By an odd co-incidence both “Which?” magazine and the BBC’s flagship “Panorama” programme have recently run stories on the scams employed by the big supermarkets to prevent customers from comparing “value for money” in their weekly shopping. However, despite their good intentions, neither of the articles nor the tv programme quite identified the most obvious and effective remedies.
On 17 November the online campaign website “Which Conversation” ran an article by Louise Hanson, Head of Campaigns for the Consumers Association (CA), in which she praised the system of “unit pricing” and concluded “Which? wants clear, consistent food pricing where the unit price is prominent and easy to read. We also want consistency in the units used on all products and for multi-buys and promotions to show the unit price.” The article can be read at http://conversation.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/supermarket-unit-pricing-should-be-clearer/ (and the subsequent comments are also worth reading).
A few days later the December edition of Which? magazine (a (CA) publication) carried the same message, using the same examples, and concluding “We want clear consistent food pricing where:
- the unit price is prominent and easy to read;
- consistent units are used on all products; and
- multi-buys and promotions show the unit price.”
Then, on 5 December, the BBC’s Panorama weighed in with “The truth about supermarket price wars”, in which reporter Sophie Raworth went on a shopping trip in the “big four” supermarkets in north London. (If you are quick, you may still be able to download the programme from BBC iplayer at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/). What Sophie found (to her apparent bewilderment) was that supermarkets often confuse and mislead customers by a variety of ruses, such as:
- bogus “offers” – that is, “offers” that turn out to be as expensive or even more expensive than the normal price (e.g. special offer: £1 each, 2 for £2!!!);
- “bulk buys” that turn out to be more expensive than if the items were purchased individually;
- false price reductions (e.g. one supermarket’s price was stable for 6 months, raised for two months, and then reduced back to the original price and claimed as a “price drop” in its television advertising campaign;
- exploiting loopholes in the law to avoid giving the unit price (per kilogram, litre etc) – e.g. packaging 5 bananas for £1 in a polythene bag (no weight stated), alongside the same bananas loose at 42p/kg – how can you tell which is cheaper?
It is this last point – the breakdown of unit pricing – that is the nub of the problem.
Unfortunately, the law is full of loopholes and problems waiting to be exploited – for example:
(a) “countable produce” – if up to 8 fruits or vegetables are sold in a single package, they can be sold by number (“5 for £1”), or they can be sold unwrapped and priced “each” – with neither the weight nor the price per kilogram stated;
(b) open containers – similarly, a punnet of fruit may be sold and priced per punnet with no weight or unit price stated
(c) even where unit prices are displayed they are often so small or inaccessible that they cannot be read – especially by people with imperfect eyesight (i.e. most people)
(d) “small shops” (i.e. less than 280 m2 sales floorspace – not particularly small) and street markets are exempt and are not required to display unit prices for packaged goods
(e) the majority of the population1 do not use unit price information – either because they do not understand the concept, or because they cannot read the small print, or because they are in too much of a hurry to compare prices, or because they have misplaced confidence in the good faith of their particular supermarket or trader. (Indeed, a large proportion of sales staff do not understand it either. Try asking a helpful shelf-stacker to read the unit price for you.)
Naturally, the supermarkets deny any intention to mislead – but of course they would say that wouldn’t they?
What also struck me about the Panorama programme (and to a lesser extent the Which? article) was its naivety. If there are glaring loopholes in the law waiting to be exploited, and if enforcement of the law is in any case lax2 and patchy – what do they expect? The big four supermarkets are not philanthropists – they exist to make profits, and it is natural that they should market their goods in the most profitable way. They are unlikely to respond to exhortations or appeals to their good nature. After all unprofitable supermarkets are likely to be taken over – look what happened to Safeway.
The campaign for better unit pricing
The UK Metric Association (UKMA) has long campaigned for better unit pricing and has continually urged consumer advocates such as the Consumers’ Association to support the completion of metrication in retailing. Questions were asked at their AGMs in 2009 and 2010 asking them to support the campaign, but each time the response was that “it is not a priority”. Indeed in his valedictory message at its 2010 AGM, its retiring Honorary President, Lord Howe of Aberavon (who also happens to be patron of UKMA) called on the Association to support the campaign.
It is especially pleasing therefore that Which? has come off the fence and supported our campaign. Unfortunately, as this article started by saying, Which? and Panorama have not identified the most obvious and effective remedies.
What is needed is three things:
- Changes in the law to close the loopholes described above. This should include
- a requirement that the unit price should always be shown (even if goods are also priced as special offers, “bogofs”, bulk buys, countable produce etc).
- The unit price should be easily legible (perhaps a minimum font size) and not obscured by promotional labels
- The “de minimis” floorspace (below which shops do not need to show unit prices) should be lowered from 280 m2 to, say, 100 m2. This would still exempt most small corner shops but would catch medium size stores of the national chains such as “Tesco Metro”.
- More rigorous enforcement of the law. This may require increased resources initially but crucially would require a temporary re-ordering of priorities. Trading Standards Officers sometimes justify their turning a blind eye to transgressions by pleading that they are too busy dealing with financial frauds and dodgy second-hand car dealers. Yet a few high profile prosecutions would send a signal that routine flouting of the law would no longer be condoned, and transgressors would soon come into line. In the language of policing, “zero tolerance.”
- A campaign of public education. One of the justifications for removing the system of “prescribed quantities” (PQs) in 2009 (the requirement to package goods in fixed sizes such as multiples of 227 g for honey or 125 g for butter) was that consumers no longer needed this form of protection since they could judge value for money by comparing the unit price. Yet as the NCC report1 showed, most people are unable to use unit pricing. Such a campaign should properly be financed from the Business Department’s budget (since they abolished the PQs), but consumer groups and the media also have a role to play.
So while the Which? and Panorama articles are welcome and long overdue, it would be better if they would support a more complete answer to the problem – which is a combination of updated legislation, stronger enforcement and public education. _____________________________________________
1 See p.13 of Terry, A, and Cullum, P (2006) “Measuring up – consumer attitudes to weights and measures legislation”, National Consumer Council, available at http://collections.europarchive.org/tna/20080520143211/http://www.ncc.org.uk/nccpdf/poldocs/NCC148rr_measuring_up.pdf
See also http://metricviews.org.uk/2006/12/yandy-misses-opportunity/ and the following comments.
2It is acknowledged that Trading Standards Officers are underfunded and have many competing pressures (including from politicians instructing them not to enforce the law too rigorously on market traders) – which partly explains why the frequency of inspections of retail premises is an average of once every three and a half years (according to a discussion paper on Weights and Measures Reform, November 2007, by the former National Weights and Measures Laboratory).