As in other areas, successive Governments’ approach to metric conversion in retailing has been piecemeal rather than comprehensive, relying on voluntary action where possible, and they have lacked the will to make a decisive and effective change. Thus, for example, petrol has been sold in litres since the early 1980s, yet it is still illegal to dispense draught beer in litres. Compulsory metric labelling was introduced for pre-packaged goods between 1975 and 1995, but not until 2000 did price labelling and weighing or measuring of “loose goods” in metric units become a statutory requirement. Enforcement of the law has been patchy, with some local authorities appearing to turn a blind eye to open defiance by market traders. Meanwhile, some major retailers have sought a competitive advantage by exploiting loopholes in the law to continue to give prominence to imperial pricing and labelling, especially in their advertising.

Thus, although considerable progress has been made, much remains to be done.

UKMA believes that inter alia the following measures are needed in order to achieve completion of the metric conversion in retailing:

  • The existing law on price marking and weighing/measuring loose goods at the point of sale should be enforced. This could require central government intervention where local authorities fail to act.
  • Metric units should be mandatory in the advertising of goods offered for sale – e.g. “white goods”, furniture, clothes.
  • Dispensing of draught beer and cider should be permitted in convenient metric measures – either alongside or as an alternative to traditional pints. (This was in fact foreshadowed in the 1972 White Paper (Department of Trade and Industry, 1972, paragraph 111), but never implemented. Whether pints should eventually be phased out completely is a further option for consideration, but is not an immediate priority)
  • Similarly, product descriptions in instruction manuals should be required to use metric units (with the option of a supplementary indication).
  • UKMA also considers that the requirement to display “unit prices” (i.e. prices per kg or per litre etc) for pre-packaged goods is essential to consumer protection, as it enables consumers to compare value for money of packages of differing sizes and thus makes it more difficult for manufacturers and retailers to disguise price increases by changing the packaging. However, there are broad exemptions for market traders and “small shops” (those with less than 280 m2 of floor space, which is not particularly small). UKMA wishes to see these loopholes closed.