In theory, unit pricing is supposed to make it easier for consumers to more fairly compare prices of different quantities. The practices of retailers and regulatory authorities have limited these benefits.
Unit pricing is the display of the price of a product at a standard unit of measurement adjacent to its selling price. Commonly grocery stores use it, in theory, to allow consumers to better compare the price difference between a 450 gram box of cereal and a 710 gram box of cereal, by showing the price of each box per a standard unit, such as 100 grams.
Widely introduced more than 40 years ago, it is not required by law in Canada, except in Quebec. Retailers in other jurisdictions provide unit pricing voluntarily, or not at all.
A report from the Consumers Council of Canada released earlier this year, concluded that retailers that use standardized unit pricing information stand to gain an advantage over those that do not by adopting standards-based pricing displays and educating customers about how to use the service. Unit Pricing: Time for a National Approach? noted that one persistent consumer complaint is about the lack of readability – the unit price information displayed is too small and often much less prominently presented than the basic price. Other common consumer complaints involve inappropriate units of measure as well as a lack of consumer awareness and understanding how to use the information.
The research included a survey of 2,000 Canadian consumers. Consumers use unit pricing to make informed choices, but “due to sporadic and unreliable retail practices” they often default to other methods to find the lowest prices. And those methods quite commonly are unreliable.
The report recommended that governments collaborate with retailers to explore better methods of delivering unit pricing to consumers, and that provincial ministries consider following Quebec’s lead and directly regulate price presentations.