ASDA downsizes strawberries – brilliant publicity stunt

Reports in the tabloid media suggest that Asda has reverted to selling strawberries in “pounds”.  So what has really happened?

The Sun got the story first on Friday, 27 May, and ran it as follows.

ASDA is going back to pounds and ounces on fruit and veg for the first time in 16 YEARS.

From tomorrow shoppers can snap up a 1lb punnet of strawberries after customers asked for the return of imperial measures. Under EU laws, that would be 453.39 grams.

Asda said seven in ten shoppers still get confused by metric weights.

Buyer Andy Jackson said: “We have a steady stream of people asking us to put imperial measurements back on packs. We have taken a common-sense approach.”

The EU rules came into force in 1995. Sunderland greengrocer Steven Thoburn was hailed as a metric martyr for his long campaign to continue selling bananas by the pound.

Asda will get round EU regulations by displaying metric measures next to the old imperial ones. A spokeswoman said it may extend pounds and ounces to other fruit and veg if the strawberry trial is successful.

Belatedly, on Monday, 30 May, the Mail and the Express joined in.  This was how the Express reported it:

Strawberries sold by the pound in EU snub

ASDA is selling punnets of strawberries in pounds and ounces for the first time in 16 years from today.

The supermarket has ­become the first major UK retailer to ignore a 1995 EU directive ordering shopkeepers to sell fruit and vegetables in metric grams and kilos or face the threat of prosecution.

Warwick Cairns, of the British Weights and Measures Association, said: “This a victory for common sense.” Asda said if the trial with strawberries was successful, imperial measures could be displayed on other goods.

It has got round the EU law by displaying metric measures in small lettering alongside the imperial.

Asda strawberry buyer Andy Jackson said: “Customers had been badgering us to sell our fruit in pounds and ounces.”

Daily Express columnist and former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe said: “I still ask for things in ­imperial measurements­.”

So what (if anything) has actually happened?

The above reports are so garbled and inaccurate that it is difficult to know where to start first.  The legal background (UK law – not EU) is as follows:

  • Shops can package goods in any size they like (apart from wine and spirits).  However, the package must be labelled with the contents in metric units, with the option of a “supplementary indication” in other units.  Any supplementary indication must not be more prominent than the legal, metric indication.
  • If goods are sold by weight, the “unit price” per kilogram or 100 g must be displayed –  either on the package or on an adjacent shelf label.
  • There are a number of exemptions, such as “countable produce” and open containers (relevant to genuine punnets of strawberries found in small shops and markets).  In these cases, the “unit price” need not be displayed.

A visit to my local ASDA revealed that they are complying fully with the law.  Strawberries are currently on sale in 454 g sealed packets (labelled  454 g/  1lb e), and the nearby shelf label gives the price per kilogram ( £4.41/kg) (see pictures).

All that seems to have happened is that ASDA has reduced the size of its packages from 500 g to 454 g.  Whether they have also reduced the price per package by a corresponding 9% (or whether this wheeze conceals a hidden price increase) – is not stated.

A trawl through the internet revealed that Sainsbury and Ocado (and possibly other shops) also sell strawberries  in 454 g or 450 g packages.

Conclusions

  • ASDA are acting perfectly legally and have not “ignored an EU Directive” or “got round EU law”.  In any case it is UK law.
  • ASDA have a brilliant publicity department.
  • Tabloid journalists are gullible and prefer to reprint press releases or recycle each others’ inaccurate stories rather than check the facts.
  • This is a non-event

Recommendations

  • Always check the “unit price” (the small print on the shelf label) before you buy.
  • The Government should help shoppers by publicising and explaining the benefits of “unit prices”.
  • Beware of fruit sold in open punnets.   Unless the trader is prepared to weigh the contents and quote the unit price (per kilogram), you don’t know whether you are being ripped off.
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64 Responses to ASDA downsizes strawberries – brilliant publicity stunt

  1. BrianAC says:

    @John Steel
    The whole point is I do not want to buy, nor am I going to buy Impurial bolts, I have spent 40 years trying to rid my life of that plague, I am not going to re-introduce it without a fight. The solution is to drill and re-tap the holes in metric thread, but job done with smaller bolts and back up nuts, got my money back on the first bearing I did!
    @michduncg
    Thanks. Maybe that is what everyone should do. I was surprised I even got an aknowledgment, that alone a written reply from a minister. I doubt very much if he actually ever saw the letter.
    On the point of Walsall (once I realised it was not Walmart) my mind went back to the protests of the 60's and 70's and 80's and forever in living memory, with the subsequent collapse of their industry, don't they just put the point for metrication across so nicely!!!

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  2. Wild Bill says:

    I was in ASDA at the weekend and noticed that their strawberries have reverted to being sold in 400g and 300g packets!

    So much for the "pressure from the public for imperial sizes" eh, ASDA? Maybe the tirade they took on the tabloids' "Have your say" article-response systems convinced them that they were looking silly.

    Just a publicity stunt.
    Which worked - I suppose.

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  3. Ezra Steinberg says:

    ASDA's reversal to rational metric is yet another sign that DfT and the Conservatives are hugely out of step with the mainstream in the UK. A sensible plan of road sign conversion using reasonable cost estimates might get some sensationalist press in some tabloids for a bit, but that would soon blow over. I am persuaded that most people would be glad to finally have the anachronism of Imperial road signs behind them.

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  4. Walter says:

    Hello from Germany to UK
    i think that one forgets that this metrication is better for the international trade and industry exports, than actually for the consumers themselves that will need a generation or two to get accustomed to newer SI. I do not understand why people do battle on such small problem like sizes. At the end it's just a can or jar of same content. Why not keep the imperial sizes, that come from old age and have tradition, along with the newer french SI sizes. I make an example; here in Germany most consumers would love the German Mark back as the Euro brought only more profits to the exporting trade and bigger industries and to stock holders but not to people. Most people in Germany and France would have voted against the Euro if they would have been called to do so. That is why politicians decided to just do it over the heads of us. French politicians made though a better law, allowing double pricing in Francs and Euro on the shelves labels. These are still on shelves of most supermarkets. Especially for elderly here in Germany i would have loved to see same labeling laws. Even the small 100g/ is still now given in Francs and Euro on french supermarkets shelves. And it's quite a few years they have the Euro too. So there is no battle there and people have to choice to compare. So i think as UK law allows similar practice; it's just a matter of good will of the UK shop chains to print all labels indicating price per 1 kg or g along with per 1 lb or oz on shelves and for producers to indicate contents in both units too. Who cares then if a package is old 16 oz = 454g or newer 500g as long as the shop does show both units for a consumer to be able to compare prices.
    BTW: I have always wondered why they never metricated to 500ml the 330ml fizzy drinks cans over here in continental EU, but no one makes a fuss on it and that is good so.

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  5. Ken Cooper says:

    @Walter

    As you appear to realise, dual marking is perfectly legal in the UK. The vast majority of producers CHOOSE not to mark the unneccesary supplementary imperial indication.

    Are you suggesting that they should be compelled to mark in both systems? What a waste of time and money!

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  6. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Just looking to confirm from local UK folks that ASDA have abandoned imperial in their stores. Or are there other imperial spots in their stores (or adverts) besides the short-lived "pound of strawberries"?

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  7. Wild Bill says:

    Despite the fact that normally I do a a fair bit of shopping in Asda, it just so happens that over the last few weeks I've not been near the place. Today I was back, and remembering that Ezra had asked, I went on a tour.

    As I'd posted a month ago - the strawberries are back in 300g punnets. However, much to my surprise I found that in the loose fruit and veg section, where I'm pretty damn sure the per-unit labels recently stated prices "per kg" then "per lb" underneath, now they state "per kg" only, or (depending on the items) "per 100g".

    I couldn't find an imperial measure in the shop apart from own-brand cow's milk labelled "568ml/1 Pint" (and multiples thereof).

    Oh, and the weighing scales in the loose fruit & veg areas still have dual scales, metric on the outer ring, imperial on the inner ring. That's unhelpful for the progress of Britain's youngsters into the modern world because of course idiot parents can still send their children off to get "a pound of carrots" even if they can't figure out the price until they get to the till.

    But on the whole I thought the situation at Asda has just got rather better. They are now nearly as 21st century as the likes of Spar, Nisa, Best One, Aldi and Lidl where even the cow's milk is in multiples of 500ml.

    Now - if only we could persuade Tesco and Sainsbury's to follow Asda's lead...

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  8. Wild Bill says:

    Another update - last Saturday (2011-11-26) Asda were selling 227g packs of strawberries again, but it doesn't seem to indicate a return to their "selling in imperial" campaign from back in the summer as the packs just state "227g" and make no mention of the fact that that happens to be almost exactly ½lb.

    Meanwhile, further down the counter I also found 400g packs of strawberries at a better price! In a desperate attempt to confuse shoppers and offload the pricier 227g packs, Asda had cunningly arranged that the 227g packs also were marked on the self as £X.XX/kg, but the 400g packs were marked on the shelf as XX.Xp/100g!

    Luckily, I went to school, and I can multiply by 10 in my head(!), and could see through this pricing shenanigans. I did go away however feeling glad that UK's optional "price per ..." labels MUST be in metric (if present), because the scope for messing up consumers would be SO much better if some items were priced in "pounds per lb" and others were priced in "pence per ounce". I defy even the BWMA to find a way to champion "price per ..." labelling in imperial measures!

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  9. Ken Cooper says:

    @ Wild Bill

    Technically, your local Asda are in breach of the Price Marking Order 2004 by marking the unit price of the strawberries on the shelf-edge by reference to "per 100g"

    See Schedule 1 of the order for a list of products that can be sold by reference to alternative amounts instead of "per 1 kg/litre". Here's a link:

    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2004/102/made

    As prepacked strawberries are not included in Schedule 1, the unit price should be given in terms of "per kg"

    In addition, unit pricing is not optional, as you appear to suggest above. It applies to all shops with a floorspace of more that 280 square metres. Most Asdas will fall into this category.

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  10. Martin Vlietstra says:

    In November 2011, Which? had an article (http://www.staticwhich.co.uk/documents/pdf/pdf_specialoffers-268347.pdf) where they "tested supermarket price claims for three months and found dubious offers that might mislead customers". One of these prices was for Asda strawberries that were sold in 400 g punnetts. What happened to their 454 g (1 lb) punnets?

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  11. Wild Bill says:

    It's an interesting question how Which? magazine (or anyone else) could manage to buy any given quantity of strawberries in Asda for more than a week at a time! Every time I'm there it seems that they're packed differently, 227g and 400g this week, 300g and 400g a week or so ago, 454g(1lb) back in the summer.

    Could it be that the 400g pack has been consistently present throughout all the other changes? I don't know. Certainly though I get the feeling that Asda are just buying strawberries (and probably everything else) on the "surplus" market and selling them on. So they just accept the produce packed whichever way the original supplier (maybe the grower) packed them. This is probably what gave rise to the odd "selling in pounds" marketing ploy of late spring. Unusually, Asda found themselves in possession of a ship load of strawberries already packed in 454g/1lb packs (maybe originally intended for the 'States). And some marketroid thought up the brilliant publicity stunt that's had us talking ever since - actually dual-mark them for a change (not normal Asda practice) and see what happens.

    Thing was, the next shipload of strawbs that Asda bought turned out to be in 300g packs (or whatever), so they couldn't continue with the "experiment". But maybe they never planned to keep it going anyway - after all, it had got their name splurged all over the tabloids for free - and maybe that had always been the intention.

    The marketroid probably got a bonus for that little gag, and it won't have damaged Asda's bottom line either. Remember, they're in it to pack the shelves with goods and flog them at a profit.

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  12. philh says:

    BBC Panorama this week (2011-12-05) highlighted the pricing scams in supermarkets including ASDA.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/panorama/hi/front_page/newsid_9652000/9652944.stm

    So much for their consumer friendliness!

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  13. Ronnie Cohen says:

    The tabloid press has presented the downsizing of ASDA strawberries as a victory for the UK and a poke in the eye for the European Union. For British consumers, it is a slap in the face and hurts our pockets, not the EU. As a result of ASDA's action, we are charged the same price for their strawberries but we get almost 10% less. It is perverse to present this as a victory for consumers. In fact, it is more like a defeat for ASDA's customers and was done to increase ASDA's profits and was a clever marketing ploy to generate some publicity for ASDA.

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  14. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Given Ronnie Cohen's excellent point about how Asda has skewered the consumer, is there no one in any consumer advocacy group in the UK that might be willing to publicly criticize Asda on this very point?

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