Consumer watchdog misses metric opportunity

BBC Radio 4 has missed a golden opportunity to to do some real consumer education and help shoppers to obtain value for money by understanding and using “unit pricing” – i.e. prices per kg, litre, metre, etc.

On Thursday, 14 December, BBC Radio 4’s flagship “You and Yours” programme dealt with a recent report by the National Consumer Council (NCC) on public perceptions of Weights and Measures law, including an interview with its Deputy Chief Executive, Philip Cullum, who was joint author of the report.

The report, “Measuring up”, suggests that fixed sizes for packets and cartons are unnecessary, and consumers would not miss them if they were abolished. For example, jam and honey have to be packaged in the UK in multiples of 57 g (equivalent to 2 imperial ounces), so the more logical 400 g or 500 g sizes are banned from shops (unless they are imported!). The researchers found that most packers and consumers would be happy to see these restrictions abolished (as, incidentally, proposed by the European Commission).

However, what the BBC programme failed to say was that, if fixed sizes (or “prescribed quantities” (PQs) as they are known in the jargon) are abolished, then it is essential that consumers have another method of comparing value for money. For example, if you haven’t got a pocket calculator with you, how would you compare, say, a 454 g jar of honey at £1.78 with a 600 g jar at £2.30? The answer, of course, is “unit pricing” – that is, the obligation to show the price per kg or litre (or 100 g or 100 ml as appropriate) on the shelf label.

Unit pricing not understood and little used

Unfortunately, as the researchers showed, fully two thirds of consumers participating in the discussion groups either did not understand or did not use the unit prices in small print at the bottom of price labels. Moreover, only larger supermarkets and superstores (over 280 m² floorspace) are required to provide this information. The result is that most consumers will have no way of deciding which jar of honey is better value for money (leaving aside questions of quality).

If PQs are to be abolished (which they probably will because the EU will ultimately make the decision), then it will be the responsibility of the Government and consumer organisations to publicise and explain unit pricing so that consumers are better equipped to deal with all the ruses employed by manufacturers, packers and retailers to conceal the true cost of what they are selling. The Government should also reconsider whether the 280 m² floorspace limit is far too high (It may be onerous for a small corner shop – less than 100 m² – to have to unit price every item, but there is no reason why medium sized high street shops belonging to national chains should be exempt).

No mention of the metric/imperial muddle

Of equal concern is the fact that the NCC report carefully avoided raising what is perhaps an even greater problem – the continuing failure of the authorities to enforce the unit pricing of “loose goods” (i.e goods sold to order from bulk and not pre-packed – such as vegetables, meat and fish). Thus, six years after it became compulsory to show the price per kg or litre, many small businesses and market traders still display prices exclusively in obsolete imperial measures such as “lbs”, “st” or “fl oz”, and many local authorities appear to turn a blind eye. This obviously makes it difficult to compare prices and hence value for money as between the street market and the supermarket.

The BBC’s mission statement is “to inform, educate and entertain”. The “You and Yours” programme makers may have thought it entertaining to ridicule the soft target of the current PQ rules, but they failed in their responsibility to inform or educate the consumer.