Inadequate supermarket unit pricing increases cost of living pressures

New research shows that inadequate unit pricing in supermarkets makes it difficult for consumers to cope with cost of living pressures. Poor access to price per unit information stands in the way of shoppers saving substantial amounts of money by comparing the unit price of grocery items on which they spend over $80 billion a year.

Supermarket price tag showing unit pricing in fine print
This supermarket price tag displays the unit pricing in fine print. Photo: QCA

The national research covered supermarkets in Queensland, NSW, Victoria, and South Australia and found that far too often the unit price is:

  • too difficult to notice or read
  • not provided for some items/offers/classes of products
  • indicated with the wrong or an inconsistent unit of measure.

Big chains and independent supermarkets alike score badly

Substantial problems were found in supermarkets owned by some of the big chains and in independent supermarkets.

There were several types of problem at the big chains and at most the main one was many unit prices being insufficiently prominent or legible.

At the 25 independent supermarkets visited, all had unit prices insufficiently legible or prominent, in 76% unit prices were not provided for some items, and in 68% an incorrect unit of measure was used for some or all items of a product type.

These supermarkets also scored badly in relation to seven categories of unit pricing problems – the average store had four categories of problems and 20% had more than four.

Queensland consumers say unit pricing benefits economy

The research was undertaken by the Queensland Consumers Association (QCA) which lead the original campaign for compulsory unit pricing in Australia.

The results will be provided to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission which is responsible for monitoring and enforcing compliance with the federal code of conduct by the large supermarkets that are required to provide unit prices, and by supermarkets that provide unit prices voluntarily.

QCA spokesperson Ian Jarratt says “It is completely unacceptable that the quality of the unit pricing in so many supermarkets is still so poor over 4 years after the start of a system intended to allow easy comparison of prices and values.”

Jarratt says that it would not be difficult for efficient, customer-focused supermarkets to fix the problems and this would greatly increase consumer use of unit pricing and produce major benefits for consumers and the economy.

For example, exploratory QCA research on shelf labels shows that the unit price on the bottom shelves, where unit prices are a long way from the eye, are much easier to notice and read when the print is large and located under the selling price, and when the label is angled out.

But currently, the print used for the unit price on bottom shelf labels is not large enough in all supermarkets, in most the unit price is not located below the selling price, and in some these labels are vertical – not angled out.

Australian consumers should follow UK example

The UK also has problems with its compulsory unit pricing system. But, as a result of a consumer campaign and pressure from the government, most supermarket chains are voluntarily improving their unit pricing, and the need for legislative change is being looked at.

QCA says supermarkets and the government should follow the UK’s example and give Australian consumers a fair go by substantially improving the quality of the unit pricing provided in supermarkets.