Free-for-all on packages sizes, but no help for consumers?

The Government has published its decisions on deregulating package sizes (as required by a 2007 EU Directive), including advice for business.  But, so far, there is no advice for consumers.

The National Weights and Measures Laboratory (NWML  a Government Agency of the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, which is responsible for weights and measures policy as well as legal metrology) has published its response to the recent consultation on implementing EU Directive 2007/45/EC. This requires member states to deregulate (i.e. abolish) fixed sizes for packets, bottles and other containers of almost all goods on or before 11 April – except for wines and spirits.  As the principle of deregulation had already been decided, this part of the the consultation was confined to the narrow issue of whether to defer implementation for milk, sugar, coffee, dried pasta and butter for 3 – 4 years (which is allowed by the Directive).

Most consultees had opposed deferral, and the Government has accordingly decided to abolish fixed sizes for all products (except wine spirits) from 11 April.  The main opponent was Dairy UK, who (inexplicably) appeared to believe that deregulation meant they would have to incur extra costs in producing different sizes of milk container.  As the NWML document points out, deregulation means that there will be no requirement to adopt any new sizes or to incur any additional costs. Good point  but see Why not deregulate beer? below.

There were two main reasons why the European Commission originally proposed deregulation:
The Courts had previously ruled that if a package size is legal in one member state, it is legal to import it and sell it in any other member state. Hence national regulation had already broken down. Because of conflicting rules in different member states, it would have been very difficult and contentious to impose harmonised fixed sizes at the EU level.
Unit pricing (displaying the price per kg, m, litre etc) means that consumers can compare value for money, and therefore fixed sizes are unnecessary.

There was some resistance to these arguments (e.g. from Dairy UK), but the Commission’s logic was hard to fault.  The additional transitional period for certain products was a compromise to placate opponents.

Advice to business  but not to consumers

Unfortunately, the consumer interest has so far received little attention in all this.  The NWML has simultaneously issued guidance to business on the implementation of the new regime, but there is no accompanying guidance for consumers.  Fixed package sizes were originally introduced in order to protect consumers from manufacturers and traders who might seek to deceive consumers by making small reductions in the size of packages without a corresponding reduction in the price  i.e. a disguised price increase.  So if this form of consumer protection is to be removed and replaced by reliance on unit pricing, it is obviously essential that consumers should actually understand unit pricing and thus be able to make these comparisons.  Yet a piece of research* for the former National Consumer Council (now superseded by Consumer Focus) found that the majority of consumers did not use unit prices  either because they didnt understand the concept, or because they said they couldn’t read the small print.

What is needed is a campaign of public information to help more people to understand and use unit pricing.  It is suggested that the 11 April implementation date should be accompanied by an initial burst of publicity and explanation, and that this should be followed up by a low level but long term campaign to remind people always to look at the unit price as well as the package price.

Who should organise this publicity campaign? and who should pay for it?  At Government level, it must be between NWML and the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which retained responsibility for consumer affairs when the old Department of Trade and Industry was split. (I leave it to those Departments to agree amicably who does what).  However, it goes beyond Government.  Other Government agencies such as Consumer Focus, consumer bodies (such as Which?) and retailers themselves have a role to play in minimising any public disadvantage arising from the removal of existing protections.

Why not deregulate beer?

But if we are deregulating package sizes, what about the fixed quantities for alcoholic drinks?  If it is right to abolish prescribed quantities for packaged goods (and if it is right to be able to buy as many or as few loose tomatoes as you want), why do we need fixed quantities for draught beer, wine, whisky etc?

As it happens, the NWML did pose this very question in their earlier consultation, and they are due to publish their response in April.  Some consultees (e.g. the Licensed Victuallers) opposed deregulation on the illogical grounds that they would incur increased costs of having to change their beer glasses.  However, as the NWML has already said (see quotation above), deregulation would permit traders to carry on exactly as they do now with no increased costs.

The other (illogical) argument against deregulation stems from fears over excessive alcohol consumption. However, the facts argue in favour of the use of metric measures for dispensing alcoholic drinks.  This is because the so-called unit of alcohol is actually 10 ml, and this is easy to calculate by multiplying the displayed percentage of alcohol by volume? (ABV) by the quantity of drink in millilitres. Thus, half a litre of beer at 4% ABV is 2 units.  Not so easy to calculate if beer is dispensed in pints.

So let us hope that NWML will be swayed by facts and logic rather than by pressure from vested interests and tabloid newspapers.

*Cullum, P and Terry,  (2007) Measuring up: consumer perceptions of weights and measures regulation. NCC

14 thoughts on “Free-for-all on packages sizes, but no help for consumers?”

  1. On the one hand this might be good from a metrication viewpoint as some manufacturers who’d had their hands tied by these regulations can now follow their European competitors and use rational metric sizes if they wish. However there is clear to be a backlash from the anti-metric lobby complaining that metrication has caused price increases (regardless of the fact that some unrelated products have/are already changed – Finish Dishwasher Tablets, for instance, that went from 32 per pack to 30 with no price change and Cadbury’s who seem to be going from metric to imperial sizes).

    There is also a downside to all of this… with the recent change allowing the continuation of imperial supplementary indications there is a danger that some manufacturers (even those who have not been regulated) could be persuaded to slide back to imperial package sizes and some foreign manufacturers may even start to sell in these odd sizes believing that it’s what the UK market wants.


  2. If most people can relate the contents of packages to loose goods then I don’t see there is a problem. We’ve all bought things priced at £n/kg or, for loose confectionery, £0.n/100 g. I think it’s just a matter of making the connection. What does concern me is that, unless the requirement to display the per unit price in unified way (i.e. the same system of measurement) is adhered to by all suppliers and effectively policed (more so than appears to be the case in respect of weights and measures at present) then the consumer will loose more of what protection they have.


  3. There has been a requirement to display unit prices for some time but it is limited to what the government define as premises other than a “small shop”. The latter is identified by a floor space of 280 square metres or less. Why is anyones guess.
    In practice the display of unit price has been the subject of ridicule in supermarkets. The print size is so small as to make it obvious that the customer is not meant to see it. A clear statement that the trader does not like the idea of the customer being able to easily compare prices.
    The abolition of prescribed quantities is the result of lobbying by those with a vested interest in obscuration. Consumer protection is secondary. Once again we have been let down by those who should know better. A single system of measurement will never appeal to the dishonest.


  4. I think unit pricing still has a little way to go before it is of any real use to the consumer. Two examples…

    1) My local B&Q who show unit pricing on Superglue. On their own-brand product the unit price looked considerably better than the name-brand version, the reason being that although they had shown the price “per mg” in both cases they’d managed to somehow move the decimal point on one. Three complaints to store staff and a visit from the local TSO later and they still hadn’t put it right.

    2) Tesco… who on the whole I’m quite pleased with, have a habit of mixing units so you might find, for instance, soft drinks (can’t remember an exact example) where some brands/quantities are priced “per 100ml” where others are prices “per 1000ml”!

    I don’t really think that most people look at the unit pricing… I’m convinced that few people understand the meaning!


  5. “This is a pointless battle and I could not see that this issue affects the European single market, or cross-border trade; but it does affect the British tradition, culture and lifestyle which I, for one, highly value. When I looked into this matter it was obvious to me that there was no reason why imperial measures should go.”


  6. Ian, this is not a “pointless battle”. The issue is not about trade; it is about the consumer knowing that when they buy something they are not being conned. If we use the same measurements, we can at least compare prices. I don’t want to see this country held back because of tradition or xenophobia. Before you say it affects British tradition there are more Metric measurements that are British than are Imperial. Just look them up. To each their own, I say.


  7. I think, to add to Lee’s points, it’s also very important not to see metrication as a whole (as distinct from the particular topic on this thread) as an imposition by the European Union. Metrication started long before the EU was even dreamed of, and every other Commonwealth country has completed its changeover.


  8. Having two systems of measure in the United Kingdom is harming the country. Children are being taught metric units at school, but encounter imperial units at home and in the playground. As a result, they do not learn how to manipulate either. The problem is compounded by newspaper editors and politicians who take note of every whinger. The result is that in many areas of life we either have so much data that many people switch off, or so little data that the message being conveyed is of little use.

    It is not a matter of heritage, but of survival.


  9. Martin Vlietstra I completely agree with you I personally only ever use metric at home if people dont like it tough! anyway thats not my point the point im trying to say a few years back where I live we used to have km’s on country signs near the river lea in hertfordshire, they where destroyed by someone from ARM ( if you never heard about them they are anti-metric )
    all the signs were taken down because of a few complaints I wrote to the council asking how much it will cost to replace thousand of km signs & replace them with miles I got no answer so i’ll assume its comming out of our council tax, the joke about all this in 2012 where I live we will be hosting some of the events so we will have km signs back again. Swings & roundabouts I guess.


  10. The Reason I think the government isn’t telling consumers about package sizes is the fact most won’t notice anyway, as long as its cheap & tastes nice which I think is crazy, but im allowed an oppinion. I think what supermarkets & shops should do is compere brands with other equally sized shops in Europe. At least when you go on holiday you know if your paying to much or if the size & price you buy is the same in Britain, still that’s why the metric system is great because you can do that can’t you


  11. Interestingly, and this may well only be an impression, it seems to me that in my local supermarket there are more pre-packaged goods marked in dual measures than metric only – I should explain that this is in Portugal. I saw one packet earlier today marked 125g/4.4oz. Perhaps it is only for goods that are likely to be shipped also to the UK. But one does wonder what logic there is for UK customers to have such fractions (or to be more correct, decimals) of ounces marked. It makes the maths so much more tricky.


  12. As an Australian I am amazed that there should be so much confusion over packaging in the United Kingdom. All packaged goods in Australia are labelled in grams and kg. Dual weights in kg and pounds and ounces are only on some goods imported from Europe. I say, ditch the pounds and the ounces from packaged goods and go completely metric!


  13. Michael Glass, I completely agree with you. The only reason we in Europe export using pounds & ounces or dual measurement is because of the American market, though what that has to do with Australia I don’t know ?
    Also, I wish we in the UK were as advanced as the great people of Australia, because  Australia managed to do in less than a decade what we have been trying to do since 1965.


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