Prices might not be right at the stores

Working out value for money on items such as apples can be very confusing
Working out value for money on items such as apples can be very confusing
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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Is there something rotten in how supermarket fruit and veg is being priced? In tough financial times many shoppers keep costs down by making sure they get value for money on every single purchase.

But some big supermarket chains are making this harder than it needs to be – and could be encouraging customers to pay more as a result.

Streetwise has been contacted by readers who have noticed a trend in some local supermarkets that is causing concern.

Where once they could buy their apples or bananas based on how much they cost per kilogram, now many products are only given a single price per item – seemingly in the interests of simplicity.

But the problem comes when you want to compare individual items with products sold as multi-packs, which might use completely different units of measurement.

Or when you want to know if pieces of fruit, which can be different in size, are better value than those offered by another retailer.

You can be left trying to work out online if a pack of Cox apples for £2 is better value than the same loose apples priced at 35p each or 2.20 per kg – without knowing how many apples are in a pack.

And how many people can work out if a pack of five Fairtrade bananas for £1 is better value than exactly the same loose product priced at 68p per kilogram?

But the issues with how some shops price their produce don’t end there.

A recent secret shopper survey by Which? magazine found other problems with unit pricing in supermarkets.

The unit price, although legally required on many items, can be very small and difficult to see. Some retailers also don’t give it when they should or fail to put it on promotions, such as multi-buy deals.

There is also the problem of different units of measurement being used for varieties of the same product, such as price per 100g and per kilogram.

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd says: ‘Unit prices should be a useful tool for people to compare food prices and choose the best-value product, which is crucial when we’re all looking to save money.

‘But we’ve found unclear and inconsistent use of unit prices across all the major supermarkets.

‘We want to see retailers and the government make urgent improvements so that consumers can compare like-for-like in the supermarket.

‘We’ll be investigating this issue further over the coming months, and we’re asking the public to help us name and shame the worst offenders.’

Streetwise consumer expert Richard Thomson says he agrees that inconsistent unit pricing, while perfectly legal, can all too often confuse customers.

He says: ‘Supermarkets who engage in this ploy make it difficult to compare prices and work out the cheapest and best value option.

‘And yes, it is a way of increasing profits simply because most people will not be bothered, or may not be able, to work out for example that four times 20p or £1 per kilo is the best buy without knowing how many units in a kilo.’

He adds: ‘Hopefully if enough people sign up to the Which? campaign we can put an end to this racketeering.’

Until the government does decide to regulate supermarket prices more forcefully, the best way not to get caught out is to get into the habit of searching for the unit price by weight.

This will also show you if you’re saving by buying more, because the old assumption that discounts come with bulk buying have also been tested in recent years.

Some supermarkets have even kept the price and packaging of goods like coffee the same while reducing the amount you actually get.

To support the campaign, visit which.co.uk/campaigns/food-and-health/supermarket-unit-prices and sign the online petition.