Unit pricing could slash grocery bills

If you are anything like me, there's no way you're going to have the time, patience or math skills (I eat words, not numbers) to look at the packaging price and quantity of every item you buy at the supermarket, detective-like, and work out the best deal.

In Australia, supermarkets are required - by law - to make this easy for people. In 2009, grocery unit pricing, shown in conjunction with an item's selling price, became mandatory after a long and hard-fought consumer campaign.

But in New Zealand? Not so. Provision is voluntary and there are no minimum standards.

Ian Jarratt of the Queensland Consumers Association says New Zealand and Australia are "like chalk and cheese" when it comes to unit pricing.

He says improved unit pricing in New Zealand would allow consumers to make better-informed buying decisions and increase competition.

It would also give Kiwis - who are already struggling with high grocery prices - the ability to save "substantial" amounts of money.

Jarratt was in Christchurch last week and visited several supermarkets. At one supermarket, he found loose brussels sprouts for $5.99 per kg and a 500g pack for $4.59.

No unit prices were provided for packaged fruit and vegetables.

"If they had been provided, shoppers would have been able to see easily that the unit price [for the pack] was $9.18 per kg - 53 per cent more than the loose product," he says.

At another store, which provided unit prices for some packaged fruit and vegetables, loose fresh rosemary cost $9.99 per 100g. But in a 10g pack, it cost $3.79.

"The store provided the unit price for the pack, but it was expressed as $3.79 per 10g. So to compare the loose with the packed the shopper had to convert one unit price to the same unit of measure."

Jarratt says anyone who did that would have discovered that the packed product had a unit price of $37.90 per 100g - nearly four times the unit price of the loose product.

"Much of what I saw - lack of prominence and legibility, problems with unit prices not being provided at all and the use of more than one unit of measure for items in the same product line - results in the unit pricing often not being sufficiently consumer friendly," he says.

"Australia's unit pricing is not the best in the world, but New Zealand's is really very poor."

An investigation into unit pricing in New Zealand supermarkets in 2012 found "confusing" unit prices were costing consumers time and money and Consumer New Zealand researcher Jessica Wilson says not much has changed.

"We regularly go into supermarkets and have not seen much improvement at all. We don't think the unit pricing is good enough. If the unit pricing is not clear, it is very difficult to make price comparisons," she says.

"Generally when you are at the supermarket you are making decisions reasonably quickly. Probably quite a number of consumers are not aware that unit pricing information is there, because it's not very prominent."

Wilson says Consumer New Zealand wants regulation, like in Australia, because otherwise "there's no-one checking and there's no incentive for supermarkets to get it right. There are no requirements here in terms of prominence or legibility".

But major supermarket chains in New Zealand say they are already providing unit pricing - voluntarily - so regulation is unnecessary.

A spokeswoman for Progressive-owned Countdown says the chain has provided pricing on shelf tickets "for many years", which "shoppers find ... useful to help compare products of different weights or sizes".

"We don't get a lot of customer feedback about unit pricing and because of this we don't think a mandatory requirement is necessary at the moment," she says.

A spokeswoman for Foodstuffs NZ says its unit pricing system, brought in voluntarily in 2010, is based on the Australian code and "we believe it is working".

The introduction of mandatory unit pricing "would not really affect us", but "small businesses . . . may find the implementation costs of such an initiatives particularly onerous . . . as there are fairly significant costs involved".

Consumer Affairs Minister Craig Foss says he is reluctant to introduce mandatory unit pricing as "it would be too much of a burden for small stores that are doing their best to compete".

"I am aware that large organisations already do unit pricing. However, I appreciate some people may find the fonts too small to read easily."

The Press