non-grocery retailers to provide unit pricing for pre-packaged products in Australia.

So, can you help by sending in your views on its usefulness in the UK and your experiences with it?

For example, do you find it useful for comparing the value for money of the products they sell, and is it more useful for some products than others?

Comments
Member

In the food market unit pricing is useful to compare products where different shaped bottles, jars and packaging can disguise the quantity of the product being sold. Likewise in the supermarket, unit pricing can tell us if a larger quantity of the same product is better or worse value than the smaller one. Foods like cheese, meat and some tins can vary with supplier and size of product offered. Unit pricing can allow us to make an informed choice about price versus quality and, of course whether we buy something because we have enjoyed it in the past.
Stepping outside the supermarket I find it harder to think of the benefits of unit pricing. Paints, for example, are usually sold in the same sizes and price differences could be due to what’s in the tin. Would one be concerned about unit price when buying a bag of nails or more concerned to buy the required amount of them for the job? Most garden products come in packages of a standard size and one is more concerned with whether the product works than how much you get. The concentration of ingredients also makes unit pricing by weight more difficult. Less weight might mean more product. The price fuel is well displayed per litre. So, where else might one want unit pricing? Not particularly for stationery, perhaps ink cartridges in different sizes; I’m struggling to think of that many.

Member

Thanks for the comments.

In principle I do not see differences between the relevance of the unit price for packaged products sold at supermarkets and those sold by other retailers.

Except perhaps that chemists for example may sell more products like vitamins where the strength per tablet, which is the unit of measure, can vary greatly. And, unless you are only comparing the unit prices an IDENTICAL product in different pack sizes or sold loose, you should always take into account more than just the unit price when deciding what is the best value for you.

Ink cartridges are a good example of how helpful unit pricing can be if the unit price is per 100 printed sheets measured by an internationally agreed standard method, which does exist This is actually done by one Australian stationery retailer but unfortunately the print used fro the unit price is far to small and the unit price given is per sheet so tiny and not helpful. I wonder whether any UK stationers provide this unit of measure for ink and toner cartridges?

Member

I find unit pricing very useful for grocery shopping and would like to see it extended to other products where it would be useful to do so. Unit pricing makes it easy to compare prices of different package sizes and of different brands of the same type of product. The unit prices of some products are stable but others cycle up and down.

There are various strategies that seem to be used to discourage consumers from paying attention to unit prices.

1. Similar items priced per 100g or per kg. That’s easy to cope with but some do find it confusing.

2. Mixing unit prices is common. Bananas are often priced per item, by weight and by pack. Toilet rolls can be priced per roll and per 100 sheets.

3. Multi-buy products often show the ‘normal’ price but not the discounted price. Some retailers make it very difficult to use unit pricing by offering something like ‘buy three items and the cheapest one is free’.

As Vynor suggests, there are plenty of opportunities for unit pricing apart from supermarkets.

Member

Which? has been working hard to get changes to practices and legislation that would address the 3 problems you mention but I think progress in them has been slow.

I think Vynor was suggesting that there may be less need/opportunities for unit pricing at non-grocery retailers. See my comments.

I find it very frustrating that hardware strore in Australia do not provide unit prices for relevant packaged products.

Member

Hi Ian. Thanks very much for responding to comments here.

Which? has put in a lot of effort on pricing and submitted a ‘supercomplaint’ in 2015. This and other related documents are on this page: https://www.which.co.uk/policy/food/388/misleading-pricing-practices-which-super-complaint At the time I thought more support could have been given to pushing for more widespread and consistent use of unit pricing. I suspect that most shoppers don’t make great use of it and that’s not helped by the games played by retailers.

I support your call for unit pricing in hardware shops. I buy specialist paints from these and other sources and these are sometimes sold in odd sizes, making price comparison more difficult.

Member

Ian, what are the relevant packaged products where you would like to see unit pricing?

Member

There ought to be a standard of all unit pricing to 100g unless the size makes it nonsensical. Toilet rolls/kitchen roll/tissues should all be by sheet and also by thickness.

We buy wild bird food from 2 online suppliers who are basically the same outfit. They sell their products in different size packs on different websites giving the impression of 2 businesses in competition with each other. It would be very easy to reorder a pack not realising they have shrunk it this week.

Other than that, I can’t see that much need for unit pricing outside the supermarket for the very reasons Vynor has given.

Member

I agree Alfa. I would love it if there were specified measures for all food products according to type. Another complicating factor is the ‘family pack’ which is introduced as a temporary promotion between sizing alterations in order to disguise the impact of a unit price change.

Unfortunately what appear to be standard-size cans can have different volumes of soup, or baked beans, for example across different brands. The same applies to dry goods like coffee [both instant and ground], cereals, biscuits, and such like.

Member

Unit pricing is a great help when package size varies between brands yet they look the same.

Member
Kevin says:
22 January 2019

I make use of the unit pricing information when comparing products; I can’t think of a valid reason why this isn’t common practise apart from vendors wanting to conceal and confuse the real cost of goods.
I also agree that the standard should mandate the units used, either kilos/litres or 100ml/100g. Having a variety of measures has no benfit other than to confuse the customer, and it should apply when fruit is sold by the number of items, with no weight stated.

I have also noticed a recent increase in shrinkflation among spirits. The manufacturers have reduced many vodkas from 40% to 37 or 38%, so perhaps there’s scope here for some regulation when a significant and quantitative measure the of quality of a product is changed.

Member

That’s a good point Kevin – it’s essential that unit price comparisons are like-for-like. Two washing-up liquids could have completely different dilution rates and the more expensive one – on a straight volumetric unit basis – could in fact be the better value because it goes further or is more effective.

Customers must still consider many other product properties but they are changing so much more frequently these days and it is becoming more difficult to make the comparisons. I feel Which? could do more to highlight these variations and publicise them; we have had various Conversations about it where contributors have given examples but I am not aware of Which? having used the information to show up the problem.

Member

The use of inconsistent or inappropriate units of measure for the unit price is a major problem in Australia too. Since it is legal to sell some loose fruit and vegetables either per kg or per each, it is difficult to get consistency in the unit of measure used for all the unit prices for these products.

I guess Shrinkflation in the % alcohol has to be a quality difference that has to be taken into account when comparing the unit prices of different brands of a product.

Member

Your point about differences in the concentration/dilution rate/output from different products is very valid and why for some products I favour the use for unit pricing of units of measure other than quantity in the pack. However, this is if there is an agreed standard for the alternative measure to be used. An example currelty used in the UK is using drained not net weight when available.

Member

In the UK it is normal to show the number of units of alcohol (1 unit = 25g) in a bottle, though this is not yet mandatory.

Member

Unit pricing works well in supermarkets because people buy the same items frequently and have a handle on the prices. In most areas they also have a choice of stores within a reasonable radius and can choose where to shop for best value. It’s easy to look up prices on-line nowadays as well. I don’t think it’s necessary to adopt unit pricing for hardware goods because purchases are fewer and farther between and because there is not the easy choice of alternative suppliers. If you want some screws or nails there’s probably only one place in town where you can get them loose, the DIY sheds only sell them in packets of ten or a hundred and the profit margin is no doubt colossal.

‘Pound shops’ can be deceptive because, although cartons or packets might look the same, the quantity or weight of the contents could be significantly less than in a supermarket so the value for money is lower even though the shelf price looks much better.

Member

I agree that most people visit hardware stores less often then supermarkets and buy less there. Also that there is often less choice of hardware store than supermarket.

However, I would find it beneficial if hardware stores in Australia provided unit prices. That would at least help me to make better informed choices between many of the products sold in a store.

Member

I would welcome it if hardware and DIY stores did use unit pricing but it is probably not a high priority. I am convinced it will not happen voluntarily and our present UK government is pathologically disinclined to make it compulsory.

No organisation seems to do ‘basket’ comparisons for hardware goods as are done for groceries etc, and so far as I am aware there are no comparison sites on the internet as there are for many other forms of purchase even though it is a multi-billion pound market.

Member

My understanding is that hardware and DIY shops in the UK bigger than 280 sq m have to provide unit prices for relevant packaged products. Can someone tell me whether they do, and if so is it useful?

Online hardware retailers seem to be providing it.

I have certainly seen it provided in some UK chemist shops.

Member

Ian – When you write “unit prices for relevant packaged products”, what products do you actually mean? What are the “relevant” ones in this context?

I must admit I have never checked for unit prices in DIY stores. If I want ten washers and pick up a packet of them the unit price on the shelf label is immaterial. Unlike supermarkets, the DIY stores usually only have one line of each product and you have to take it or leave it. Many of the goods are unbranded as well. Many other categories [like paint] are sold in standard volumes so the unit price is obvious without a shelf label. The only brand choices in UK DIY stores [e.g. for wallpaper paste] are usually limited to the store’s own-label brand and one other.

I don’t know what happens in UK pharmacies as we can buy all our requirements in the supermarket where everything is unit priced.

Member

I was thinking about Ian’s comments and coming to the same conclusions as John. I would say there are 3 categories in some products, own brand, branded and premium or specialist. Own brand will nearly always be cheapest and premium/specialist will come at a premium price for those willing to pay it. Required size and usage will probably determine which product you buy.

You know going to a local hardware store will probably cost more, but if you have to drive any distance to pay less, the cost might be offset by fuel, time and car parking charges.

Lack of sizes to confuse you in the world of DIY also means people get to use their brains a little which is not a bad thing.

Our main DIY stores are:
B&Q https://www.diy.com/
Wickes: https://www.wickes.co.uk/
Homebase: https://www.homebase.co.uk/
Public/Trade:
Screwfix: https://www.screwfix.com/
Tool Station: https://www.toolstation.com/

There are other trade stores that the more savvy DIYer will use. Many more paint brands are available at trade paint stores than your nearby shed that will be pushing their own brand.

Main chain High Street pharmacies:
Boots https://www.boots.com/
http://www.lloydspharmacy.com/

Member

John.By relevant products I mean products that are:
– sold prepackaged and on which information about the quantity in the pack (weight, volume, length, number, etc is displayed on the pack (or the number can be seen and easily counted by the consumer), and .
– priced per pack.

Examples include: paint (volume), adhesives (weight/volume), sealants (weight), tapes (length), screws (number).

Re your paint comparison example: I don’t think the volumes of paint containers is tins is regulated in the UK so there no guarantee that different brands will always have the same container sizes. And even if they are the same, I think that unit pricing greatly helps to compare pack sizes within brands.

Member

Understood, Ian.

I can certainly see the advantage of unit pricing on screws as there is a huge variety of different screw types for the same length and head-type, each with its own properties, and the price range is quite wide according to the specification required.

Given the many high-priority issues that Which? is beavering away on and the urgent need to deal with many long-standing issues requiring resolution, how would you suggest that this is taken forward? I don’t think anyone is against it but we have to be realistic; the government will not address it and the different trades are unlikely to move without regulations.

Member

Thanks for the links to those hardware websites. Was not aware of some so will look at them.

I agree that choices for hardware products are based on by many factors, but this is also the the case with food and grocery products.

BTW I did some unit price calculations for different pack sizes of the same brand of some hardware products here recently and found that for 11 products the saving by buying the larger pack size averaged 41%, the range was from 22% to 63%.

And recently when i needed to replace a few metres of 2mm nylon cord in a venetian blind, I was amazed to find that it was 90c/m to have the length needed cut from a large roll, but for a 30m prepacked roll I worked out that the unit price was only 14c/m. Needless to say, I bought the 30m roll, and also had enough left over to use on other blinds when they need repairs.

.

Member

Alfa. I have had a look at these hardware/DIY and pharmacy websites.
B&Q https://www.diy.com/
Wickes: https://www.wickes.co.uk/
Homebase: https://www.homebase.co.uk/
Screwfix: https://www.screwfix.com/
Tool Station: https://www.toolstation.com/

Main chain High Street pharmacies:
Boots https://www.boots.com/
http://www.lloydspharmacy.com/

As test, I searched hardware for SEALANTS and pharmacies for SHAMPOO.
I found HUGE differences in whether and how well the unit prices are displayed for these products (for which having unit prices can be very helpful) and in the units of measure used.
I'd be interested in what others think. But for me this is very disappointing and unacceptable .
The only websites that showed unit prices when you first get info about the products (not after you have clicked again somewhere near the item), and which seem to provide unit prices for all products and to use the correct and consistent units of measure were:
Tool Station: https://www.toolstation.com/ and .
Boots https://www.boots.com/
However, at both these websites the unit price was in pale not bold print, so not very prominent. And at Boots the print was very small.
No site seemed to have a search by unit price facility, which I think is essential to be able to use unit prices effectively on websites.
Is the situation at bricks and mortar hardware stores and chemists shops also so bad? I have not been to hardware stores and the main problem at the few chemists i have visited was the small size of the print used for the unit prices.

Member

Small print is also a common problem with unit prices in supermarkets, but a greater challenge can be to check that the item on the shelf matches the nearby barcode number, which is invariably in small print. Unless they match you could end up paying a lot more.

Member

At least we cannot complain about Ian using small print in his comment above. Guest author’s privilege I suppose; other contributors have been told off for using capital letters extensively.

Member

I would like to see unit pricing on drinks in restaurants. I’m fed up with restaurants quoting a price for a particular brand of beer without even specifying the quantity. Then when the beer arrives, it’s often a tiny 275ml bottle, not even half a pint, but charged as the market price for a pint. The standard measure of beer in the UK is a pint (568ml), from which there are derivations such as half a pint (284ml). I would like to see all restaurant beer prices quoted as a unit price per pint (568ml) and all wine prices (when sold by the glass) as a price per bottle (750ml). Prices should be transparent, so that unreasonably expensive per-unit prices are overt and obvious.

Member

That’s an interesting suggestion and a complex area involving weights and measures and unit pricing laws.
I don’t know much about the former but do know that the unit pricing law (The Price Marking Order 2004) does not apply to products supplied in the course of the provision of a service which would apply to buying the packaged beer in a restaurant. If you bought it in a shop with a floor area greater than 280 sq m the unit price per litre would have to be provided.

Member

In the UK there are rules for the volume of beers, wines and spirits that can legally be sold by the glass and some rules for packages: https://www.gov.uk/weights-measures-and-packaging-the-law/specified-quantities If you stick to draught beer, it’s a third, half, two-thirds of a pint and multiples of half a pint.

Member

What seems strange to me is that supermarkets seem to sell bottled beers of different ABV’s [and sometimes volumes] at an identical price. I suppose buyers look for the biggest wallop per bucketful.

Member
DerekP says:
23 January 2019

Hmm… I like “wallop per bucketful” but I’m not sure that it’s the correct CAMRA approved unit of measure here.

Member

I agree, Derek. They tend to stick to the gallon as their preferred yardstick for a lunchtime session.

Member

CAMRA promote line glasses rather than ones that hold a pint to the brim, so that you can have a pint (568ml) beer plus a head. In some parts of the country it’s common to be served 500ml plus the rest as foam.

Member

Wavechange, you make a good point. But unfortunately many restaurants avoid serving draught beer, because pricing is too transparent with draught beer. Instead they serve bottles in obscure measures such as 275ml. But even with draught beer, it can be misleading. I went to one bar recently where they were serving draught two thirds of a pint (379ml) for £6.25, which works out at a whopping £9.38 per pint. Without unit pricing (e.g. “£9.38 per pint”), many customers don’t understand the extent to which they are being ripped off.

Member

You have my support in calling for unit prices on drinks, NFH. Price is only half the information needed to make an informed decision. When eating out I go for wine, and in pubs I go for a pint or half of beer. What concerns me is the growing amount of ‘craft beer’ at absurd prices. I once assumed that our micro-pub was selling a craft beer at £3.75 a pint but I was served a half pint, which taught me to pay more attention and read the price list.

Member

Wine is sold in restaurants and pubs at 3 or 4 times the price you’d pay in a retailer. Soft drinks are priced highly – 60p for a litre bottle of M&S tonic in the shop or £2.35 for a Fever Tree split at the bar. The “craft” gin craze may be more about crafty prices. As for a cup of coffee…. But you don’t have to pay these prices; just don’t buy them or don’t frequent the establishments. Or ask for a jug of tap water with your meal; alcohol is not compulsory.

If enough people had the same view and stopped buying then things would change; but perhaps they don’t share the view.

Despite such pricing our well-patronised village pub/restaurant is changing management once again because the previous incumbents couldn’t make a sensible profit – which is what they need to do.

Unit pricing in food shops is fine when you want to compare like with like but it cannot be universally useful; popular meal deals where you bundle different dishes and maybe a bottle of wine for a tenner, 3 deli for £7, don’t make unit pricing sensible but that would be no reason to ban them; we can decide whether the offer appeals to us.

I keep a stock of hardware like screws, nails, hinges, nuts and bolts that I use most often and buy those in boxes from Axminster, a proper hardware shop or the like rather than in small prepacks from a diy shed. But the convenience of buying little used items in a small quantity is the price sometimes worth paying. I can decide by comparing different outlets whether I’m getting the best deal, but factor in the cost of fuel if you really are determined and choose to survey local outlets.

Member

We once had good legislation that required the price of all drinks on licensed premises to be shown at the point of sale or in other prominent ways [normally on a list on the wall]. I think it was called the Price Marking [Drinks on Premises] Order made in the 1970’s. Like so many good things it was repealed by Vince Cable when Secretary of State for Trade & Industry during the Coalition government period as part of the ‘great bonfire of the regulations’.

My local pub, which I visit about once a week, has a large chalkboard display of all the drinks prices which seem quite reasonable to me compared with metropolitan prices. It is a popular local which is clearly doing well for the owners.

I think the chances of such a measure being re-enacted are remote. To some extent the high prices must reflect spending power in a period of austerity; heaven help us when its over.

Member

The inflated prices for drinks may be necessary for restaurants and pubs to remain in business. Our village is not large but has three pubs. One is not making a profit but the family that has owned it for years is keen to keep it open. It’s the only one that displays the price of their beers. The micropub in town displays the name, brewery and location, ABV and price of their five cask beers – which change every day or two.

I had not realised that it is no longer mandatory to display representative prices in pubs, John, but not all establishments were doing this when it was a requirement.

Member

I think we must appeal for a CAMRA member to join this Conversation and enlighten us on the current position.

I cannot recall seeing a ‘representative’ price list but when I go to the bar I am usually ordering a round of drinks for a number of people and I get what they ask for. To avoid any shocks I just present my contactless debit card without reading the screen.

Member
DerekP says:
24 January 2019

I do love to hear how the other half lives.

Guest ales are normally £1.99 a pint in my local Wetherspoons or £1.25 if purchased with a meal.

Halves, thirds and free samples (so you can try before you buy) are also available.

I have also seen some drinks sold by the pitcher, a custom I first encountered in the USA.

Member

That seems remarkably cheap given that the duty on beer is around 54p a pint and vat is also to be paid.

Member
DerekP says:
24 January 2019

Or even “Great Value”, in Which? terminology.

Member

I don’t like to give products bad press especially when I haven’t tried them, but I recently discovered Seedlip.

They are distilled non-alcoholic spirits in 70cl bottles retailing for £27.99 drunk neat with ice.

Errrr… I don’t spend that much on my favourite branded alcoholic spirits.

Definitely not ‘Great Value’!!! 🤑

Member
DerekP says:
24 January 2019

And I thought the official chocolate version of Baileys was expensive enough at its Asda January sale price of £26/litre 😉

Member

Over the years we’ve noted that a window appears in Asda a few weeks away from Christmas in which the price of the 1L bottle of any Baileys plummets – for a few days.

Member

Prices of litre bottles of cooking whisky and other popular spirits often fall before bank holidays and increase soon after. This may not apply to smaller bottles, so it’s worth checking the unit price.

Member

mysupermarket is the place to compare prices. A litre of Baileys is £15 in Sainsburys at the moment.
http://www.mysupermarket.co.uk/asda-compare-prices/Spirits/Baileys_Original_Irish_Cream_Liqueur_1L.html

And my new favourite that was on special offer before Xmas:
http://www.mysupermarket.co.uk/tesco-price-comparison/Spirits/Jack_Daniels_Tennessee_Fire_700ml.html
Not on offer now, but much better value than flavoured water.

Keeping it on topic, do you have something similar in Australia Ian?

Member

It’s all about transparency to help consumers make informed choices. I like unit pricing because it combines price and quantity. However, if not provided it is important that the the consumer has info about the quantity being bought. Too often however, even quantity info is not provided for example as several people have mentioned, the size of the bottle of beer on offer in the restaurant. Laws usually only require the quantity to be put on the product which is not useful when at decision time you can not see the product. Same applies to internet sales. Labelling laws have yet to catch up with changes in buying practices.

And sometimes there is not even a requirement to provide the quantity being bought, for example when the choice of a poured soft drink is a small, medium or large plastic container and there is no info about the actual volume of each.

Bundles of different products sold at a single price are not normally unit priced because the info is not useful to the consumer.

Member

I don’t think in Australia we have anything as comprehensive as mysupermarket for comparing prices between supermarkets. Might be because we have far fewer supermarket chains and a much smaller population.

Member
DerekP says:
25 January 2019

Alfa, thanks for those links.

I see the chocolate Baileys is now £31/litre in Asda and £36/litre elsewhere.

I think that also explains why it is hard to track down – at this price point most shoppers will have more sense than to buy it, so many stores won’t put it out on the shelves.

Member

Ian have you heard of Ocado? I think they are the best online supermarket and one of their sort orders is price per.
https://www.ocado.com/browse/home-garden-30931/craft-haberdashery-48283/tapes-glues-adhesives-48287?sort=PRICE_PER_ASC

Derek, Baileys Chocolate Luxe is on offer in Tesco at £12 down to £31/litre.

Asda is usually the best for special offers on spirits and leading up to Xmas the best time to stock up.

Member

One example of unit pricing that everyone uses is petrol and diesel. It’s a success because all filling stations sell fuel by the litre, making it easy to compare prices and be aware of what is a good price.

In the days before goods were packaged, we made more use of unit prices.

Member

A good example of how unit pricing can work well for products of standardized quality/composition etc.
Also when everyone use the same unit of measure for the unit price.
To illustrate the problems caused for consumers when grocery retailers do not use the same unit of measure to show the unit price of the same item, I often ask people how acceptable it would be, or allowed by regulators, if some fuel retailers prices their products per litre, and some per 500mL or 250mL.

The answer is always that it would be unacceptable and not allowed. Yet something similar is put up with by consumers, and tolerated by regulators, for many packaged products.

Member

Ultimate unit price for utilities is never clear, or miles by plane/train/bus/taxi. I would find that useful.

Member

These are difficult products/services to unit price in part because there are often fixed charges and charges related to use/distance, and great variation in individual usage/distances travelled. However, it can be done for various assumed levels of use/distance.

Member

In a large UK supermarket you will find a variety of bottles of HP Sauce, including different sizes of plastic bottles, inverted plastic bottles and glass bottles. Inspection of the unit prices makes it easy to see which is the best value for money and how the unit prices compares with other brands of brown sauce nearby on the shelf. For a long time the small glass bottles offered the best value for money in the local Tesco, even when other sizes were on offer.

The special offers often draw attention to the best value for money but not always.

Member

wavechange. It seems to me that your HP sauce example illustrates very well how unit pricing can increase price transparency and facilitate informed choice for these types of packaged products.

Member

It would be interesting to know what percentage of people choose products such as a bottle of HP on the basis of unit price or because there is an offer on that size. I don’t know if there is any published research but presume that the retailers know the answer. Looking at the same product in different packaging at least excludes personal preferences relating to quality and brand.

From the Competition & Markets Authority’s response to the Which? super complaint in 2015: Recommendation 2: The CMA recommends that BIS produces best practice guidelines on the legibility of unit pricing information, to provide greater clarity about the requirements of the PMO in this regard. This would help TSS and Primary Authorities assess compliance. We also recommend that retailers introduce any resulting changes to labelling as soon as practicable. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/55a6c83540f0b61562000005/Groceries_Pricing_Super-Complaint_response.pdf. The response explains the acronyms. 🙂

Perhaps Which? could be persuaded to investigate the benefits of unit pricing and how this could usefully be extended, Ian. It was the focus of an earlier Conversation: https://conversation.which.co.uk/food-drink/supermarket-unit-pricing-event-price-it-right-sainsburys-morrisons/ At that time, it was not uncommon to see errors in unit prices but in my experience this problem seems to have been overcome.

Member

Wave change. Thanks for reminding us about the which? Price it right campaign and the CMA response to the which? Supercomplaint. I participated in both and there have been worthwhile improvements in the quality of the unit pricing provided in some UK supermarkets. However, in my experience there is still great scope and need for improvement in many/most UK supermarkets.
My focus in this conversation is on NON GROCERY retailers which I think have tended to be neglected when UK consumers have tried to get retailers to provide better unit pricing and for regulators to get better compliance with the legislated requirements.

Member

OK, Ian, but looking at the success of introducing unit prices in supermarkets demonstrates the potential of extending this to other sectors. I cannot see any reason for not providing unit prices in pharmacies and hardware stores, to use the examples you have given.

It’s always good to hear about cooperation between consumers’ associations and some of us here are keen to see more.

Member

Are there any UK legislative requirements for unit prices in non-grocery retailers? Is there any actual official Regulation of the grocery sector?

As I have written previously, given the many high-priority issues that Which? is beavering away on and the urgent need to deal with many long-standing issues requiring resolution, how can we take this forward? I don’t think anyone is against it but we have to be realistic; the government will not address it and the different trades are unlikely to move without regulations and a Regulator.

With local Trading Standards and Consumer Protection services having been reduced to a shell I doubt there is the capacity to take this on. The theory is that we will all resort to the Consumer Rights Act to self-enforce against misleading descriptions. Most of us have better things to do with our time than complain about tuppence on a bottle of shampoo.

I wonder what the cost of unit pricing the average shopping basket is to the grocery sector – we are all paying it every time there is a change in packaging or pricing.

Member

I’m not aware of any regulations, John. I cannot see why unit pricing should increase costs because the computer used for stock keeping and generating price labels should be able to calculate and print price labels with unit prices.

Member

True. I hadn’t thought of that.

I presume the template is controlled and produced at head office and printed locally in-store.

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I assume so. In the past I have spotted errors in unit prices when something does not look quite right, but it’s several years since I have seen a problem.

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Companies that have different formats [e.g. superstores, express, metro and local] often have different prices for the same product in their smaller outlets. This can add to consumers’ pricing confusion.

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Comparing unit prices in a particular store is one thing, but you need a very good memory to make comparisons between different stores. Unless you do it online. However I believe there are apps that will compare prices when you scan the bar code? Would people go to this trouble when doing the weekly shop?

Digressing slightly, (a bit off topic 🙁 ), Which? regularly publish the cost of a shopping trolley of branded groceries and rank supermarkets by total price. I wonder how many of us buy only brands? I’d find it more useful if they also published a trolley cost of own brand equivalents.

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There is no need to learn unit prices to decide which pack size offers best value for money or how the price of other brands compare in a shop. Having used unit prices since I had to use mental arithmetic to calculate them, I have a good idea about what is reasonable value, at least for goods I buy regularly. Not everyone will use unit prices but there is no reason for not providing them.

Ian has asked us to focus on non-grocery prices and having thought about this I realise that I use mental arithmetic to estimate them, just as I did for years in supermarkets.

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I was responding to John’s comment about different types of outlet, where it seems to me that comparing unit costs requires the ability to remember what each outlet charged. It applies equally to non-grocery outlets.

I did not suggest stores should not show unit prices.

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John. My understanding is the UK’s Price Marking Order requires all shops with more the 280 sq m of floor area to provide the unit price for packaged products (except for some exemptions) when the quantity is shown on the pack. Other unit pricing, such as for products sold loose by measure is regulated by weights and measures laws. I do not know how well these laws are complied with and compliance monitored and enforced. Given what you say about lack of resources for trading standards I suspect that the answer is not very well.
And you are quite right about why there are usually very few focal complaints about unit pricing even though many consumers are not happy with what is often provided i.e the small value of each transaction, time required, etc. A recent EU survey of 23,000 consumers showed that this is common. Therefore, the number of complaints does not indicate the consumer detriment caused by ineffective unit pricing.
Regarding the small value and possible saving per individual transaction, I think it is important to remember that: many small savings over a year can mount up; the % differences in unit prices can be very large; and expenditure on food and grocery items takes a significant proportion of the household incomes.
An Australian govt inquiry a few years ago found that the cost of providing unit pricing was very low..

Member

I agree that comparing unit prices of package products between different retailers requires some retention of unit price info. But we have to, and do, do this when comparing loose product prices, eg for fruit and veg and meat, between different shops.
And, we do it with the selling price of packaged products. BTW as someone mentioned earlier, pack sizes of the same brand of products may vary between retailers and this makes the unit price a much better indicator for cost comparisons.

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Orris McCann says:
26 January 2019

You can bet your life wavechange, that the retailers certainly hold all the information in the form of the till receipts, when we present our cards for payment and, if we are foolish enough to use them, store “loyalty” cards. The reluctance to unit price fairly and consistently is down to profit motive and that is a one way street.
Only this week we have seen YouGov advising us that shrinkflation has been at work with various products. This is something I and my brothers have been particularly railing about for many years when you see the size of things like Weetabix or Mars bars reducing in size over the years, but exploding in price.
I can understand Ian’s aim to have this introduced in Australia, but the logistics in terms of relative size of market may be the reason for reluctance to go down this route.

Member

You might be interested in this Convo, Orris: https://conversation.which.co.uk/food-drink/shrinking-products-yougov-poll/#cpage-1

I suspect that changing package size is expensive, so the customer must pay for shinkflation. Whatever games the retailers play, unit prices help us understand what is going on.

It’s encouraging that Aldi and Lidl have not introduced loyalty cards, so maybe that is a message to the rest.

Member

In Australia very large supermarkets (more than 1000 sq m) do have to provide unit prices. Our campaign is for smaller grocery shops and NON GROCERY RETAILERS to also have to provide. Also for improvements in the quality of provision, eg bigger and more prominent print size and more consistent units of measure.

Shrinkflation is a world wide problem and effective unit pricing helps shoppers to spot it if they know their unit prices. Changing package content is relatively easy for some products if all that has to be done is change the quantity information printed on the packaging.

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Zebedeetoo says:
26 January 2019

Hi, having just returned from the supermarket where my wife and I had a detailed debate about the unit price of dishwasher tablets that lasted all the way home I can say that while useful in saving money it’s not always the best path to follow! Seriously though we use it all the time, and have resorted to the use of a calculator on the phone where it’s not provided. We’ve saved a lot doing it.
However for us the bigger issue is package sizing. It is often cheaper per unit to buy four or six items but in fact you only need two , so you have the dilemma of deciding if the extra will last through till next week or will it endup in the bin, thus costing you more and wasting more. I think it’s very unfair that small households (1 or 2 people) have to spend more per unit for the same thing as they don’t bulk buy. Not everybody has a big freezer to store the excess.
Given the price of most foodstuffs in Australian supermarkets I’m amazed it’s not mandated! Bring it on , and save my Australian domiciled son a fortune!

Member

Zebedeetoo. See my earlier posts about what Australian retailers are required to do re provision of unit pricing.
If there is an agreed effective standard on how products like dishwasher tablets, powders, liquids, etc perform I favour unit pricing them with a measure like cost per standard load.
I agree that lower unit prices for larger size packs can is not always beneficial for people who do not enough storage space. But with a bit of prior thought and ingenuity it can still help reduce costs. And it can still be used to compare the value of different brands of the smaller pack sizes.

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Leonard Will says:
26 January 2019

My main complaint is that prices, and particularly unit prices, are often shown in 10 point type or smaller, and for the bottom shelf (where the best value products are often placed) the label is at ankle level. On several occasions I have taken to lying on the floor in order to read them, but I don’t think that even this made the shop staff realise that they were not meeting customers’ needs.

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DerekP says:
26 January 2019

I also end up lying on the floor sometimes.

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Isn’t that usually on a Friday night?

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Lying on the floor? Are you in the supermarket or back in Wetherspoons, Derek?

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DerekP says:
26 January 2019

True 😀

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DerekP says:
26 January 2019

In the supermarket of course.

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I agree about the problems reading unit prices on shelf labels near the floor. I have done some research with consumers on prominence and legibility of various print sizes there and whether the label is vertical or angled out. And there is German research on it too. Unless the label is angled out the print needs to be very large. All the work assumes, in my view quite rightly, that the shopper should be able to read the print without bending down or lying on the floor.
In our campaign for better and more unit pricing in Australia we are emphasising that small print for unit prices on bottom shelves discriminates against people with sight and mobility disabilities.

Member

I seem to recall that Tesco improved the clarity and legibility of their shelf labels a year or two ago. Since moving home a year ago I haven’t been in a Tesco store as we now use a local Sainsbury’s where there is considerable room for improvement with shelf labels – often they seem to be a distance away from the area where the product is stacked or relate to a different size than is on that part of the shelving.

Shrinkflation and other promotional adjustments are occurring faster than the stores can keep pace with in those categories that do not have a standardised weight or volume.

We do our bulk shopping on-line for delivery and rely on the stated unit price to be accurate but the store staff sometimes pick a different size to that ordered which is then scanned onto the bill. A marginal overspend on an odd item isn’t worth worrying about compared to the overall convenience and time-saving.

Member

John. I think much research indicates that many people who shop online for food and grocery items like you do so for the convenience and time saving and may be less interested in getting the best value for money. And that is quite understandable. However, I do thing that the online sellers could and should make it much easier for shoppers to also use unit price to help them assess value for money.
It think it is paradoxical that online is supposed to make shopping easier for people yet it is much more difficult easier to use unit pricing when shopping online than in a bricks and mortar store!

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Wolftone says:
27 January 2019

Ian,
Unit Pricing is very useful, and for me: all the time.
Besides the opinions expressed so far, I have two (minor?) concerns:
1) sometimes the unit price is simply WRONG. It may be from a typing mistake.
If by factor ten – it’s easily spotted. Otherwise it’s a real misleader.
2) With BREXIT, Unit Pricing may soon be history!
The need for Unit Pricing came back in early 1998*, thanks to our EU-membership.
Let’s hope that Which? and its members will ensure Unit Pricing after Brexit.
Best
Wolftone

*DIRECTIVE 98/6/EC OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 16 February 1998 on consumer protection in the indication of the prices of products offered to consumers

Member

I agree about the future need for mandatory provision of unit pricing in the UK. Given that Which? made a super complaint to the CMA about unit pricing, and its previous campaigns for better unit pricing, I am sure that it will try very hard to retain compulsory provision .

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LRsunnyB says:
27 January 2019

I find unit pricing valuable for certain items; the main ones I think of are: tea bags, machine washing detergents & tablets and toilet paper. All of these are examples where pricing can be particularly misleading – in the case of tea bags, one might expect a box of 240 to provide the most economical unit value, however, often the small and medium sizes can be ‘on offer’ and provide better value. Toilet roll pricing can be even more confusing if there are different ‘offers’ such as: 2 packs of 9 for…, 3 rolls free and family size 16; it’s not always obvious from labelling whether the unit price takes into account the so-called offer or not. Comparison in this case can be a mental arithmetic challenge on the spot and who wants to get out the calculator app, pen and paper to do the calculations? I think legislation should make unit pricing compulsory but also ensure any multipack or quantity offers are factored into the labelling at least for items such as those I’ve mentioned. I’m not sure whether it is feasible or even desirable to do this for absolutely every product but independents could do so as well as large supermarkets.

Member

I agree and would like to see the unit price shown for multi-buy offers. The usual practice is to show the unit price for the single item, the price of which has often been increased prior to the multi-buy offer. I have complained to Tesco about this. The usual response from staff in the store is that the multi-buy is better value than the single item, stating the obvious.

Member

I agree. Unit prices are especially helpful for products like toilet paper which come in pack with different numbers of rolls and the number of sheets per roll varies. You still need of course to take account of quality factors such a thickness and maybe even sheet size when comparing the unit prices. In Australasia the unit price must be shown per 100 sheets but to my annoyance retailers sometimes also give a unit price per roll and in much bigger print than the price per 100 sheets.

Regarding non provision of unit prices for special promotions, such as multi buys, I thought this major weakness with the UK system was being tackled by the govt as a result of the CMA’s 2015 recommendations.

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wavechange, see my reply above to LRsunnyB. In Australia the unit price has to be, and usually is, provided for most promotions except when the offer is one price for a bundle of different items eg a tube of toothpaste and a toothbrush.

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I think you would be disappointed if you visited UK supermarkets, Ian. It’s normal to show the unit price for the individual item but not when sold as a multi-pack.

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I’m really not keen on discounts being offered for bundles rather than individual products. Taking Ian’s example of toothpaste plus a toothbrush, that would not be much use to me because I use rechargeable toothbrushes. If I went into a hardware shop I be offered screws plus a screwdriver, but I already have a large collection of screwdrivers that I have bought or inherited. I try to avoid bundles but many buy them and I often see unwanted products being wasted.

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wavechange. I am very used to being disappointed when I look at unit pricing in UK supermarkets (and in other countries, including Australia) . However, the last time i did it I was cheered up a bit by the increased print size used for the unit prices in some UK supermarkets.

Member

Shops are entitled to discount whatever they choose to promote of course just as we can choose what we buy. There will be shelves full of toothpaste so we don’t have to buy the one with a brush ( if such an offer exists). I hope it is not suggested that unit pricing “legislation” should be extended to prevent shops making offers simply because unit prices could not be applied. Customers who feel strongly about this can choose not to buy such offers.

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I’m not happy about retailers’ practices that create waste. It’s well established that multi-buy discounts on fresh food can result in waste. Often the price of a single item has been raised to make the offer look better than it is. Over-packaging also creates waste.

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Providing the unit price for multi-buys helps people to make more informed decisions about whether or not to buy them.
Quite often the difference between the unit price of the multi-buy and the regular price offers is smaller than expected. And, often the unit price of a single item of another brand will be lower than that of the multi-buy.
However, as mentioned in my reply below to TonyStoneman, providing unit prices for multi-buys that involve items of different size is less straight forward than when all items are the same size.

Member

Here is an example of this in a large Tesco, where some items in a multi-buy were offered at different prices:

Member

Thanks. I have never seen this type of multi-buy offer before and find it very interesting. It is also challenging in terms of price transparency and unit pricing.
As I understand it there are several types of vegetables in fixed measure packages to choose amongst and they weigh from 80g to 800g. Presumably they all have different prices, all are not pounds 2. So the only unit price shown is for one pack of a specific item, in this case the winter veg. That unit price is therefore only relevant if you buy 1 or 2 packs of the same veg. If you buy 3 of them then you only pay for 2 and the unitbprice is different.
I find it very complex and a good example of how even unit pricing is not a great help to anyone wanting to compare value.

Member

Do you want three packs of these vegetables? If so, you are getting them cheaper. I don’t need unit pricing to work that out. No more than checking whether 3 deli for £7 is worth it – again, if I want 3 deli.

I believe unit pricing is useful, but we should not obsess about it when it can’t be used. We also need to be aware of product differences – do you want 2 ply or 3 ply toilet paper.

If we are using unit pricing simply to see if we are getting the best deal then checking in one store does not achieve that. You need to check all your local stores to see if the product is cheaper per unit. Is that really how we want to shop? There will be apps on your smart phone that do this for you – just scan in the bar code of everything you are thinking of buying and let it tell you where the cheapest outlet is. Then you can do a round-town shop and save money – except it will take time, shoe leather or petrol.

Just saying we need to keep this in perspective 🙂 .

What I would like to see is all fresh produce sold loose as well as packaged so I can buy just the amount I need. No mushrooms left to be forgotten and slimy, just a few asparagus tips, one leek. To be fair my local store has gone a long way towards this.

Member

I will agree on the benefits of fresh food being sold loose and that’s what I usually go for if the quality looks the same. The unit price sometimes shows that this is the more expensive option. 🙁

You don’t necessarily have to trawl round different shops to compare unit prices. The supermarkets that I use usually have a choice of brands and product sizes. With products other than fresh food I tend to buy when these are available at a decent price. I mainly use Morrisons and Tesco but will visit others if passing and see what is on offer.

I cannot really be bothered to scan labels with my phone unless they provide more product information. For example, Maplin used to provide additional product details using QR codes on shelf labels and that was extremely helpful.

I think I have it in perspective and will continue to push for universal and consistent unit prices.

Member

I use unit pricing very often as the fairest and best way to compare real value, even for two choices of the same product (e.g. 6 for £x or 10 for £y)
I use an app called Price Cruncher. Input both side by side 1 Price , 2 Quantity, 3 weight and hit compare.
I’m sure other apps are available.

Member

Thanks for the info about Price Cruncher app. It seems handy for quick and easy comparisons of unit prices if these are not provided by the retailer, including, as you said OK for offers like 6 for $X when all the items are the same pack size. But does not seem helpful if they are not all the same size..

However, I think that UK retailers should be providing the unit price for many types of special offers not just fro the regular prices. For example, I can see not obvious reason why the unit price can/should not be provided for offers for single items like a temporary price reduction or an increase in the amount offered.. Also for simple multi-buy offers when all the items are same size. Things get more tricky when the price relates to more than one item and the items are of different size.

However, here in Australia some supermarkets voluntarily provide the maximum and minimum unit price for such multibuy offers and I find that helpful.

I thought that in recent years UK retailer provision of unit prices for special offers had improved as a result of pressure from the govt and the CMA report in response to the Which? supercomplaint. But maybe it has not?. Comments welcome!

Member

Again from Tesco, here are different flavours of toilet rolls priced per 100 sht – hopefully that means sheets 🙂 – and priced per roll. Since this has been going on for years and not just in Tesco, I conclude that it is a deliberate attempt to discourage us from making price comparisons.

I’m not aware of any improvements since the CMA response was published. Sorry for continuing to focus on supermarkets but I cannot remember seeing unit prices in other UK retailers.