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CHOICE survey: Shoppers use unit pricing to combat rising grocery bills

Unit pricing can help you make your food budget go further, but many of us are not getting the most from this system.

person shopping in the dairy aisle of supermarket
Last updated: 30 January 2023


Checked for accuracy by our qualified fact-checkers and verifiers. Find out more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Need to know

  • A CHOICE survey reveals 80% of people who are aware of unit pricing use it regularly to save at the supermarket 
  • But many people still have trouble because of the way supermarkets display unit pricing information 
  • Choosing supermarket own brands and looking for special offers are also seen as ways to get more value in your grocery shop 

Households around the country are feeling the pinch as grocery costs continue to rise, and experts are predicting further increases.

In the 12 months to September 2022 the cost of fruit and vegetables rose 16.2%, bread and cereal products rose by 10% and the price of meat and seafood increased by 7.3%. 

All of that of course adds up to a larger food bill. And as we look for ways to save money, scanning the shelves for the cheaper products, our eye is easily drawn to sales promotions, or regular prices displayed prominently. 

But it's the smaller text underneath those prices, the text that tells us the cost per 100g, for example, that will really help us find the best deal.

Does unit pricing really help shoppers?

The short answer is yes.

Unit pricing was introduced in 2009 to help people find the cheapest option when shopping at large supermarkets (supermarkets of more than 1000 square metres and online stores are required to provide unit prices for packaged grocery items).

The unit pricing code, enforced by the ACCC, requires that the unit price must be prominent, in close proximity to the selling price, legible and unambiguous.

In our recent survey of 1008 grocery shoppers we asked them to look at product images and tell us which one was the best value for money.

When shown images without unit pricing, only 60% of shoppers picked the best value product. When unit pricing was included, that jumped to 74%.

Shoppers feeling the pinch turn to unit pricing

When prices are rising, unit pricing comes into its own. Our survey found that in the last six months many Australians are using unit pricing to help them get a better deal at the supermarket. 

When asked how they were reducing their grocery spending, comparing unit pricing was one of the top answers, with 44% of shoppers using this tool to find the best deal.

The survey also found that comparing unit prices was considered one of the best ways to get the best value for money. 

When asked what they thought was the best way to get value for money in their grocery shopping, 23% of respondents chose comparing unit prices as their preferred option. 

Choosing items on sale was the most popular option (38%) and the third most popular was buying own brand products (20%).

44% Australian shoppers are using unit pricing to reduce their grocery spending.

When asked the best way to get value for money when grocery shopping:

  • 38% say choosing items on sale
  • 23% say unit pricing
  • 20% say buying supermarket own-brand products

Shoppers still too dazzled by sales prices

That more people think choosing items on sale is a better way to get value for money than unit pricing is a cause for concern, says consumer advocate Ian Jarratt.  

"Unit pricing is the only tool that covers all of the many value comparisons you want to make," says Jarratt, who has been researching and advocating on the provision of unit pricing for nearly 20 years.

"Simple rules of thumb, such as buying special offers, or the supermarket rather than the national brand, the biggest size, loose not packaged, frozen not fresh et cetera, don't work as well because the results aren't consistent. That's why unit pricing is so important."

Unit pricing is the only tool that covers all of the many value comparisons you want to make

Consumer advocate Ian Jarratt

But still, he's heartened by the inroads unit pricing has made with shoppers. 

"Given the amount of advertising of products on sale, it's quite remarkable that comparing unit prices is still considered to be one of the best ways to get value," says Jarratt. 

"If unit pricing was promoted even half as much as those special offers, it would be even more popular and consumers would get more benefits."

The weekly supermarket shop seems to get more expensive each time we hit the checkout. 

 The difficulties shoppers face using unit pricing

Encouragingly, 80% of shoppers who are aware of unit pricing use it regularly. And almost everyone who uses it (97%) finds it useful.

However, problems do remain, with shoppers telling us there were a range of reasons why unit pricing was difficult to use. 

When shopping instore, a shocking 71% say they had encountered issues with the unit pricing provided. 35% tell us that the unit price was not always displayed, 34% say it was difficult to read for reasons such as the text being too small, and 31% say it was obstructed or covered up by another label.

97% of shoppers who use unit pricing find it helpful.

But 71% have also had problems using it in supermarkets:

  • 35% say the unit price was not always displayed
  • 34% say unit pricing text was difficult to read
  • 31% say unit pricing was obstructed or covered by another label

'Supermarkets need to make it easier'

According to Jarratt, the barriers shoppers face trying to use unit pricing is a big issue. 

"Why do we tolerate this high level of problems? Supermarkets make sure you can read the selling price of a product, yet the unit price is the only one they are required by law to display prominently and legibly," he says.

"Supermarkets need to make it much easier for consumers to notice, read, understand and use the unit prices. They should be prominent and legible wherever the product is displayed, whether that's on the top, middle or bottom shelves. That might mean greatly increasing font size and angling labels out if they're on upper or lower shelves. 

"There also needs to be greater consistency in the units of measure used for the unit prices," he says.

Online shopping has its own challenges

It isn't just instore shoppers that experience difficulties with unit prices on groceries. 

One in four online shoppers who use unit prices find it difficult to compare products of interest side-by-side, and one in five were unable to sort or search by the lowest unit prices. 

Plus, nearly a third had problems caused by the use of different units of measure to show the unit price for the same type of product.

Jarratt says that given many consumers now shop for all or part of their groceries online (43% according to our survey) these high levels of problems are completely unacceptable and need to be fixed quickly.

43% of respondents shop for all or part of their groceries online.

But of those who tried to use unit pricing when shopping online:

  • 25% found it difficult to compare products side-by-side
  • 20% were unable to sort or search by the lowest unit prices
  • 33% found different units of measure were used to show the unit price for the same type of product

How to report misleading unit pricing

If you think a price display is misleading, the ACCC advises that the first step should be to contact the business to explain the problem. 

If that doesn't work you can report misleading behaviour to the ACCC.

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.