/ Shopping

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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/

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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’!!! 🤑

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

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

True. I hadn’t thought of that.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

I also end up lying on the floor sometimes.

Isn’t that usually on a Friday night?

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

True 😀

In the supermarket of course.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Neither of these shelf labels shows how many sheets there are to a roll, and even the Tesco website does not give this information in the expanded product description. It does however reveal that the unit price per 100 sheets has now risen to £0.24 [an increase of 8.6%] while the price per roll has remained the same – so fewer sheets for your money. It is possible that the number of sheets per roll is stated on the back of the multi-pack but no image of that is available. It is arguable that choosing the roll as the unit for price comparison is misleading as the number of sheets in a roll has been reduced and could be reduced yet further in order to maintain the £3.50 price point for each pack.

It’s about time that retailers were told exactly how to display unit prices, to stop petty efforts to confuse customers. It’s very common to see prices per 100g and per kg on similar items on the same shelf, certainly in Tesco. That’s hardly difficult to compare but I presume it’s part of the strategy to discourage use of unit prices.

As you say, giving the price per roll gives opportunity to reduce the number of sheets, or maybe the size of the sheets. I’ve noticed that toilet rolls with larger cores seem to have disappeared, possibly because that was too obvious to shoppers.

Don’t know if they still do it but I believe it was Tesco I noticed a while back that separated different sizes of the same toilet rolls so you could not easily compare them.

As a clubcard member, they sent me money off vouchers for one size but the other size was actually the better value at the time.

Ian – We have been advised to use the photo sharing site imgur. Then just copy the link to the photo and paste it into your post. There may be a delay before the post appears because links are usually checked. It would be interesting to see some of your examples.

Hi Ian,

You can post images if you have uploaded them onto something like Imgur (https://imgur.com/) which will generate a url for your image. Just paste the url into the comment box and the image should load up (just make sure it ends with .jpg)

If you have any issues, let me know.

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Having a longstanding interest in unit pricing I sometimes spot mistakes. You don’t need to be good at mental arithmetic to see that something is wrong here:

I’ll see what other examples I can find among my photos. I tend to focus on Tesco because I used to live near a large Tesco store, but Tesco does quite well and my main grouses are the failure to show unit prices when products are sold as multibuys and mixed units. The latter can be trivial such as price per 100g and price per kg on the same shelf or products sold per item or per weight.

Somewhere there is an early Conversation with photos of some amusing shelf labels and other pricing.

Many claim that it’s hard to remember unit prices, yet they remember the price of petrol. The more you use them the easier it is and I’m surprised that shrinkflation has not lead to an increase in popularity.

This is probably the price per sheet. More useful than the price per roll as was pointed out yesterday.

Mental arithmetic is a good skill to acquire to benefit people in a variety of situations. A pity it is not better taught.

I suspect the lack of official attention to.unit pricing and the inadequate diligence of retailers reasonably reflects the level of consumer interest. Would things change if the unit price was in big numerals on the shelf label and the item or pack price in small type?

I do wonder what the level of public interest is when they are doing their shopping. This may differ from their view if they are simply polled on the principle.

Ability to do mental arithmetic used to fascinate me because in scientific research there can be a lot of number crunching to be done. I have watched PhD students evolve from being unable to do much without a calculator to become very proficient over their three years. The need and practice seem to be the main drivers for learning. I discovered that Greek undergraduate students tended to be proficient at mental arithmetic and learned that they were not allowed to use calculators at school. I expect that this has changed by now.

When we were young there were no electronic calculators and spreadsheets, and even using a slide rule requires an estimation of the answer. I’m not as good as I used to be but if there is an offer of £5 off if you spend £40 I will add up the cost as I go along. It all goes pear-shaped when I come to loose fruit & veg.

If I had kids I would strongly encourage them to learn mental arithmetic.

John – I certainly think it would help to make the unit price more prominent, but I doubt that the retailers are keen to encourage us to compare unit prices.

It all goes pear-shaped when I come to loose fruit & veg.

Wonderful!

Ian – I agree with you that “consumer interest in and use of unit pricing would increase if it was much easier to notice, read, understand and use”, but I do not agree that “at the moment far too much of it is not”. My observation is that, in the UK, there is excellent compliance with unit pricing where legislation requires it and an overwhelming preponderance of accuracy. I feel that inconsistencies are, overall in relation to the volumes of sales, minor and actually insignificant. Consumers’ unforced errors due to their own ignorance, misunderstandings, or general carelessness are likely to account for a much larger number of wrong purchases.

Ninety percent of what we buy as a household are probably pre-ordained and repeat purchases of a particular product or brand and price comparisons do not enter into it. We have chosen where to shop and are unlikely to change, moreover we are unlikely to even consider whether we should shop elsewhere by looking at the prices in other stores. I suspect we are not alone. It is a product of a generally affluent society that also enjoys a healthy degree of competition for essential food and other goods. I do use unit pricing occasionally in a physical store but I am generally indifferent to whether it should be available, so for me this is a low priority campaign. I am also convinced that the UK government will do absolutely nothing in the foreseeable future to make a scrap of difference to the current position whether by extending unit pricing to other goods and services or by improved regulation.

We do an increasing proportion of our weekly shopping on-line and I tend to place the orders. I do sometimes make use of the unit pricing information although I cannot remember a time when it was unreliable, unhelpful or inaccurate. But one of the advantages of on-line shopping is that, using the filters, you can organise the selection of products in various ways and easily compare alternative products and prices. As Alfa remarked previously, the physical stores deploy the secret arts of retail in less helpful ways by separating products in the same category or size/weight/volume so that comparisons are not easily made without moving around and wasting time.

There was a time, not so long ago, when one of our major grocery retailers [Safeway/Morrisons] was so confident of the stability of prices that it routinely printed the price in a prominent position on the packaging of its own label products. I think a return to those days would be more beneficial.

I have criticised Tesco in this and other Convos on pricing but they use unit pricing consistently. I am not familiar with them separating similar products, but maybe this depends on the individual store. On the other hand, Morrisons sometimes has huge yellow notices with just the price and sometimes there is no shelf label showing the unit price. I reported some examples in the local store and they have pulled up their socks. My biggest concerns relating to supermarkets are the lack of unit pricing for multibuys and the use of different units to discourage price comparison.

I am not sufficiently concerned about value for money to trawl round shops comparing prices in different shops. My interest is mainly not personal but because I strenuously object to companies trying to exploit their customers. This is the reason why I’m strongly against breakdown recovery and insurance companies charging loyal customers more than new ones, and energy companies transferring customers from cheap to expensive tariffs.

Our government could promote use of unit prices by drawing attention to practices such as ‘shrinkflation’ in the absence of labelling to alert customers to the fact that the amount in the pack has changed.

I agree somewhat with John that we are creatures of habit when it comes to food shopping. We have our preferred brands for many products so a lot of our purchases won’t be guided by unit pricing.

There are exceptions though and it is always worth stocking up on some things when they are on special offer. Here is an example where it is always worth comparing price and saving a couple of ££s:
https://www.ocado.com/browse/food-cupboard-20424/condiments-dressings-38246/condiments-224325/mayonnaise-38247/original-mayonnaise-38270?filters=hellmann-s-14241&sort=PRICE_PER_ASC
Currently, Hellmann’s mayonnaise is from 25p per 100g to 75p per 100g. The 200g jar will probably be on offer soon, but I have just bought a couple of the 800g that will last until they or the 600g are on offer again.

Gammon joints vary between £5 per kg and £17.99 per kg.
https://www.ocado.com/browse/fresh-20002/meat-poultry-42114/gammon-42123/joints-42276?sort=PRICE_PER_ASC

Is it really worth paying for the top-priced joint? I usually sort on ‘price per: Low to High’ and pick a lower priced one with reasonable reviews. Cooked in the slow cooker, we haven’t been disappointed.

We buy most fruit and veg locally and choose our own potatoes depending on what they are going to be used for, usually jackets so they need good skins and be the right size. But here they range from 25p each to 85.1p each and 50p per kg to £6.73 per kg. It is impossible to know what size they will be or whether their skins are good enough for jacket spuds. I wonder how many go to waste?
https://www.ocado.com/browse/fresh-20002/vegetables-44330/potatoes-44333?sort=PRICE_PER_ASC

Alfa – Looking at your link to different packaging for mayonnaise shows different sizes and packs for what seems to be the same product, much like my example of HP Sauce. The unit price makes it very easy to compare value for money though pricing products in glass per 100g and those in plastic per 100ml is an unnecessary complication, and sadly this is very common in supermarkets. Depending on the oil content, 100g will be a little more than 100ml but even if you assume they are the same the major differences in unit price are obvious.

I stock up on products that are on offer. Yesterday I bought eight jars of Alta Rica at £2.40 for 100g. It’s usually at least £1 a jar more round here and unlike ground coffee it keeps well.

Ian – All the photos I have posted were taken in a Tesco store and apart from the one of the HP Sauce shelf label (below) were recent. There are inconsistencies in font size, use of capitals and bold font, but at least the unit prices are there.

With baking potatoes sold in packs, the weight is probably shown on either the front or the back of the pack.

Thanks for letting me know that there is an ISO standard, Ian. Since there is a standard then it might be useful if the retailers complied with it unless there is very good reason not to – for example with small items.

I will have a look at baking potatoes next time I am in a supermarket. I suspect that the weight is shown on the back of packs. Most people would not mind the use of minimum weight/volume.

Bakery products often do not show the weight even if packaged, though the mass produced bread usually has this information. Loaves are normally 400 or 800g in the UK, though I saw one labelled 600g recently.

It would be interesting to know how many people use unit pricing. I presume that most people use it when presented with an array of bottles of sauce or mayonnaise, but my impression is that most focus on price and whether a product is on offer. I have watched shoppers select items on offer even when the same product is available at a lower unit price in another size or differently packaged. Of course there are other factors than unit price that can affect what we buy.

I suspect that the lack of facility to list items by unit price might be to discourage us from using unit prices, along with the lack of unit prices on multibuys, use of different units on similar products, etc. I don’t want to push others to use unit prices but I strongly object to retailers making it difficult for us to do so.

This has been a longstanding interest of mine though I have not paid much attention since the Which? super-complaint. I must start taking my mobile each time I go shopping. 🙂

Thanks Ian. My view is that all standards that are relevant to the public should be freely available. I am now retired but made extensive use of scientific research papers and when I started research, each article had to be paid for. Nowadays, many articles are now available to all, thanks to a different funding model. I have argued in other Conversations that the same could be done with British Standards etc because without access to the existing documents there is little that we can do to make a useful input into their development.

I will be reporting about what I found during a recent visit to Morrisons, where I have looked at how unit prices are presented. I’ll post about this when I have time.

Ian, on the Ocado website, there is a drop down sort-by feature on the right hand side above the products. You can sort on unit price:
Price per: Low to High, or
Price per: High to low.

Wavechange, I will give you an example of picking up a product on offer that could be bought cheaper in a different size.

Fairy Platinum Washing Up Liquid comes in 3 sizes and I always buy the smallest size to fit neatly into my sink tidy. I never pay full price for it though and stock up with a few when they are on special offer usually at £1 each instead of around £1.50.

So sometimes there is method in our madness and there is no point in buying the cheapest if it doesn’t suit our purpose!!! Buying a large size when on offer could mean some of the product goes to waste if it cannot be used up in time.

On the other hand, we have just stocked up on oat milk from H&B. They had one special offer followed by a better special offer, so too good to miss. The use by date is September and we now have enough to last until the end of June.
I saved £26.26 on the full price of the products. On top of that saving I had also accumulated £16.75 in loyalty coupons to use. I also got loyalty points that will b