Pricing, profits and customer confusion

Inevitably, the referendum result has led to calls for a return to some of the measurements that Britannia used when she ruled the waves. Ronnie Cohen suggests an underlying reason.

It is reported that a previously unknown politician who last year unsuccessfully challenged Mrs May for the leadership of the Conservative Party is now back in the news suggesting a possible return of pounds and ounces. It is claimed that some manufacturers and traders favour the freedom to sell in non-metric units, or that this will promote deregulation or defend British tradition and heritage.

The call for a return to pounds and ounces in the marketplace is surely not about tradition, heritage or deregulation but about traders’ self-interest. If it were about British tradition and heritage, why has there been no similar call for a return to gallons? Apparently, the continued sale of fuel by the litre is quietly accepted by all.

Traders use the smallest units that are permitted. They do so to make their products look cheaper or the quantities larger than the competition even when they are not. By doing this, they can quote a lower price (e.g. 50p/lb is the same as £1.10/kg). Here are several examples of this practice:

  • Car manufacturers generally prefer horsepower over kilowatts in descriptions.
  • Estate agents generally prefer square feet to square metres and acres to hectares in descriptions.
  • Some small shops and market traders prefer pounds and ounces to kilograms in sales of fruit and veg.
  • Delicatessen prices are often per 100 g not per kilogram.

Hence, there was no resistance when gallons were replaced by litres for fuel sales at petrol stations about 30 years ago, and there were no “metric martyrs” at the petrol pumps. So why has there been resistance from some small shops and market traders to the replacement of pounds by kilograms for the sale of meat, fish, fruit and veg? Probably because they prefer to use the smaller unit to appear cheaper than the supermarkets. Litres are smaller than gallons but kilograms are larger than pounds.

A classic example of the preference for smaller units is the change from square metres to square yards by one carpet retailer in the 1970’s. As Jim Humble recalls in “Historical perspectives by the last Director of the UK Metrication Board”,

“The product which brought all voluntary retail initiatives to a full stop was the experience of the floor covering and carpet retailers. Their 1975 change to sales by the square metre started well, but in 1977 one of the major High Street retailers found enormous commercial advantage in reverting to sales by the square yard. Consumers could not be persuaded to believe that goods costing, for example, £10 per square yard or £12 per square metre were virtually priced the same. Consumers bought, in very significant volume, the apparently cheaper priced imperial version. Metrication of carpet sales entered into full scale reverse and the Chambers of Trade and retail associations pressed for firm Government leadership, i.e. compulsory cut-off.”

This classic example explains why the supporters of pounds and ounces favour freedom of choice – once the use of the smaller unit becomes commonplace, all will have to follow to avoid appearing over-priced. Consumers will face a period of confusion and the challenge of hexadecimal arithmetic that was last taught in schools in the 1970s, the gap between ‘global Britain’ and reality will widen further, and the aim of a single, simple and logical system of measurement, which everyone is familiar with and understands, will become even more remote.

And, of course, like the USA, we will find it even more difficult to earn our living in a world that has moved on.

4 thoughts on “Pricing, profits and customer confusion”

  1. The underlying reason for the gallon to litre changeover during the mid-Thatcher years was the mismatch between petrol pump technology and rising prices. Once petrol went above about £1 per gallon (those were the days!), the petrol industry realised that all almost all petrol pumps could accept prices of up to £1.999 per unit volume. The pumps also had a means of the unit volume being set to gallons or litres. The industry realised that once petrol hit £2 per litre, they would have to drop the last digit and after initially toying with the idea of selling by the half-gallon, they decided to go for sales by the litre.

    Trading Standards have always kept as beady eye on petrol sales because, like alcohol, petrol carries a high level of duty per unit volume (in addition to VAT). With only a handful of companies who sold petrol and the tax situation there was, as Ronnie correctly pointed out, little if any scope for “metric martyrs”. Also there was nobody to feed half-truths to the tabloids in order to make a story.


  2. Strangely enough, imperial fans typically only support ‘freedom of choice’ up to the point where you choose to use something else, be that metric or Dalek rels. The freedom to rip you off in a unit of their choosing (or often invention), but not the freedom to not be misled with obfuscated units or dodgy measurement…


  3. Interesting regarding Ronnie’s premise that people like ‘smaller’ units as that makes the price look less.

    But why then does this not carry over to using km instead of miles? Kilometres are smaller than miles, so that should (and for me does) make them easier to both use and visualise.

    They also should work in that way for fuel consumption. L/100 km figures show smaller numbers for more fuel efficient cars. Yet the UK persists in miles/imperial gallon, which get larger as fuel efficiency improves. I still use L/100 km (and have my car set to display that), but so often end up having to convert for my wife – when I say ‘We’re getting four litres per 100’, she immediately responds with ‘What’s that in English?’. Sigh.


  4. @ John Frewen-Lord says: 2017-03-13 at 10:35
    “But why then does this not carry over to using km instead of miles?”
    Well, you have to go much further in km! A journey of 300 (miles) becomes a hefty 500 (km).
    The fact that the odometer suddenly makes sense in 1/10 km seems not to matter. The fact that 100 metre interval signs are instantly informative and one does not have to work out what “1/4, 1/3 and 1/2 mile ahead” means (and failure to do so caused me a 100 mph accident way back in the 1960’s, I have hated ‘miles’ ever since), seems not to influence the PC safety brigade.


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