Making Unit Pricing More Consumer Friendly

Savvy shoppers often look at the "per-unit" price of an item to determine if they are getting the best bang for their buck. Unfortunately, the per-unit price often works against them and may provide confusing or even incorrect information.

Anna McAlister, assistant professor in the Department of Advertising + Public Relations, is part of a team of industry representatives, consumer groups and academics commissioned by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, to draft a Unit Pricing Guide that offers a set of recommendations to make per-unit pricing more consumer friendly.

"The problem is that per-unit pricing is often not consistent from store to store or even within a single store," McAlister said. "And sometimes the information they provide is just plain wrong."

The guide provides information about the best practice requirements for unit pricing of pre-packaged commodities and includes recommendations to improve the accuracy and usability of unit pricing information. One goal of the guide is to provide uniformity across all states and types of stores.

For the guide, McAlister conducted research to determine what was missing from unit-pricing labels and how to correct it.

"Until our team started working on these projects, no one had been doing any research on the layout of unit-pricing labels," McAlister said. "Data was needed before anyone could publish a best-practice guide."

The major problems with unit pricing include inconsistency with some items having a per-unit price while others don't, signage that is difficult to read, and inaccuracies in per-unit price.

One way unit pricing can be more user friendly is to have consistency in how prices are presented on labels.

"The retail price should be on the left, while the per-unit price should be on the right," McAlister said. "It only makes sense, as we read from left to right."

Using a consistent font size and ensuring that numbers are readable are other ways to make it easier.

"What we're saying is the block in which the unit price is displayed should have ‘maximum contrast,'" McAlister said. "We recommend black on white or other combinations such as black on yellow."

Obviously, changes that make unit pricing more readable are helpful to the consumer. And while it may initially nibble at a retailer's profit, in the long run it will pay dividends for the business.

"Consumers like it," McAlister said. "Yes, it's labor intensive for the stores. But the payoff can be increased brand loyalty and a better relationship with the customer."

Some states require per-unit pricing, while others, including Michigan, do not. The guide is designed to assist retailers in states that do not require unit pricing but who want to provide that service for their customers.