Why It's So Hard to Figure Out the Best Deals on Groceries
Inconsistent (or nonexistent) unit-pricing info makes it tough to compare food prices. But clearer labels may be on the way.
Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer
By David Sefcik, from “An Overview of Unit Pricing in the United States,” National Institute of Standards & Technology
Often the price tags on supermarket shelves are missing. Or they're not in the right place and show up under the wrong item. Or the labels are teeny, cluttered and lacking the always helpful (sometimes mandated) unit pricing information, such as how much the item costs per ounce.
The upshot: It's practically impossible to figure out which item is the best value.
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I know I'm not the only one with this type of complaint. Consider this recent post by author Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club) on her Facebook page:
UNLIKE: When did it become fashionable for grocery stores to not put price tags on packages? Does it mean, "If you have to ask, you can't afford it"? Is it a plot to sell high-profit goods? Isn't there a law on full disclosure of more than it being made of the best-darned good stuff? Today I made a downpayment on designer lentil soup. I am saving it for a special occasion.”
The Troubling Lack of Truth-in-Labeling
In an era where consumers can routinely find nutritional labeling on supermarket foods, it’s troubling that we can’t count on similar truth-in-labeling for prices.
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Three out of four shoppers use unit pricing for price comparisons when it’s available, according to the Food Marketing Institute, the supermarket industry trade group. Problem is, that info often isn't anywhere in sight, especially at the growing number of stores that sell food but aren't supermarkets.
I live in a Washington, D.C., suburb, where Target, for example, has no unit prices on the shelves for its products. Neither does my closest drugstore. As a result, I never can never see which item offers the best deal.
What Makes the Math Harder
To complicate the math even further, even when stores post unit prices, they often use different measurements for similar types of items — sometimes even for the same product.
Get this: At a local supermarket I visited, the unit price for assorted flavors of Lipton Tea was shown by the quart on some stickers, by the pound on others and per 100 tea bags in still others. At the same store, the unit price for most ice cream cartons was calculated by the quart, but a few packages showed prices per pound.
David Sefcik, the weights and measures coordinator at the federal National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which develops standards for unit pricing, found a similar mess when he surveyed unit prices at stores around the country in 2011. He discovered that unit-price formatting differed from store to store. The unit price was sometimes in bright colors on the top left of the sticker and sometimes in hard-to-read print on the bottom right. Sale items often lacked any price-comparison measure.
Why Unit Pricing Is a Flop
How did we get here and who's to blame?
This pricing confusion is probably not an intentional scheme by grocers to keep us from making wise choices.
Since the average supermarket stocks 40,000 items, it’s hard for stores to be accurate all the time. In addition, many different employees are entering unit-price data in each and every store. So the potential for error is huge.
Part of the problem is that 31 states — including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Texas — have no unit pricing laws or regulations in force, according to Sefcik. Of the 19 states with rules, only nine mandate unit pricing: Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont. The other states have voluntary guidelines.
Even when unit pricing is mandatory, enforcement is weak and many stores fail to post per-unit prices, as a recent investigation by the Salem, Ore. Statesman Journal discovered.
Grocery-Pricing Problems Have Mushroomed
Making matters worse, since many unit-pricing rules were written decades ago, they often apply only to food stores — not drugstores, dollar stores or mass merchants like Target, all of whom have significantly boosted their food offerings in the past few years.
Consequently, the product-comparison problem has mushroomed.
“Unit pricing has been a longstanding concern of the consumer movement since the 1960s,” says Chuck Bell, programs director for Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. “But we never completed the job we set out to do: a standardized system for unit pricing. That’s what we’re trying to do right now. We need to create some noise.”
A little help may be on its way. NIST is working with the food industry and consumer groups to develop a national unit-pricing standard for stores, albeit a voluntary one. “We hope to have a draft by the end of this year,” says Sefcik, who is spearheading the workgroup.
This standard would have great benefits since, as Consumer Reports recently explained, unit pricing is what “makes it easy to compare apples to apple slices."
What Consumers Can Do
What can you do to pump up the volume?
“Consumers should demand greater accuracy and consistency and uniformity from their retailers, manufacturers and state weights-and-measures officials,” says Sefcik. “You need to speak up” if you’re in a store with no unit pricing or poor labeling, he adds.
I plan to start complaining and hope you will, too. Since the new unit-price model that NIST is developing will be voluntary, the louder we speak up, the more likely stores will get behind it.
In the meantime, you pretty much need to rely on your calculator to compare prices.
So next time you find yourself debating between a two-pound bag of store-brand flour for $1.69 and a five-pound bag of Gold Medal selling for $3.29, do the math ($1.69 divided by two is 85 cents a pound; $3.29 divided by five is 66 cents a pound, so Gold Medal wins).
Thankfully, we can do that kind of math pretty quickly on our cell-phone calculators. Too bad we have to.
Do you have a pricing story to share? Please post below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.