Sunday, 12 February 2012

Price labelling in Sainsbury's

On a recent trip to my local Sainsbury's I wanted to buy some bananas. Being cost conscious, I decided to use the price comparison labels to see which bananas were the cheapest, and how much extra I'd have to pay for organically-grown ones. There were three types of bananas, all clearly labelled with their price and a comparison price:
That's £1 for 5 bananas, so 20p per banana.
That's £1.50 for 5 bananas, which works out at £2 per kilogram. A simple piece of maths also shows these are 30p per banana (although I thought the idea of price comparison labels was that I shouldn't need to do the maths).
That's 52p per kilogram, or 24p per pound.

(Sorry about the quality of the photos - I took these on my elderly Nokia phone, and the camera wasn't brilliant before it spent several years knocking about in my pocket.)
OK, I can see the pack of five organically-grown bananas are dearer than the other two, but are the loose bananas cheaper or dearer than the pack of five, Fairtrade bananas?

I decided to e-mail Sainsbury's about this confusion. Ian McGaan, a Customer Manager, replied, stating:
Thanks for your email. I’m sorry you were unable to compare the prices of our loose and pre-packaged bananas when you shopped with us recently. I can certainly understand your disappointment, as it becomes difficult to tell which is the more cost effective.

Like all major retailers, we sell many of our products by weight, and others by unit. We recognise that our customers have different needs and preferences when shopping with us, and we try to offer as much choice as possible.

This is most obvious in the fruit and vegetable section. For example, you can buy our loose bananas per kilogram. These are weighed at the checkout and allow the customer to choose exactly how many bananas they wish to buy, along with the size. In this example, dependant on the size and weight of the bananas chosen, customers may pay more or less for their fruit.

We also sell a bunch of five Fairtrade bananas. Being packaged, these are more expensive than the loose bananas generally, but are sold by unit. In this case, the customer is assured that they will pay the same amount each time for five. This can be reasonably good value for customers who wish to purchase a specific number. This is also seen in our bags of organic bananas and basics varieties. We also sell products like eggs and biscuits by unit elsewhere in the store, where the customer is more interested in a specific quantity (for example, six large eggs) than an overall weight.

The other way in which we price our products occurs when we have a specific weight for the product as well as a unit price. This can be seen in the Honeyrose Bakery organic banana cake, which weighs 300g and costs £2.69. Because we have a set weight and price for this item, we can provide the customer with a comparison price, which in this case is £0.90/100g. This can be seen elsewhere in the store on most pre-packaged products.

I hope this explains things a little better for you. I'm grateful to you for taking the time to contact us. All customer feedback helps us to constantly improve both our products and services. We look forward to seeing you in store again soon.
So, while he starts by sympathising with my annoyance, he goes on to totally fail to answer my question!

I replied to Mr McGaan's e-mail, explaining how he'd not actually answer the point I was making and, after rather longer than previously, I received a reply which stated:
Thanks for your email. I’m sorry that I didn’t address your point about the comparison labels needing to use the same measurements so that customers can make an informed choice. I understand how important it is in these times to get the best value for money.

The law on how we display weights and unit prices is clearly defined and we follow it. We don't show the price per lb, it’s price per unit or price per weight. This feedback has been passed to the relevant department.

We’re grateful to you for taking the time to contact us. This helps us to improve the quality of the information we provide. We look forward to seeing you in store soon.
Two points caught my attention - while they follow the law on how they display their weight and unit prices, that doesn't answer my original point about how am I meant to compare the price of the pack of five bananas with the price of loose ones. I wondered if it was just fruit that was so confusing and checked labels carefully on my next shopping trip. I quickly found the confusion is even worse in some areas:

So Sainsbury's own cat treats are £1.19 for a pack of ten, or £23.80 per kilogram.

(OK, yes, I can see this works out at 11.9p per stick, but I still thought the idea was that I didn't have to do the maths.)

Alternatively, the Webbox ones are £1.05 for a pack of 6, or 17.5p per unit.
Here the two packs of the same brand aren't even consistently marked with both being £1.05 for a pack of six, but the ones on the left also being 17.5p per unit but the ones on the right being £35 per kilogram.
The other items is Mr McGaan's claim that "We don't show the price per lb, it’s price per unit or price per weight.". So why are the loose bananas shown as 24p per pound? The next time I went to Sainsbury's I took my camera round the fruit and veg department:
So, that's braeburn apples at 75p per pound.
Plums at £2.26 per pound.
Conference pears at 75p per pound.

Like bananas, pears could also be bought loose and in various packs and, once again, it was impossible to compare the price of all the different packs.
Bramley cooking apples at 60p per pound.

Overall, it seems to me the price comparison labels in Sainsbury's are almost deliberately misleading. But is this a big surprise? After all, supermarkets are always trying to get us to spend more of our money in their stores. However, I am disappointed that this piece of legislation - which was designed to help shoppers get the best deal - is being adhered to only as far as the letter of the law goes, and not in the spirit in which it was intended.

There are other supermarkets, but I generally only use Sainsbury's so I can't comment on whether Tesco, Morrisons and Asda actually manage to supply useful information.