We all like to get a good deal on our groceries, but the cheapest item on the shelf won't necessarily offer the best value for money. That's because similar products can come packaged in a variety of weights and sizes, making them difficult to compare on sale price alone.
Enter unit pricing – a supermarket labelling system that displays prices in terms of standard units of measurement (e.g. dollars per 100g), so you can choose the best value product without having to do complicated calculations.
Unit pricing has been helping many Australians get better value for money in supermarkets since it was introduced in 2009, but improvements need to be made to make the system work better for everyone.
Unit pricing has been compulsory for large grocery stores and online grocery retailers in Australia for almost 10 years, and evidence shows it's helping many consumers save time and money.
According to a 2018 CHOICE survey, 76% of people we asked use unit pricing all or most of the time. Of those, almost all find it helpful – 69% said unit pricing makes it easier to compare prices regardless of pack size, and 59% said it saves them time working out which product provides the best value.
While there's no doubt that clearly displayed unit pricing can help us all make more informed choices when shopping – in that same survey, a quarter of people surveyed found unit pricing difficult to read.
A quarter of people surveyed found unit pricing difficult to read
Queensland Consumers Association spokesperson Ian Jarratt OAM led the campaign to introduce unit pricing in 2009, but he believes the current legislation is failing consumers.
"The system simply isn't doing a good enough job," he says. "Far too many unit prices are difficult to read, even for people [who don't wear glasses], and impossible for people who don't have good vision or mobility."
Currently, the law requires that unit pricing is "prominent" and "legible". However, it's up to retailers to interpret these subjective terms, as there are no explicit guidelines for font size, colours, language or placement.
This means retailers are able to get away with displaying unit prices that are difficult for many people to decipher.
For example, in 2018 Aldi decided to shrink the size of their displayed unit pricing, making it significantly more difficult to read. (CHOICE campaigned on this issue, but despite thousands of Australians calling on Aldi to make unit prices bigger and bolder, no action was taken by the retailer.)
The system simply isn't doing a good enough job… far too many unit prices are impossible to read for people who don't have good vision or mobility
According to Government Relations Manager for Vision Australia, Chris Edwards, those with low vision are often unable to read unit pricing.
"People who are blind or have low vision deserve to be able to shop independently like anybody else in the wider community," he says.
"Unit pricing gives shoppers the information they need to make informed choices – this information needs to be accessible to people who have low vision, to allow them the same opportunity to get the best value for money."
But it's not just those with low vision who are negatively impacted by the way unit pricing is currently displayed.
According to Jarratt, wheelchair users and those with low mobility also have issues accessing unit pricing, as they may be unable to read tags on high or low shelves.
"These issues could all be addressed by improving the prominence and legibility of the unit pricing," he says.
Case study: "It becomes stressful and just too hard"
For Annie, 26, having low vision can make shopping a stressful experience.
"I have to spend a lot of time squinting at the price tag if I want to try to read the unit price. If it's peak shopping time and there's people all around you, it becomes stressful and just too hard."
As a result, she often chooses to buy things simply because their price tags are easier to read.
"Specials [tags] are often bigger and easier to read, so I often just get those instead of finding the best value product using the unit price."
She says that it's not just small fonts that are the issue, explaining that certain font types and colours are also challenging to read.
"IGA has a very difficult font because some parts of the letters are bold and others are quite thin, so you get this extreme difference between bold and thin that is really difficult to read. The yellow and black colours on the tag make it even harder."
She believes that having clear guidelines around font size, type and colour would make it possible for her and others with low vision to properly benefit from unit pricing.
It's not just bricks and mortar supermarkets that have issues with accessibility – according to Jarratt, unit pricing can be even more confusing online.
"While many people with disabilities may choose to shop online, this can make it much harder to benefit from unit pricing," he says.
"The unit price is sometimes not provided, it's difficult to search for specific products and there's sometimes no option to sort the products by unit price, making it nearly impossible to compare products."
17% of people surveyed said they were unable to search by lowest unit price
In CHOICE's consumer survey, almost 17% of people who said they shop online for groceries reported they struggled to use unit pricing because they were unable to search by lowest unit price.
"A major problem is that often when you search for a particular type of product you get lots of other [items]," adds Jarratt, "so it's very difficult to get a list of the specific product you're interested in and then to sort by unit price."
Similar issues with unit pricing accessibility have been raised by consumer watchdog Which? in the United Kingdom.
In response, the government created an expert working group that included consultation with the Royal National Institute of Blind People. While this action raised awareness of legibility issues with retailers, unfortunately no clear guidelines were ever created.
In the USA, unit pricing is compulsory in selected states, with some state laws saying that unit price must match the size of the sale price on tags, and others specifying the colour or the font size of the unit pricing.
The USA's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has also produced a general best-practice guide for the layout and design of unit price labels, which says that the font size of the unit price should be no less than 6mm and no less than 50% of the retail price font size.
In Europe, the laws about unit pricing legibility are just as vague as Australia's, although unit pricing is available in a wider variety of stores, including pharmacies and hardware stores.
CHOICE believes the law needs to include clear rules around prominence, legibility and font size to make unit pricing accessible to all Australians. This would ensure that the system doesn't discriminate against people with low vision or restricted mobility, and would make unit prices easier to read for everyone.
Online stores need to enable people with low vision to have full access to their sites, says Edwards.
"Unit pricing information needs to be clearly linked to a particular product, and available in text format so it can be recognised by screen reader software and other assistive technologies," he says. To achieve this, they should comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
Extend unit pricing to other stores
At the moment, only physical stores that are at least 1000m2, and which sell a specific selection of grocery items, have to display unit pricing, as well as online grocery retailers that sell a certain range of food items.
According to the CHOICE survey, most participants (86%) believed unit prices should be extended to shops that aren't currently required to display unit pricing, including pharmacies, convenience stores, smaller grocery retailers (like IGA) and hardware stores.
Make it easier to lodge a complaint
During a recent campaign, CHOICE supporters submitted over 250 photos of unit pricing issues, collected from around Australia. While it seems these issues are common and consumers are often spotting them in stores, there is no easy way to report them at the moment.
Similar products must use consistent units of measurement
Under the current regulations, it's possible for one bag of flour to list a price per 1kg and another to list a price per 100g, making it hard for consumers to compare similar products at a glance. In fact, 26% of shoppers surveyed reported problems with different units of measurement for the same type of products.
While inconsistent units of measurement make using unit pricing more difficult for all consumers, this can particularly disadvantage those with intellectual disabilities.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.