Consumer minister, Jo Swinson, asks representatives of top 10 grocery chains to justify unclear and misleading unit pricing
The UK’s leading supermarkets have been asked to explain their confusing and inconsistent use of “unit prices” on food and drink products in the first step of a new government drive to help cash-strapped consumers work out which are cheapest.
The consumer affairs minister, Jo Swinson, has summoned representatives of the top 10 supermarkets to a meeting at the Department of Business on Tuesday afternoon at which she will ask them to justify policies of unclear and misleading unit pricing, no unit pricing on promoted items and bigger packs not always offering better value.
The Guardian’s Money section has in recent months featured dozens of “daft deals” that reveal confusing and misleading pricing on special offers and discounts – with multibuys, for example, pricier than buying the items individually.
The meeting follows a high-profile campaign over the last 18 months by the consumer group Which? to get widespread change and more transparency in pricing.
Through its Price It Right campaign it has encouraged consumers to sign up to a national pledge calling for clearer, more consistent unit pricing on food:
“All food should be clearly and consistently priced by weight or volume across all stores to make it easier for consumers to compare products and spot the best deals. This is more important than ever as food prices are rising and budgets are getting tighter.”
In a series of regular spot-check surveys, Which? found some of the most confusing examples of unit pricing were on fruit and vegetables. They included pre-packed red onions priced at £1.35 for three, or 45p an item next to loose onions priced at 95p a kilogramme; a seven-pack of mini bananas with a selling price of 99p and a unit price of 14.1p each next to loose bananas priced at 68p a kilogramme; and red peppers in 500g packs on sale for £2.09 and at £4.18 a kilogramme next to packs of three mixed peppers priced at £1.65 or 56p each.
Retailers are required by law (under the so-called “price marking order”) to display both a selling price and a unit price on the shelf labels of food and drink products. The unit price is the price by weight or volume that allows shoppers to compare the true cost of products, even if they come in different sizes.
The units that can be used are specified in legislation and include 1kg, 100g, 10g, 1 litre, 100ml or an individual item. But in the same supermarket, bagged fresh coffee, for example, could be priced per 100g for some brands and per 1kg for others. Furthermore, there are no rules on how big the labelling must be, or on how special offers are treated.
Which? has hailed recent initiatives by Morrisons – which has started rolling out new-style labels for its shelves making prices much easier to compare – and new labels from Sainsbury’s that help customers shop for fruit and vegetable without needing a calculator.
Guy Mason, head of government affairs at supermarket Morrisons, which will be attending the meeting, said: “This is an issue of growing importance which has come to light because of the professional way consumers shop.
“They need to know exactly what they are spending their money on and our own research shows that customers make a choice within three seconds of reading a label. We have begun to make changes already and so welcome the move by the government to highlight good practice and to come up with a fairer, more transparent system.”
The Department of Business confirmed that the meeting was going ahead but declined to give any detail of the likely content. But sources say it is likely to be a “round table” discussion with examples of best as well as worst practice, as a first step towards securing a more transparent system for consumers.
According to the Office of Fair Trading, grocery shopping accounts for some 44% of household spending.
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