Both the Consumers’ Association (aka Which?) and the Government’s Business Department have claimed the credit for the success of their campaign to persuade supermarkets to price goods transparently. But who actually started the campaign? and is it enough?
Which? have today issued a press release claiming that as a result of their pressure, all the major supermarkets have now agreed to “making their pricing clearer and simpler for shoppers.” By this they mean that 6 out of the 10 big supermarket chains ” have agreed to include the ‘unit price’ on promotions for multi-buys of the same item.” Translated, this means that the price per kilogram or litre will be shown prominently on shelf labels so that you can tell whether it really is cheaper to buy, say, six tins of tomatoes individually or as a six-pack.
If this turns out to be true, then obviously it is welcome. UKMA has been banging on about it for several years, and regular readers of MetricViews may recall our article two years ago “Which? sees the light and Panorama joins in”.
However, the flaw in this modest victory over the supermarkets is that public understanding of “unit pricing” is limited. In 2008, in response to the consultation by the former National Weights and Measures Laboratory on the deregulation of package sizes, UKMA wrote: “… we are concerned that deregulation of package sizes should be accompanied by a campaign of public education to help consumers to understand better the concept of “unit pricing”. We think that, as part of such a campaign, shops should be required to display prominently explanatory information about unit pricing.”
Sadly, this point does not seem to have been addressed.
It is also interesting that the Government Minister, Lib Dem Jo Swinson, is quoted as saying: “We will now look at the current legislation to see if it’s preventing supermarkets from making further improvements.’
UKMA has already told the government what changes are needed, and they can also be read in the article referred to above. For convenience, MetricViews reproduces them below:
“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 report 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.”
MetricViews looks forward to these proposals being enacted, and no doubt the credit will again be claimed by Which?/Panorama/BIS. We shall not mind too much as long as they eventually get it right, but MV readers will know where they read it first.