Which? sees the light – and Panorama joins in

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:

  1. Changes in the law to close the loopholes described above.  This should include
    1. 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).
    2. The unit price should be easily legible (perhaps a minimum font size) and not obscured by promotional labels
    3. 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”.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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).

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18 Responses to Which? sees the light – and Panorama joins in

  1. Alex Bailey says:

    One trick that is often missed is to vary the quantity on per-unit pricing so, for instance, bottles of Coke may be labeled as "£x per litre" with the cans next to this labeled as "£x per 100ml". Of course, with metric, it's simple enough to move the decimal places to do a comparison but it seems that with the continued confusion over what system of measurement is being used combined the often assumed "familiarity" with imperial units and the inability to use the same simple trick with pints and oz means that people don't feel confident enough to be able to do this.

    This also may account for those who can't or won't do price comparisons between milk sold in "pints" and those sold in litres.

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  2. Tony says:

    My local shop has unit pricing (patchily) but on milk, its litre bottles have the price "per litre" on the shelf, while the pint bottles have "per pint" pricing! It is in fact the smaller pint bottles which are the best value by volume but I expect I am about the only person who has realised that.

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  3. Hughster says:

    I've noticed Tesco craftily varying the 'unit' on unit price displays too, e.g. "£2.50 per litre" on one product but "30p per 100 ml" on another, to make some products look cheaper at a careless glance depending on what they're promoting.

    If unit pricing is going to work, the units must always be fixed, i.e. litre, metre and kilogram. Do the regulations really not require this?

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  4. John Steele says:

    @Tony, Alex

    That is rather shocking. In US unit pricing law, the retailer has some freedom to choose the unit of measure, usually two Customary units and two metric units, and he can make a different choice than his competitor down the street. However, he can not change units for "like product."
    (NOTE: For liquids, the choices are per liter, 100 mL, gallon, quart, pint, or fluid ounce)

    For different sizes (or brands) of the same product, the US retailer clearly can't do this. For products that are "similar" there is debate. Is bottled soda "like" bottled water, is an orange "like" an apple? Well, they are two bottled beverages and two fruits, but are they "like product?"

    I would prefer to see all retailers have to make the same choice so I could compare stores, but at least in a given store, it reduces the abuse you mention.

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  5. philh says:

    These scams highlight the fact that traders have a vested interest in obscurity and ignorance. It is no co-incidence that most of the anti-metric protestors are marketeers.

    Re Tony's comment; price/100 ml next to price/L for the same thing relies for its effect on some customers not knowing the relationship between ml and litre. It doesn't fool everyone but, presumably, enough people are disadvantaged by it to make it worthwhile.

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  6. Tony says:

    Phil - the milk isn't priced "per 100 ml" next to "per litre", but "per pint" next to "per litre" for the two different sizes of bottle. Moving a decimal place is annoying, but comparing "45p per pint" with "90p per litre" requires a calculator!

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  7. Wild Bill says:

    Tony - I was of the opinion (see the Asda strawberries thread) that unit pricing was required to be based on metric quantities. Not just any metric quantities either, in the case of stuff sold by weight only "per kg" or "per 100g" may be used, for fluids only "per litre" and "per 100ml".

    Am I wrong there?

    I would expect that "per pint" is illegal. The pint is not generally legal for trade (other than in pubs for *draught* beer and cider, and cow's milk in *reusable* bottles). So it wouldn't seem to be legal for "per volume" prices either. However, many of the big supermarkets in the UK are happily breaking the law already just by selling milk in pints in non-reusable containers, so it's a minor step for them to do the same with unit pricing and expect to get away with it.

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  8. michduncg says:

    Did anyone see this article on the BBC Website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16245391?postId=111248858#comment_111248858 ? I didn't see it when the comments board was live, but it certainly seems to have attracted a lot of comment. I haven't read all 1,000 comments but the first hundred are very positive in favour of metric. I suspect it may have gone downhill if the Daily Wail or Daily Depress readers got wind of it!

    What is very interesting is that TV Chef Rick Stein has spoken out in favour of metric. I notice that on their Facebook page, BWMA have a gallery of their celebrity supporters. Have the UKMA considered trying to recruit metric-supporting celebrities?

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  9. Ken Cooper says:

    @ Wild Bill

    **Not just any metric quantities either, in the case of stuff sold by weight only “per kg” or “per 100g” may be used, for fluids only “per litre” and “per 100ml”.**

    Mainly correct. Ther are a few exceptions though. From memory, coal in open sacks is sold "per 50 kg" and bottles of wine "per 75 cL". Those metric exceptions are few and far between, however, and imperial exceptions for prepacked goods simply don't exist.

    **I would expect that “per pint” is illegal**

    As a unit price in a supermarket? Yes, it is illegal. I would suggest that you make a formal complaint to your local TS. Personally, I haven't seen any "per pint" indications of the type you describe.

    **However, many of the big supermarkets in the UK are happily breaking the law already just by selling milk in pints in non-reusable containers**

    A non-returnable package marked "568 ml e 1 pt" is primarily metric with a supplementary imperial indication. This complies with current UK law. In my local supermarkets, the associated unit price is "per litre". Again, this complies with all UK legal requirements

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  10. Ken Cooper says:

    @ michduncq

    Yeah. I saw the article. I gave up counting after roughly the first 20 inaccuracies & half-truths within it.

    For instance, I would ask exactly when it became compulsory to dual mark all prepacked goods in supermarkets (it didn't happen!).

    In my experience, most goods are marked in metric only, and a few have a supplementary imperial marking. That reflects the current legal requirements in the UK.

    I was also intrigued by the claim that beer and cider must be sold in imperial measure in pubs. I distinctly recall buying both bottled beer and bottled cider in the pub last Saturday night. As always, the particular bottles involved were marked ONLY in metric measurement.

    But, as you correctly state, the vast majority of responses were pro-metric.

    Interestingly, the article was also linked from the BWMA facebook site. One wonders whether they take the time to fully research the articles they link to, especially when they are as full of errors as this one is & provoke such a pro-metric set of responses.

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  11. philh says:

    I find Rick Stein's opening comment:

    "I think children are able to learn both metric and imperial measurements. ..."

    an unfortunate one.

    It would be more accurate to say *some" children are capable of this. The fact that other children (probably most) are alienated by dual measures, and discouraged from applying their mathematical learning, is sufficient reason to pro-actively phase out imperial.

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  12. kPa says:

    I scanned through a lot of comments and was somewhat (and pleasantly) surprised at the overwhelming support for metric usage. It seems though that among the metric users, their only comfort with non-metric is in those circumstances where they are exposed to imperial and have adapted, that being mostly road signs in miles and pints in the pubs. Others have adapted to clothing sizes and body measurements in imperial because of what they encounter.

    It seems to me that if these were to change metrication would be sufficiently complete and accepted. I wonder if the UKMA would be interested in sponsoring a national survey to get a better gauge on who uses metric. If it can be proved that the population is using metric more that the media lets on, then the UKMA can use this as a means to press the government to complete the metrication process.

    It appears that in addition to road signs and allowing units other than pints for pubs (where metric szes are presently illegal), there needs to be an emphasis on metric units in clothing sizes (What ever happened to the introduction of EN13402: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EN_13402 ?) which would in turn facilitate the use of metric body mass and height in metric units.

    You will never change the diehards, but at least life can be made simpler for those who choose to move forward.

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  13. Jake says:

    Rick Stein has a reputation to live up to and books to sell. I am sure that his remark, as misguided as it is, is simply a ploy so as not to alienate his potential fans among those who cling on to imperial measures.

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  14. Wild Bill says:

    Jake - Rick Stein does indeed have books to sell, and (at least in the case of the more recent ones) they are proper metric cookbooks, not imperial ones with crude metric conversions.

    He does provide imperial translations of his recipies' quantities, but it comes out as (say) "500g (1lb 2oz) Scampi", intermixed with small fluid quantities in teaspoons and tablespoons as is pretty much normal in British cookbooks. ( It's fair enough - how else would you measure 5ml or 10ml in a normal kitchen? )

    So, on this evidence, I don't think Rick Stein is worried about alienating any potential fans. His cookbooks are not likely to sell well amongst members of the BWMA already!

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  15. Jake says:

    Wild Bill - as you say, Rick Stein's cookbooks do include conversions to stone-age measures. Surely that is proof that he needs to keep the imperialists happy. When everything is sold or packaged in metric quantities there really is no need for imperial conversions at all.

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  16. comparator says:

    The law should also be changed to require that the unit price be provided even if the unit and selling price are the same. This is required to ensure that the unit price is in the same place on all labels, the unit price is always shown in terms of a unit of measure, and shoppers are not confused by the unit price per unit of measure being provided for some package sizes of a product type but not for others.

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  17. Ronnie Cohen says:

    Transparent pricing is undermined by a lack of enforcement of existing weights and measures legislation. Trading Standards Departments are encouraged by the government not to take action against market traders and small stores for displaying prices exclusively in imperial in defiance of the law. Thus price transparency is undermined when supermarkets show prices per kilogram whereas market traders and small stores show prices per pound. Most consumers would need a calculator to work out who is offering better value for money. This situation is bad for consumers.

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  18. philh says:

    Just thought I'd share some recent experience that highlights the importance of unit pricing.
    For a long time now I have shopped at Waitrose, mainly for convenience and I like the quality of their fresh fruit and veg. I have to admit I have been lazy in not bothering about value for money. Until now that is.
    I now routinely visit a branch of Sainsbury's and out of curiosity I looked up a few prices and compared like with like.
    For example fresh pre-packed blueberries at £16.67/kg in Sainsbury's, no less than £23/kg in Waitrose (non-organic in both cases, I hasten to add). Raspberries at £16.67/kg in Sainsbury's, £19.14/kg in Waitrose. The list goes on.
    This is no criticism of Waitrose because the information they display is clear and their pricing strategy is a matter for them. But it does show how significant the difference can be if unit pricing is obscured by the various tricks highlighted in the Which? report.

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