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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

I would like to see a requirement to display unit prices for goods sold as multi-buys. Few retailers provide this information, but here is a photo that I took when I was in the highlands of Scotland over Christmas:

Sorry about the quality of the photo, but it shows that the price per litre is 48.5p per litre if you buy two bottles of milk, compared with 67p for one.

Congratulations to the Co-op. I must check to see if Co-ops in England do the same.

It is quite a few years since I bought fresh milk regularly except for the odd small carton for visitors so I haven’t taken much notice of carton sizes. But, I am slightly surprised to see the carton size as 4 pints, as I thought imperial measurements are a thing of the past.

So I have just had a quick look at supermarket own brand milk and it seems that they all sell their milk in pints.

You should have a look at the emotive Convos on metrication, Alfa. 🙁

I’ve seen bottles of organic milk in metric sizes, as is the UHT milk I keep for when I get back from holiday. I presume that the dairy-free alternative you use is the same.

At least with unit prices you can make price comparisons. My target price is 44p per litre, sold in bottles containing 2.272 litres. That’s what the village shop charges.

My previous comment was written hastily with little thought, as imperial measurements are still well in use, but I was very surprised to see Ocado as a relative newcomer to own-brands go for pints and not litres.

44p a litre?…….. I wish. Having tried many dairy-free milks, our preference is oat milk that doesn’t separate in tea and coffee at around £1.80 per litre and a cheaper one at £1.50 per litre for cereal. They are frequently on special offer when I stock up with about 4 months supply. I just wish they made 2 litre cartons.

Is it not a legislative requirement that milk must be available in one pint quantities even if other volumes are available? Beer in pubs is also regulated at one pint, half a pint and one third of a pint.

Hi Ian, Good to see you back again.

Have you heard that Coles online grocery shopping is being developed by UK’s Ocado? Their online shopping experience is far superior to the other supermarkets and you can sort by price per unit if Coles decide to include that feature.

Ian – You say that, in the picture submitted by Wavechange, “the price for the multi-buy is much less legible and prominent than the one for the single buy”. Is it? The multi-buy price is shown on a red flash and the lettering is almost the same size as the price shown for one bottle. The shelf label makes it clear that the price is £1.52 a bottle or £2.20 or two: I think most people can work that out fairly easily. Elsewhere Which? complains that shops encourage people to buy more fresh food than they need leading to waste. We can’t have it both ways!

I was complimenting the Co-op for providing the unit price for a multi-buy but as Ian says, it’s difficult to read.

At one time I was so fed-up with supermarkets that I asked assistants to tell me what the unit price was when products were offered as multi-buys and generally they did not have a clue. I had hoped that the CMA report would result in improvements but little seems to have changed.

It’s good to see you back, Ian.

I’d have thought, like John, that seeing the price of one bottle at £1.52 and two for £2.20 was sufficient for ordinary customers. However, no reason not to show the unit prices equally. It is interesting that the more expensive unit price is the more prominent; a more cunning shop might have shown the unit price of the multibuy in the larger size, perhaps as “from 48.5p/l” 🙂 .

While many people if asked would default to agreeing to the showing unit prices I wonder, in practice, how many really use them? Maybe the results have been shown earlier.

There are deals where it is not sensible to give unit prices – the so-called meal deals for example with mixed items. It is clear where I shop that these offer better value (if you want the combination) than buying the items individually, and that, I suggest, is what customers will look for

The sort by unit pricing is in the drop down menu that usually defaults to Favourites First immediately above the products on the right for a wide screen, or the left on a narrower screen.

Higher priced items are often priced per 100 gram alongside cheaper price per kilo. Do supermarkets really think we are that stupid?

I will have a read through your link later.

As Malcolm suggested, I must admit that, in the Coop example pictured, I thought the “unit” was a four-pint bottle of milk, therefore one unit = £1.52, two units = £2.20. The price per pint or litre is fairly irrelevant for someone wanting a lot of milk in one bottle. I think we need to be practical about this and not wander off into a purist obsession about unit comparisons just for the sake of it. All these tweaks cost money; one of the lessons of retailing in the UK over the last few years is that pound shops and the discounters have been doing very well because their offer is clear and simple and they keep the number of comparisons to a minimum. Shoppers like their style.

Where I strongly support unit pricing is where it is difficult to tell at a glance that the sizes or quantities are different. I noticed in an M&S food hall recently that you can get Belgian chocolate éclairs in a two-pack or a four-pack with the four-pack appearing to offer much more for the money. The reality is that the cakes in the four-pack are smaller than those in the two-pack although in the packaging they look more-or-less the same. Correctly, M&S declare the weights on the packaging and give the unit prices on the shelf label. An éclair in the two pack is more expensive than one in the four-pack but not by such a large margin as at first seems to be the case. Unfortunately I can’t quote the actual prices because they are not presented on-line, and we didn’t buy any éclairs so I can’t check the price on the bill.

Unit prices of milk and other liquids are shown as price per litre or price per 100 ml. In larger supermarkets milk and related products are likely to be sold in quantities of 500 ml, 1 litre, and a variety of odd sizes that relate to multiples of pints. That’s why we need unit prices to make sense of it all.

No-one is obliged to use unit prices, but some of us do, and I want to see unit prices of products sold as multi-buys. As Ian has pointed out frequently, it’s essential that unit prices are easy to read.

John wrote: “I think we need to be practical about this and not wander off into a purist obsession about unit comparisons just for the sake of it. All these tweaks cost money; one of the lessons of retailing in the UK over the last few years is that pound shops and the discounters have been doing very well because their offer is clear and simple and they keep the number of comparisons to a minimum. Shoppers like their style.”

Is there any evidence that it costs more to provide unit pricing. Now that I rarely see mistakes in unit pricing I assume that this is calculated automatically when shelf labels are printed.

What does surprise me is that manufacturers often fiddle with pack sizes, which must cost more than printing a new shelf label. One example I have been watching for a couple of years is Cadbury’s chocolate bars where what seems to be the same product has been on sale in 120g, 100g and 95g sizes. For the same sized bar in the same shop, the price can be £1 one day and £1.50 a couple of days later. I don’t buy them, but if I did I would know what unit price is reasonable.

It is quite reasonable for the “obsession” with unit pricing to be queried. I’m more concerned with the quality of my supermarket steak – taste and texture – than with its £/kg.

However, Ian’s Convo accepted that food/supermarket unit pricing is pretty good and asked about non-food examples.
– If I buy screws I want them to be good quality – drive easily into hardwood without shearing or the head becoming damaged
– Is the paint going to cover as well as another brand, or indeed is the Dulux I buy at B&Q the same as I’ll get in a Dulux trade outlet at a higher unit price?
– Is the cheap seed compost as good as a more expensive one?
– Is Shell Vpower any better than their regular, costing 8% more?
– In the pharmacist I can work out that a 32 tablet pack of pain killers might be better value than a 16 pack, but is the generic version that is much cheaper not the better buy?

Educating the consumer in the real value of something – its quality, function, for example – seems to me far more valuable than just looking at cost. This is the real value of a Consumer’s Association, to give us the information we need to buy with our heads, not just our wallets.

Unit pricing is most useful to compare prices of the same product. I gave the example of HP Sauce, which is sold in a variety of packs in larger supermarket.

I don’t thinks anyone is suggesting that we should buy on the basis of unit price alone. In order to decide what’s best value we can use our own experience, reviews and other people’s views. If you were buying screws you might choose according to whether they were for use in hardwood or softwood. With paint the choice might depend on whether it’s for indoor or outdoor use. When buying red paint for outdoor use I pay about £30 for 750 ml of marine gloss because Dulux etc. fades in sunlight. On the other hand I buy cheap Lidl velcro-backed sanding discs because Bosch ones are very expensive and don’t seem to last much longer. Which? has warned us about the high price of branded painkillers such as Nurofen, compared with inexpensive generic versions.

Ian, I ask because where I shop I generally see people just filling their trollies and baskets without apparently studying the pricing. Maybe they are familiar with the prices and only look twice when they see a price has changed.

I do take note of unit pricing and that clearly shows in the time I take to decide on some items. Loose vs. prepacked veg for example.

My mental arithmetic isn’t normally too bad so I can work out a cheapest option. A pity such skill seems not taught as it used to be.

Ian, I agree it is a useful bit of information with no obvious downside. I was just suggesting that people need to not make price their first priority; they need to think about the right product(s) for them first and then look at what gives them best value.

Elsewhere we are talking about the choice of domestic appliances where a cheap washing machine ( low unit price if you like) will not be best value for many if they don’t last long and cannot be economically repaired. An extreme unit pricing example 🙁 but just like buying cheaper paint that needs two coats instead of one or screws where the head burrs when trying to drive it. We do need to think about real value for money.

I don’t think anyone has made a comment that suggests that price is all that matters, Malcolm.

Let’s move out of the supermarket and into the hardware store. Last weekend I was helping kids build bird boxes. I was provided with ready to assemble kits plus boxes of Torx wood screws. The supervisor explained that inexperienced kids and adults can drive Torx screws without chewing up the heads, which had been a problem with Pozidrive screws. It was worth spending more. With bits for drill drivers it’s well worth paying more for good quality ones.

Looking at the B&Q website, I see that some larger packs of nails show unit prices.

I was not suggesting “price is all that matters“, just putting it in (my) perspective. Regarding screw heads, the various types of head are quite OK providing the screws are of good quality and the right driver tip is used, Torx resist cam-out. I buy screws from Axminster Tools that have proved of good quality at sensible prices. Pozi and Torx are around the same price.

The introduction of hex and Torx heads has done a lot to compensate for poor skills. Self-assembly furniture can cause frustrations, but chewed-up screws is no longer a problem.

I have boxes of Nettlefolds screws that belonged to my father or grandfather and as with the old screwdrivers bearing my grandfather’s initials, the quality is poor by modern standards. Even with decent screwdrivers it needs care to drive them.

Ian – You mentioned ‘packet racket’ which in the UK is often referred to as shrinkflation. Perhaps this provides an opportunity to raise awareness of the benefits of using unit prices.

I would question how many people retain a memory of unit prices long enough to recognise a shrinking product. I tend to remember product sizes better I think. I remember when Weston’s Wagon Wheels were big enough to use on a wagon. Use on Dinky Toys now.

If manufacturers want to charge more for their products they have the choice of increasing the price or decreasing the size, and the latter tends to be less unpopular. Consumers can ignore unit pricing if they wish.

When choosing which fixed rate bond to buy we could think in terms of how much interest will accrue during the period but most people would use the APR for comparison purposes, and that’s analogous to using unit prices for groceries.

Inflation is an example of an effect on pricing. Would people rather pay the same for a smaller amount, of pay more for the same amount. Personally I’d prefer the latter as it is easier to see what has changed.

We see examples of both and no doubt plenty of market research goes into the decision about which approach is best to take to retain customers. There have been some high profile examples of shrinkflation including the more from six to five Cadbury’s Creme Eggs in a pack and Toblerone losing some of its distinctive peaks. I would not be surprised if these boosted sales by helping raise awareness of the products.

But these are not essentials. I’m more concerned with prices on everyday goods that people need.

Are you suggesting that companies are obliged to increase price and maintain the original product size, Malcolm? That would suit me, but it might affect sales.

Thinking of essential products, mains gas, electricity, water and heating oil and LPG (other than bottled gas) all use unit prices, though with heating oil and LPG the unit price is likely to fall with large deliveries.

I’m saying what I would prefer. I’m not “obliging” anyone to do anything.

I intended to ask if you thought that companies should be obliged to increase prices rather than maintain product sizes. Shrinkflation is less of a problem if you focus on unit prices.

Wikipedia has an interesting article about unit price information in supermarkets: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unit_price_information_in_supermarkets It contains example price labels where the unit price is as prominent as the price itself:

I don’t know if this is typical of what happens in the US but it would suit me.

I wonder if some people think of the item as a unit and will imagine, at first glance (as we often do) that they are getting a bargain. We have a very diverse range of people to consider.

“Unit prices” for gas and electricity were mentioned. However, look at Which? Switch to find a cheaper supplier. The answers they return are a total annual spend, not a comparison of unit costs. You have to dig into the data to find those. In the past we’ve been told that UK citizens do not possess the arithmetic skills to handle unit prices – too complicated to work out. Something I believe is, in general, an unfounded criticism of our abilities, but there we are.

Thanks Ian. I’ll look at the details later.

I strongly support helping those with disabilities and the elderly. I used to work with a colour blind colleague who understood the needs of others and it was a valuable experience. If the unit price was as prominent as the price I suspect that many more would see its value.

I don’t think the example on Wikipedia was produced by someone from the US, or it would have given liter and meter in the examples!

Ian – The US Unit Pricing Guide is interesting and easy to read. I do like the equal prominence for price and unit price with the latter highlighted in colour. If that was done in the UK I’m sure that more people would see the benefits of unit pricing.

From the document: “Multiple Unit Pricing – If the commodity is offered or exposed for sale at two or more selling prices (e.g., buy 2 for $2, buy 3 for $1.50), the unit price information relating to such multiple priced items should be calculated and displayed based on each price.” This is what I want to see.

The US has problems that we don’t have in the UK. As you mentioned, different rules apply to different states and the document indicates that some products are priced in metric units, requiring metric unit prices. We may still have 4 pint containers of milk in the UK but at least the unit price relates to litres.

Do you think the UK can learn from what happens in Australia or vice versa? It would be good to see more cooperation between consumers associations.

Ian – You have convinced me that although I have no problem with reading small unit prices, others might have difficulty and giving them equal prominence to the item price will help raise awareness.

Manufacturers could do more to help. I decided to look at a popular brand mayonnaise and found that when sold in jars the unit price was per gram and in bottles it was per ml. The nutritional information was the same, so presumably it was the same product in different packaging. These differences also appeared on the shelf labels and on websites, demonstrating that it was not the retailers that were being careless.

In the past, my greatest involvement has been to point out incorrect unit pricing, but this has much improved, at least in the shops I use.

My biggest concern remains the lack of unit pricing for multibuys.

I hope you have a productive conference and it would be interesting to know what progress is being made to help the consumer.

Tesco may still sell milk at £1 for 4 pints. That’s 44p a litre. I don’t particularly like their shops so pay £1.29 as a penalty elsewhere.

There was a discussion about how the big supermarkets have driven down prices to the detriment of the dairy farmer. The current (Feb 19) farmgate milk price is 29.28p/l which, on the face of it, seems to leave plenty of room for profit by the processor and retailer. But it would be interesting to know if the farmgate price is a fair one for dairy farmers.

Tesco charges about 48p per litre for this size.

There was recently a Rutland farmer on TV who said they were struggling to keep afloat with their milk yield @ 25p pint so they had decided to supplement their income by making Red Leicester cheese from which they had built up quite a prosperous business and return.

I have just paid £1.09p for 4pints of semi-skimmed 2.272L, 48p per litre, from Ocado. They were also offering 6 pints of Waitrose semi-skimmed @ 44p per pint (the cheapest) and the good news is they are apparently joining up with M&S in September next year.

I always keep a supply of UHT milk in case I run out of fresh and can’t get to the local shop, but mostly use it for making porridge and cooking, keeping the fresh milk for hot drinks.

A couple of years ago I noticed that McVities Jaffa Cakes do not show the weight on the packet. I contacted the company and was told that the reason was because the weight varies. I pointed out that other manufacturers of Jaffa Cakes manage to show the weight on their packs.

Interestingly, most retailers manage to show the weight and unit price of McVities Jaffa Cakes on their shelf labels, and this photo was taken in Morrisons:

If McVities Jaffa Cakes are sold in Australia, I wonder if the pack weight is shown.

https://shop.coles.com.au/a/a-national/product/mcvities-jaffa-cakes-biscuits-choc

Mcvitie’s
Jaffa Cakes Biscuits Choc
Mcvitie’s Jaffa Cakes Biscuits Choc 110g
This product is temporarily unavailable
110g Unit Price$2.73 per 100G

It maybe upside down Wavechange 🙂

I though everything was downside up in Australia, Beryl. 🙂

Thanks Malcolm. The photo on that website states the pack weight as 110g. There was no price on packs when I took my photo.

Years ago, Mcvitie’s Jaffa cakes that made their way onto our supermarket shelves were manufactured in at least 2 countries. I can’t remember the exact details now, but some contained milk, others didn’t.

We no longer buy them, but maybe they are still produced in different countries and the weight can vary depending on where they are made.

Nowadays, packaged foods are labelled to show their ingredients, but the Food Standards Agency regularly publishes alerts about undeclared ingredients. A recent one was about Jaffa Cakes sold by Lidl: “Lidl recalls Sondey Orange Jaffa Cakes and Sondey Jaffa Minis due to undeclared milk”. Sometimes we can learn that different retailers are using the same supplier.

In the early 80s I learned that French Mars Bars were different from ones sold in the UK.

When is a cake not a cake but a biscuit? My first experience of eating a Jaffa Cake when I was very young was very disappointing as I thought I had been given a biscuit, or maybe a cookie, which begs the question when does a biscuit become a cookie or should a cookie be called a cake? Help………….I’m cream crackered!

Wikipedia states a chocolate covered biscuit apparently is subject to VAT but not a chocolate covered cake so McVities won the day and a Jaffa is officially a cake…………..I always thought it was an orange!

This is the law on wights and measures in the UK – https://www.gov.uk/weights-measures-and-packaging-the-law

Ian – Other brands of Jaffa Cakes manage to show the weight on the packet and UK retailers generally show the weight and unit price, so I think United Biscuits could do the same with their McVities brand. It seems pure arrogance not to show the weight, in the same way that some major manufacturers have ignored the recommendation to adopt ‘traffic light’ food labelling for products sold in the UK.

For things like jaffa cakes [if there is anything else like a jaffa cake], biscuits, mince pies, slices of cake, and so forth, I consider the weight in the packet to be the only meaningful measure for comparison purposes because different manufacturers or own-label retailers use different dimensions and density of filling making objective comparison difficult.

Even weight as a measure has shortcomings with such products because the quality varies so widely and it is questionable whether any form of packaging marking is useful. Whose idea was it to lay down such strict rules [in the Weights & Measures legislation] for such variable products? Was there an expectation that there would complete uniformity across each category? We seem to have got rid of some good laws but kept some silly ones.

In the past I have seen many mistakes in unit prices, but this is the only one I’ve seen in Morrisons in the past three years:

I don’t know who does the end-of-aisle displays but they can be a little confusing:

Two of the four shelves have a label showing the unit price in small print.

End-of-aisle displays are used by supermarkets to attract attention to goods, often ones at special offer prices. In my experience they offers are usually better value for money, but it’s worth looking out for exceptions.

Here are photos of cheese sold in a Morrisons supermarket. This photo shows the promoted version at the end of the aisle:

The same product was offered at a lower unit price in the cheese section of the supermarket:

I hope that customers either look at the unit price or work it out for themselves – which is what we had to do before the introduction of unit prices.