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Price display by unit of measurement: useful for the consumer?

Grocery shopping is no simple task. With an average grocery store's inventory of nearly 30,000 different products, consumers must make hundreds of choices in order to select the foods they will consume. Price remains one of the most influential factors in consumer choice.

For some forty years now, legislative measures have been in place in the U.S. to make it compulsory to display the price per unit of measurement, which facilitates price comparison by reducing it to a standard base unit (i.e. $0.49/100ml).

In Canada, the display of price per unit of measure is only regulated in Quebec. Elsewhere, it remains a voluntary measure. The data gathered in this research report demonstrate the interest of this tool for consumers, and even its impact on consumer choices at the time of purchase.

With this in mind, we recommend the introduction of a mandatory unit price display system across Canada. This should be accompanied by education and communication activities to inform consumers, especially those who find it more difficult to compare prices (seniors, young people and allophones).

More specifically, we are formulating recommendations on the regulatory provisions to be favored for an effective framework serving consumers. The aim of these provisions is to standardize labelling, while promoting legibility and intelligibility. These recommendations apply to both Quebec and Canada, and could in the short term be reflected in a standard governing the display of price per unit of measurement.

To arrive at these recommendations, we took a three-step approach. First, we measured Canadian consumers' understanding of, interest in and knowledge of unit price display through a survey. Next, we conducted a comparative legal analysis, highlighting trends and best practices found in legal texts. Finally, we analyzed commercial practices related to price-per-unit display in Quebec and Ontario, and measured the quality of shelf labels on some 15 banners.

Our survey highlighted consumer interest in unit price display. It also showed that Canadians who were aware of it tended to use better strategies for choosing items offering the best quantity-price ratio. Comparative legal analysis has shown us the great diversity of legal provisions in effect elsewhere. These provisions aim to provide consumers with better information by establishing standards designed to standardize information and its presentation.

At the same time, they are pragmatic, seeking to avoid unnecessarily burdening retailers, especially the smaller ones. Finally, the field survey enabled us to assess the quality of price display per unit of measure at various retailers. By quality, we mean the intelligibility and legibility of the information conveyed to consumers.

Our survey revealed a number of weaknesses in the display of price per unit of measure in both Quebec and Ontario, which prevent consumers from making optimal price comparisons. These weaknesses relate to label format and design, and the way information is presented on the label. In many cases, retailers can easily remedy the situation.