Unit pricing still has room for improvement

01 Dec 11 09:17AM EST
Post by Christopher Zinn
It’s more than 50 years since CHOICE first suggested that displaying unit prices (UP) – the price per unit of measure - in supermarkets could help consumers compare value and save money by changing their buying habits.

It was a long campaign with retailers resisting and delaying the introduction of unit pricing claiming it would cost too much and that nobody wanted it anyway.

It’s now two years since a mandatory code was introduced requiring supermarkets of more than 1000 square metres in size to show the unit price of their packaged groceries in addition to the selling price.

Our new survey conducted with the Queensland Consumers Association (QCA) suggests the numbers using UP are high and they find the scheme very useful.

It’s impossible to calculate how many millions of dollars are now in consumers’ hands and not in the supermarkets’ coffers because savvy shoppers changed the package size or even the brand they were buying because they were easily able to compare the value.

So what are we complaining about now?

Our survey also highlighted a problem with the prominence and legibility of UP. Some 60 per cent of respondents, notably the older and less well off, say UP would be even more helpful if the print was larger and the unit price stood out more.

The code which is regulated by the Australian Competition and Consumers Commission (ACCC) dictates UP should be both legible and prominent but there’s no strict definition laid down as to what these qualities mean.

Another 30 per cent of respondents are unaware of UP, don’t use it or only find it slightly helpful. Yet half of them say a little more education and information on how to use the scheme would help them.

Our two big supermarkets beg to differ claiming they have not received any customer feedback to suggest anything is amiss with the UP labels and both say they are strong supporters of the scheme.

Also, it’s fair to say the supermarkets haven’t done much - if any - promotion of UP either. The stores have refused to carry educational material or posters. And the closest we have seen to such a campaign was the ACCC’s short-lived Unit Man figure which elicited as much derision as direction on how to make the most of UP.

We appreciate the great benefits of UP and want to make sure it delivers on the promise by ensuring we have the best scheme possible. It’s one reason why in 2009 we gave Ian Jarratt of the volunteer QCA our first Consumer Action Award for his mighty services to delivering and maintaining the best possible system.

Ian Jarratt won a Churchill Fellowship to study UP overseas in 2007 and has lobbied politicians and others tirelessly to stop UP being relegated to fine print.

It’s interesting to note that in the UK, where UP has been compulsory for more than 10 years, our sister consumer organisation WHICH? has just launched a campaign to improve unclear and inconsistent unit prices such as very small print and bananas sold as 99 pence for seven or 68 pence a kilo.

It’s also interesting that telcos are now facing pressure to introduce their own time-based unit pricing of mobile phone calls in an effort to bring some clarity to a notoriously complex area which defies rational comparisons.

We’re still working with Ian Jarratt to ensure all Australians have the best possible system of unit pricing.

If you see any examples of UP you think are not good enough - perhaps confusing or too hard to read - let us know at campaigns@choice.com.au.


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