Ounces And Pounds Foolish
By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2004; Page F01
It has always surprised me how lax retailers seem to be about pricing merchandise clearly, accurately and consistently. What could possibly matter more? How hard is it to have someone on staff regularly walk a store to find places where prices have been knocked off or never put up?
But there are even more subtle ways that pricing can be maddening, especially for the budget-watcher. Several readers have told me about their frustrations with "unit" pricing, because different brands of the same item can be priced in different measures. In addition to the sales price, for example, the price tag for one brand of orange juice might show the "price per ounce," while the tag for another brand of orange juice right next to it might list the "price per quart."
"That seems a deliberate attempt to foil the shopper's attempt to comparison-shop," wrote one reader.
But is it? In fact, retail experts say such discrepancies -- as when the scanner price doesn't match the shelf price -- are most often the result of simple sloppiness or lack of management attention, not a conspiracy to hide the true price difference between two competing brands.
Unit pricing is "one of those dumb things that's still done by manual data entry," said Mona Doyle, editor of the Shopper Report, a market research newsletter for the supermarket industry. One employee might enter the unit price for an item based on one measure, while the following week another worker might choose a different one.
But even if it's not a deliberate attempt to deceive, it certainly doesn't show a deliberate attempt to be clear. And that is the real problem.
Larger retailers are required to list unit prices, but the unit of measure they use is generally left up to them; there are only a handful of states that specifically dictate which measures must be used. New Jersey, for example, mandates that the unit price always be by the pound on cheese, by the quart on mouthwash and per 100 count on plastic bags.
Because retailers are usually the ones making the decisions on this issue, different chains may well choose different measurements for whole categories of goods. At Safeway in the Washington area, yogurt is priced per ounce, while Giant Food prices its yogurt per pound. On laundry detergent, Safeway gives the unit price per pound, while Giant gives the detergent price per load.
But even if a chain largely uses one particular measure, inconsistencies are easy to find. At Giant last week, for example, Nesquik flavored milk was $1.65 for a 16-ounce bottle, or $3.30 a quart. But right next to it, the competing container of Hershey's Creamy Chocolate Milk in a 14-ounce bottle was $1.59 and 11.3 cents an ounce. Nearby, three kinds of whipping cream had three different unit-price measures: per pint, per ounce and per quart.
"It's definitely human error," said Jannet Tenney, manager of nutrition programs for Giant, who added that "ketchup to ketchup should be comparable" when it comes to listing unit prices.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company