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March 23, 2015

Making retail unit pricing more consumer friendly

Savvy shoppers will often look at the “per unit” price of an item to figure out if they are getting the best bang for their buck. Unfortunately the per-unit price often works against them, providing confusing or even incorrect information.

A Michigan State University advertising and public relations faculty member is part of a team that has come up with 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,” said Anna McAlister. “And sometimes the information they provide is just plain wrong.”

McAlister is a member of a team of industry representatives, consumer groups and academics commissioned to draft a Unit Pricing Guide for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Her role was to conduct the basic research to determine what was missing 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 were needed before anyone could publish a best-practice guide.”

The major problems with unit pricing: Inconsistency – “some items will have a per-unit price while others won’t,” McAlister said; signage that is difficult to read; and sometimes inaccuracies – the per-unit price is in error.

So how can unit pricing be more user friendly? For starters, consistency in how the prices are presented on the label.

“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.”

Also making it easier is a consistent font size – a minimum of six millimeters, or about a quarter inch – as well as ensuring the numbers are readable.

“What we’re saying is the block in which the unit price is displayed should have ‘maximum contrast,’” she 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.

To view the guide, visit


By: Tom Oswald

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