Thursday, 31 January 2013

How much does it cost?

First printed in Consumer News Namibia magazine - Jan 2013 edition

As I spend most of my year living on a guest farm, I very rarely have to buy anything other than my sins of cigarettes and alcohol. I have for some time been complaining about the prices of these items, but accept this as a burden I must bear for using them.

This past week however, I had to make purchases for the farm shop. Great was my concern when I could not work out the unit prices. By this I mean the items were not marked per litre or per kilogramme but only showed a price for the item whether it was packed in 200g, 375 litre or even more ridiculously, per 180g. Now how must I compare the prices between products if they are all packed in different sizes?

I believe, consumers can gain major benefits when unit prices are provided and are easy to notice, read and use. If a shop owner can show this together with an item’s selling price, it will increase price transparency and competition. But without pressure from consumers – retailers and governments rarely do anything to provide, or improve, unit pricing.

This is why more consumer organisations and consumers themselves should campaign for grocery retailers to provide best practice grocery unit pricing – price per standard unit of measure (per kg/litre/each, etc.) – for pre-packaged food and other grocery items.

The main benefit for the Namibian consumer is that unit prices allow us the opportunity to have value comparisons, including those between package sizes, brands, product types, package types, packaged/unpackaged products, and between ‘special offers’ and regular prices. (I always joke and refer to these as Omo and Surf issues – in other words we are used to buying a certain product regardless of price, but these days we all need to be more price conscious). The unit prices of the same product and of similar and substitute products are often big.

So we as consumers can use unit prices to get much better value for money and this can result in a very big saving and substantially reduce our total expenditure on groceries. For most consumers, especially the poor, and underpaid, food and grocery products account for a high proportion of total expenditure. Therefore, the benefits resulting from using unit price information can be significant for these and many other consumers.
Unit pricing also saves the shopper from spending time calculating unit prices themselves and helps them to spot hidden price increases when, as is common, the amount in the package is reduced but the selling price is not.

Personally, I was surprised when buying chocolate for a special friend to notice how much smaller the packaging is from when I last bought. At first I thought I was just remembering wrong from twenty years ago, but on closer examination I found chocolate bars are not only more expensive, but they are packed in smaller amounts as well.

Previously, in this column and on national television, I have complained about the lack of consumer laws and this must also be addressed as an important issue within this context. However, I also believe consumer organisations such as Namibia Consumer Trust, Consumer Lobby or the Facebook interest and lobby groups such as the Namibia Consumer Protection Group can play an important role in persuading supermarkets to provide unit prices voluntarily.

After all, even the retailer must understand their own cost price in this explosion in the number of package sizes used by manufacturers. (This retailing revolution has also occurred, or is occurring, in many other countries, especially developing countries where consumer laws are less than adequate.)

If we look around the world we can see some success. In Europe, pressure from consumer groups resulted in the compulsory provision of unit prices, initially only in several Scandinavian countries, and then in each of the 27 member nations of the European Union. In 2009, the provision of grocery unit pricing became compulsory in Australia after a long and hard-fought consumer campaign.

I wonder is this will work in Namibia?

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