Christmas approaches so reach for a mail order catalogue

One of our regular contributors has submitted a comment about mail order catalogues, even though he admits there is no Metric Views article to which it relates. We are happy to respond by reproducing part of one of several articles on this subject that have appeared over the years in UKMA News, the newsletter of the UK Metric Association.

This is part of an article that appeared in UKMA News in June 2010:

Catalogues for the twenty-first century (and a few from the twentieth)

At the British Weights & Measures Association (BWMA) AGM in May 2006, a member asked: “that we should have a template for a letter to be sent easily to those who print metric-only catalogues”.

The minutes of the meeting do not record the outcome of this request. However, a recent survey* of a twenty-two catalogues illustrates the concern of that BWMA member, for it appears that Imperial measures have had their day in this business, known before the days of the internet as ‘mail-order’. The results were:

Metric only                                               11 catalogues

Metric with Imperial in brackets          7

Random choice of measures                   1

Imperial with metric in brackets           0

Imperial only                                             3

Interestingly, all three ‘Imperial only’ catalogues, named “Overstocks to clear”, “Scotts of Stowe” and “The Original Gift Co”, are issued by companies operating from the same address: Cotswold House, 1 Crompton Road, Groundwell, Wilts, SN25 5AW.

Another company at that address issues a ‘metric with Imperial in brackets’ catalogue under the name “Solutions from Renwoods”.

* The survey, which was carried out by a member of UKMA included catalogues for household and/or garden items, issued between 2006 and 2010 by a range of companies from the very largest, for example Argos, IKEA and Tesco Direct, to a small company from Guernsey. All the catalogues offered an option of ordering by internet, and in addition by post and/or by telephone, and also offered home delivery.”

And here is the comment submitted to Metric Views on 29 October by Wild Bill:

“Note to moderator: the following doesn’t really fit as a comment to the parent article. but I can’t find anywhere sensible to put it! Maybe an excuse for a new blog article??

Basically, the BWMA’s facebook page has unexpectedly caused me some hilarity of late. They champion “Scotts of Stow” as a fine example of a company still working pretty much entirely in the Imperial world (as if it’s a good thing, naturally). And it’s all true – my mother-in-law left a Scotts catalogue lying around the house last time she visited, and I took a look at it.

But something struck me as being not quite right…. sure, there isn’t a metre or a kilogram to be seen (just as the BWMA were proud to point out). But all the same, the feet and inches measurements were all crazy random-looking amounts, stated to the quarter inch.

Where’s my pocket calculator? Take a random item – say 161 7829 Telescopic Window Washer. “Extends from 5 ft to 11½ ft”. Ah – so that’s from 1.5 m to 3.5 m then (plus or minus a few millimetres of rounding error).

And then the “Garden Groom” hedge trimmer (item 118 9232) with a 32¾ft cable! What? Don’t you mean “32ft 9in” there, chaps? Whatever, we might have understood it a bit better as having a 10 m cable, which is how every other garden centre or DIY shop would have promoted it.

And then there’s item 162 1898 – an “extra length washable runner for hallways and landings”. In other words, a carpet strip. Scotts flag this as “7 ft 10½in long”….. yes indeed, known as 2.4 m in the rest of the world (the difference in this case is only 0.3 mm). And it’s “2ft 11½in wide” – known as 90 cm in the rest of the world (1.7 mm error this time).

On another page is another carpet runner where the text reads “In response to many requests, we’ve made these runners even longer than normal. One is now just under 10ft long!”. Er – hang on. If you’re Imperialists, and you’d *made* an extra long runner, it would actually *be* 10ft, not “nearly 10ft long”. It’s really 9ft 10in in length which is……. yes, you’ve guessed it – it’s 3 m! Well, OK – it’s 3 mm shorter than 3 m but within the available ¼in tolerance it’s exact enough. They’d have had to claim that it was “9ft 10 and 1/8th inch” otherwise and that would be silly.

You just can’t make this stuff up! Scotts have bought in a load of metric-manufactured household goods and rebadged it all in measurements that everyone else in the retail trade abandoned years ago!

The biscuit is taken with item 166 6813 – a tabletop mini-oven with “an adjustable thermostat (150° – 450°F)”. They missed a trick on this one – it is claimed to consume 1500 W. Shouldn’t that be 2 horsepower or perhaps 5100 British thermal units per hour??

Disclaimer: this is all good fun, but the examples above have been cherry-picked a bit. That’s not to say that the whole catalogue isn’t plastered with more examples of perfectly good metric measures having been reworked into imperial equivalent by Scotts, but the Fahrenheit example above is a bit unique it must be said – other temperatures stated do seem to be in °C, and occasionally volumes of things are even stated in litres. Maybe they didn’t have a litre to cubic foot conversion button on their pocket calculator.”

10 thoughts on “Christmas approaches so reach for a mail order catalogue”

  1. They have a website! We can ALL play. (just Google the name)

    Much to the horror of BWMA, there is some metric, like the Drain Demon (Product Code 1534759) where “the metre long shaft can reach much further than your arm.” However, as Wild Bill says, there are many more examples of obviously metric net contents converted to Imperial, such as 19½ ft rolls of gutter mesh (really 6 m).

    Question: Would this not be illegal under UK law as the metric is not given in the case of the gutter mesh? The length is what you are buying and whether a roll is 3 m, 6 m, etc is important in the purchase decision.


  2. @ John Steele

    You ask “Would this not be illegal under UK law as the metric is not given in the case of the gutter mesh? The length is what you are buying and whether a roll is 3 m, 6 m, etc is important in the purchase decision.”

    In the example given, the “19½ ft roll” is a sale by description rather than a sale by measure. As such, it is not subject to the Weights & Measures Act 1985.

    If however, the product was on sale at £1.23 per yard, and was cut to the size specified by the customer, then it would be a sale by measure and would have to be by reference to metric.


  3. John

    I think the answer to your question is that selling gutter mesh in imperial quantities is allowed so long as they are fixed amounts and not being sold as so much per unit length. When sold as a 19.5 ft roll it is regarded as product description and not covered by W&M laws.
    Some things are required to be sold by weight or volume but I doubt that gutter mesh falls into that category.
    Our consumer protection laws are crazy. They are full of get-outs allowing traders to confuse or mislead customers as much as they like when it comes to measurement.
    This situation only prevails because Britain won’t enforce a single system in trade and advertising. It is quite disgraceful.


  4. @ Ken

    I understand the ‘sale by descriptiuon” argument for something like a television where many attributes besides the size may be relevant to the purchase decision. However, that would seem to let any standard size package “off the hook.” I assume you do have a separate law for food items at least.

    For the US many non-food items specifically used outside the home are covered under the UPLR, adopted by most States. A container of motor oil, a packaged length of rope, a bag of fertilizer would all require dual labeling. Apparently this particular product does not require metric in the US, either; I found similar examples which were 6″ x 20’, with no dual labeling.

    The US requirement would apply to the package; the status of an “advertisement” even via the Internet or catalog seems a little unclear. I would note you don’t get to inspect the package like you do in a “real” store. However, had it been cut to length, it would be exempt from an SI units requirement as a random weight or measure.


  5. The real problem is that it’s not just the catalogues… many of the christmas trees that will be sold on the shop floor of the DIY chains will likely be in feet (I would expect no more of my local B&Q who seemingly still get away with selling turf “per sq yd”). I have seen several products in a local discount store showing size on the price label in imperial despite metric on the packaging itself.

    There certainly seems to be a large grey area as to what constitutes a product description given that there is absolutely no obvious indication of metric weight on a quarter pounder with cheese, Subway still sell a Footlong and neither Dominos or Pizza Hut are interested in my order if I can’t specify size in inches.


  6. @ John

    Yeah, we have many products that must be sold by weight/volume. As you suggest, food is the most obvious, but many other non-food products are caught. Look at reg 8 of the Packaged Goods Regulations 2006

    However, the vast majority of these requirements apply to volume & weight – not length. As such, the prepacked rope that would require dual marking in the US could legally be described only in Imperial units if offered for sale in the UK.

    The main exception would be when a trader offers to cut a length of rope or gutter mesh from bulk by reference to a price per unit of length (ie not a prepack). In that case, as I state above, the “price per unit of length” must be metric (a supplementary imperial price per unit of length could also be quoted)

    As Phil states, our consumer protection laws are crazy.


  7. Some of us believe that Imperial should be for the museum. The company behind a catalogue received yesterday, called Museum Selection, clearly thinks so too as it has gone to great trouble to ensure all its product descriptions are imperial only. For example, a necklace, “Bauhaus jewellery based on the work of German jewellery designer Jakob Bengel”, is given as 19 1/4″ long with 1 3/4″ extender chain, earrings 1″ long. This catalogue’s other claim to fame is that it is not from Scotts of Stowe.


  8. Hah – you beat me to it, Derekp! I too have a “Museum Selection” catalogue that came through the post, and it looks *very* like the Scott’s of Stowe catalogue. However, unless both are owned by the same parent, there’s no obvious link between them.

    Just as with SoS, the Museum Selection catalogue is full of things stated in bizarre numbers of inches to the nearest quarter-inch. However, most of the items for sale are cheap knockoffs of original things that were made many years ago (hundreds of years ago even). And from all over Europe at a time when those other European countries still used pre-metric systems. The original dimensions of items originally made in Bavarian feet would never look sensible expressed in metric or in British inches…..


  9. The issue of flexibility in the use of units in descriptions in advertising exposes a major loophole over the use of units, which obscures direct price and quantity comparisons. On product labels that show quantities, the metric system must be used with an optional supplementary indication but where descriptions are used, the rules are really lax. Why shouldn’t the same rules as product labels also apply to descriptions?


  10. Personally I find seeing these ‘silly’ imperial measurements quite reassuring. It is far better than seeing ‘silly’ metric measurements on what is an imperial manufactured item with soft metric conversion (i.e. 4ft x 8ft board = 1.22 x 2.44 or whatever) or worse 1m (3ft) on a jumper cable. If I see 1m (39ins) I know I am getting a 1m lead. At least this way round we can be assured that items are designed, engineered and manufactured in metric and they should not be mocked. Give the ‘metric martyrs’ credit where credit is due and let them hang themselves.
    On a more serious note I do feel these ‘descriptions’ need to be controlled. I detest a megabuck TV and video industry getting away with ‘just a description’ (quote the words of the right Hon David Willetts, MP, replying to me: – ” Mr. *** refers to the practice of selling televisions with reference to screen sizes in imperial units. In this case the information being provided is treated as a description of the product, similar to the practice of using numbers to indicate clothing sizes, and therefore it is likely to fall outside the scope of units of measurement legislation ” end quote) on say a £500 TV set and a 12 inch pizza should be 30cm. By nature of these two the TV is manufactured to within a few microns, so no error allowed, the pizza changes size and shape with cooking so cannot be accurately defined. Both cannot be classed in the same way. I have noticed some TV’s are boxed in metric and others metric bolder than Imperial which is in ‘silly’ units, so a step in the right direction. We also know now that ‘inches’ are just numbers, not measurements!!


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