Retrograde step proposed for retail trade

On 16 June 2021, the government published a set of proposals from the independent “Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform” (TIGRR). These proposals aim to reduce regulation of British businesses, thereby providing them with an advantage over foreign competitors.

In Proposal 17.1, it proposes to “amend the Weights and Measures Act 1985 to allow traders to use imperial measurements without the equivalent metric measurement.” It justifies this proposal with the following explanation:

“It is currently an offence under the 1985 Weights and Measures Act to use imperial measurement as the primary indicator of measurement without an equally prominent metric measurement for trading. This has long been identified as an example of overly prescriptive EU regulation, with notable prosecutions of small traders in the early 2000s. This change would require amendment of the 1985 Weights and Measures Act through primary legislation.”

This shows little understanding of the current law. Imperial measures cannot be the “primary” unit, even with metric “equivalent” shown. Imperial units are only permitted as supplementary indications.

A big problem would be any goods marked with imperial-only pricing would probably not be permitted into Northern Ireland, which would remain subject to Single Market rules for products. This would drive a bigger wedge between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The authors of the report want to let traders choose imperial, metric or dual pricing. We have been here before in the 1970s. At that time, there was a voluntary initiative for the metrication of retail trade. Traders had similar pricing choices to those proposed this report. However, this led to a major market failure in the sales of floor coverings such as carpets when one major High Street retailer found commercial advantage in reverting to sales by the square yard. Consumers could not be persuaded that prices of £12 per square metre and £10 per square yard were almost the same. Overwhelmingly, they preferred the apparently cheaper imperial-priced carpets. As a result, in 1977, the metric changeover of the retail trade in floor coverings went into full-scale reverse.

Have the members if TIGGR learnt nothing from this market failure?

As a result, almost everyone recognised in 1977 that there had to be cut-off date for pricing in imperial measures. This had the support of the overwhelming majority of MPs, the Chambers of Trade and a huge range of retail trade, industry, engineering, consumer, trade union, elderly person, sporting and educational organisations. The necessary Order was drafted by the Board of Trade in 1978 but the Government, concerned about a possible general election, played safe, and the Order was never put to a vote. After a change of government in 1979, the proposed Order was abandoned.

British politicians had failed to implement the change to correct this market failure and prevent others like it. It took over 20 years before the metrication of the retail trade was completed.

If the TIGGR proposal is adopted, we will have come full circle – back to the 1970s. It would look like history repeating itself. How are consumers supposed to compare pounds with kilograms, yards with metres, pints with litres? It will weaken price transparency and consumer protection. Like the adoption of square yards by a carpet retailer, the use of pounds and ounces for selling fruit and veg is not about tradition but about market advantage. Hence the rapid switch from gallons to litres by petrol stations in the 1980s. Few resisted that.

It is unclear how this proposal will support innovation and growth. Indeed, it is possible that the increased muddle and the cost from supporting two measurement systems will reduce Britain’s competitiveness. It’s still all about metric martyrs and sustaining the myth that the UK’s metric changeover began, not in the 1960s, but with accession to the European Common Market in 1973 . For them, opposition to the metric system is an article of faith.

Although it has been said many times before but it is worth repeating that we need a single system of weights and measures that everyone can understand and use. We don’t need two systems.

You can find the TIGRR report at the following link:
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/taskforce-on-innovation-growth-and-regulatory-reform-independent-report

You can find more information about the market failure in carpets and floor coverings in the 1970s at the following link:
https://ukma.org.uk/press/articles/jhumble/ (“Historical perspectives by the last Director of the UK Metrication Board” by Jim Humble)

19 thoughts on “Retrograde step proposed for retail trade”

  1. For many years the retail trade has declined due to metrification, now is a good chance to kick start business by dropping the outdated metric system for maim measurements.However, I think we can keep grams and some other units as we are now accustomed to this, A mix would be the correct answer.

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  2. Retail trade has not declined due to metrication; if it can be proved to have declined it is due to on-line shopping. The old shops that want imperial may be in decline because the young don’t want to buy in imperial and the old shops aren’t set up for online sales.

    Mixed set of units only enhances confusion and makes citizens less useful in modern, metric industries.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You are completely out of touch with the retail industry. I dont know what you mean by old shops.
    The fact is that most retail business prefer to deal with Imperial, especially the building trade. I am in the retail trade and we are happy to deal with both systems but customers come in with their imperial orders.

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  4. The building trade is fully metric and has been for 50 years. You may be forced to deal with both since you try to use imperial when the industry is using metric only. Do you get out much?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The fact is the building trade deals in Imperial and metric.
    You have a personal vendetta on this site. please dont reply with such silly propergander

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  6. Go to any factory making materials for the building trades and you will see they operate in metric. Engineering, design and manufacturing are all metric. The computerised machinery is all metric.

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  7. May I point out that when people in the building trade refer to 2 x 4 timber, they are actually talking about timber that is 47 mm x 95 mm, not timber that is 51 mm x 102 mm (the exact conversion of 2″ and 4″). Prior to metrication, planned timber in the UK was sold in accordance with its size before planing and the timber supplier was permitted to reduce timber with a width of 4″ by a quarter of an inch when planing it.

    When the UK was aligning its laws with EU laws, such a description did not comply with the new Trades Description Act which is why suppliers are required to call it 47 mm x 95 mm, even if builders still refer to it as 2 x 4 timber.

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  8. An excellent article. Does anyone have any idea when these proposals will be debated in the House of Commons.

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  9. “Prior to metrication, planned timber … was permitted to reduce timber with a width of 4″ by a quarter of an inch when planing it.”
    What is it permitted to be planed to now since metrication? In the US, a 2 x 4 is actually 40 x 90 mm, much smaller. I doubt the size reduction is related to planing.

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  10. This has always existed, if you buy timber of 1″ sawn it will be 1″ or (25mm) however planed timber will be slightly less usually 7/8″( about 22mm)
    Not sure about houses in the thirties, the floorboards were often of 1″ thickness.

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  11. Yes that may be so but they still speak with imperial values.! These have to be converted to imperial to make sense.
    When I order timber say 6×1 they know exactly what I want, but what I get will be 150×25 nearist size.
    It is a very gradual process, being to get used to metric measurements will take a long time.

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  12. In the 1970s, hardware and d.i.y. stores got a lot of complaints from customers when they persisted in describing timber in imperial terms. Timber was sold in lengths of multiples of 0·3 m, slightly shorter than the foot loosely described and cross section in overall size before planing, so the dimensions were “nominal” i.e. less than described by an unspecified amount. Customers would measure in imperial for a job they were doing, only to find they had received “short measure”. Nowadays the sensible method of selling timber with measurements in metric “as it is” has consigned those arguments to history. We have all benefited from metrication and proper regulations for trade.

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  13. It should be noted that the switch to metric sizes came about with the arrival of computerised measuring, cutting & planing machines that function in metric only. It would be almost impossible to return to imperial as the machines don’t work in increments of 25.4 nor due they work in fractions. These machines and metric are here to stay.
    I’m sure these companies love it when customers keep referring back to imperial. A lot of conversion errors means these customers are going to have to return tot he shop to buy more product due to their mis-measurement and that means more profits for the manufacturers even if product is wasted.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I suspect that the reduction in size was originally allowed to accommodate planing – possibly people used to buy unplanned timber and then pay to get it planned until somebody started selling planned timber and got the law adjusted so as to allow people to compare like with like. That fallacy has now got itself embedded into our system.
    A similar “fallacy” existed in the pre-war meat trade in the United Kingdom. Animals “on the hoof” were weighed in stones of 14 pounds, but carcases that were ready to go to the butcher were sold by the stone of 8 pounds. The difference was meant to accommodate the weight of the head, innards, hoofs etc (which were sold separately).

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  15. When will the proposals be debated in Parliament? Appendix A of the document catalogues the recommendations. There are 92 recommendations in all, spread over 17 sections. One of these 92 recommendations deals with the Weights and Measures Act.
    Each of these recommendations will need to be debated separately and one of the issues in allowing traders to use imperial units is whether traders will be allowed to use pounds and decimals of a pound (in which case what is wrong with the metric system) or whether they will be required to use pounds, ounces and fractions of an ounce. Another issue is whether or not such devices should be dual scale or not.

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  16. Sadly GB is linked to the UK metric system due to the common market. Since Brexit we have the opportunity to restore some of the imperial system of measurement.
    It is pretty certain that the imperial system will eventually be replaced.
    The imperial system is what gave Britain its industry and made GB a worldwide leader of most things. However we are unable to go back.

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  17. Hello, Imperialyes. You said earlier that we were out of touch with the retail industry. Could you put us in touch? Could you also explain in a little more detail what you mean when you say that retail trade has declined due to metrication? What evidence can you present to support this?

    You say that customers come in with imperial orders. All the d.i.y. retailers that I deal with have the goods on display, and timber is invariably marked exclusively in metric. The customer selects and takes to the checkout. How does ordering in imperial come into this?

    Can you tell us a little about where you work? Is it something like a builders’ merchant, where there is little on display and goods are ordered at the trade counter? Does your firm advertise timber in imperial sizes?

    We would really like to know the answers to these questions. If metrication is indeed causing problems in some areas then we want to know about it.

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  18. @imperialyes: You wrote “The imperial system is what gave Britain its industry and made GB a worldwide leader of most things.” While it is true that at the start of the industrial revolution the English system of units was the best in the world, that ceased to be the case once the metric system was developed. The English system of units had the advantage over other systems of units that it was stable and widely used – in fact Russia adopted the English system in 1744. In contrast, in France the King’s system if units were only used for the King’s taxes – every other nobleman and merchant had his own system of units. That is why, during the French Revolution, one of the reforms that were instituted was an overhaul of the system of units.
    When the rest of Europe caught up with British industrialisation, they too wanted a system of units that was stable and widely used and the metric system met the bill. Furthermore, from 1875, the metric system was under international control, not French control. Finally, the Imperial Conference of 1902 passed a motion by a large majority requesting that the Empire adopt the metric system. In 1905 the British Parliament rejected the request as a means of tying in existing customers of British goods. Today, virtually all British manufactured goods that are exported are made to metric dimensions.

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  19. Martin said: “Today, virtually all British manufactured goods that are exported are made to metric dimensions.”
    Unless English industry has a dual production system for making metric goods for the export market and imperial goods for the home market, I would say that all English goods, whether exported or not are designed and manufactured in metric.

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