A Weighty (and Measury) Subject: When the Customer Isn’t King

Earlier this week, I decided to spend my lunch hour in one of the local pubs near the office where I work, and get a spot of writing done. After a pint of Cropton Brewery’s Two Pints, I was on a roll. I was getting tight on time, and didn’t want to go fall asleep at my desk during the afternoon, so opted for a half. The blackboard behind the bar listed the ales priced by the pint. So, at £2.90 a pint, a half should be….
    ‘That’s £1.50 please.’
    Huh? I never was especially strong in mathematics, but I can manage basic mental arithmetic. I didn’t say anything, just handed over the money and returned to my writing. It wasn’t a big deal, after all. Just five measly pence, in fact.
    Back at work, I thought over it some more. And the more I thought, the more it irritated me. In the first instance, why should purchasing half of something cost more than half of the whole? Pubs purchase beer by the barrel (ok, by the firkin or kilderkin); it contains the same amount no matter how the divide it out in terms of units, and the contents will therefore realise the same amount at retail whether the beer is dispatched in whole or half pints, by my reckoning. Granted, a 5p mark-up on each half sold is neither here nor there when it’s a matter of a few drinks, and I understand that many pubs are struggling and need every sale they can get, and if that means an extra 5p here or there, then, well, ok. But… I can’t help but feel that responsible drinkers are being penalised. I mean, I get the deal with supermarkets selling smaller quantities of things at a higher price by weight: there’s the whole issue of shelf space and packaging costs… but a barrel’s the same size. Buying by weight – or volume – should mean that a smaller quantity doesn’t affect the retail price.
    I know this practice isn’t illegal, but it hardly seems consumer friendly, and, moreover, there is legislation in place that states that prices must be clearly displayed. By my reckoning, failing to clearly show on the price list that a half pint costs more than half the price of a pint – by only showing the price per pint – falls foul of this. Ok, so I’m a pedant. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing….
    The next day, on my way home from work, I called by a local greengrocer’s. I was giving myself a night off real cooking and was going to sling a frozen pizza in the oven. Given that the toppings on these things are so meagre, I like to add a few bits. I’m a vegetarian, and I like mushrooms, and in my opinion, no pizza is complete without come mushrooms on top. I didn’t want many, though, so just put a couple in a bag while the shopkeeper reorganised some of the other baskets of vegetables around the shop.
    I then placed the brown paper bag on the counter. And waited. Two minutes elapsed before she stopped rearranging the pears and came to the till.
    ‘What’s in there?’ she asked, picking up the bag.
    ‘Mushrooms,’ I told her.
    As if she didn’t believe me (what else would I have put in one of the paper bags that sit with the mushrooms? A (very small, light) kohlrabi? A light, spongy piece of ginger? Well, it’s possible: much of the produce in this shop is clearly several days old and a little past its freshest best. Something really expensive, like a whole heap of saffron or vanilla pods, that I was trying to sneak out cheaply under the guise of a couple of mushrooms?), she proceeded to unravel the bag and peer inside.
    ‘I can’t just sell you two mushrooms,’ she said. ‘I can’t do business like that.’
    As far as I could tell, she wasn’t doing much business at all. I was the only person in the shop, and it was half an hour before closing. She had a choice: stick the bag on the scales and sell me two mushrooms at the price the scales and her pricing dictated, or not, and have two more mushrooms sitting there, shrivelling away, overnight. She could take my money, or leave it. There are, after all, other greengrocers. I just try to support small independent businesses where I can, especially when they’re conveniently located. Plus, I prefer to but fresh produce loose and by weight, rather than buy a sackload more than I need (which invariably results in needless waste) and put more unnecessary packaging into landfill. 
The point of selling produce by weight is that the consumer is charged according to how much of something they buy (or how large it is); thus, three large onions cost more than three tiny onions. Presumably the retailer purchases produce from the wholesaler by weight, and prices said produce accordingly, in such a way as to make an proportional mark-up on the overall weight of the items they have purchased to then sell on.
    ‘Right.’ I was rather at a loss for words.
    ‘I just can’t,’ she said, tossing the paper bag disdainfully onto the scales. ‘You have to buy quarter of a pound.’
    Right. Just because something is priced by the quarter doesn’t mean it’s not possible to sell part quarters. More to the point, nowhere did it say ‘minimum quantity ¼ lb.’ or anything to that effect, in the way that many shops have a minimum card transaction, and on-line retailers have a minimum order value. However, there’s a reason for this. Potatoes, for example, are generally priced by the pound or kilogram: there’s nothing to say a consumer can’t purchase a half pound of spuds loose (and in season, a half-pound of potatoes will cost less than my two mushrooms… hell, a pound would!). If I wanted a chunk of ginger for a stir-fry, there’s no way I’d be buying more than a fraction of an ounce, around, say, 15 pence worth. I often go to the market on a Saturday and ask for a couple of medium onions, a couple of carrots, and, hell, I’ve even asked for half a dozen sprouts. The traders may smile at me or look at me in a strange or bemused fashion, but they always stick them on the scales then put them into my bag and charge according to the weight of those onions, carrots, sprouts.
    For the record, it isn’t as though I only ever go in and buy two mushrooms every now and again: I often stop in on my way home from work and spend a couple of quid or so, sometimes even five or six. I’ll concede it’s hardly big money, but the thing is, the products greengrocers sell aren’t exactly high value. As a consequence, they must obviously rely on a high volume of small sales rather than a smaller volume of larger ones. No-one goes into a greengrocers and spends thirty quid.
      It isn’t that I can’t see her point: tiny transactions are a pain. But unlike processing a credit card transaction for less than the amount the bank would charge to process it, my two piddly mushrooms weren’t costing her anything to process, and my being there wasn’t preventing anyone else from being served with a more lucrative purchase.
     ‘That’s 22p. But you’ll have to buy a quarter of a pound next time. It’s just not worth my while.’
     ‘D’you understand?’
     Not content with giving me grief, she had to patronise me too, to speak to me like I was retarded, just to complete the humiliation, just to make her point. I felt thoroughly chastised, and rather embarrassed. I was tempted to proffer the scenario that I might have been buying two very large mushrooms, weighing in at a quarter of a pound each (ok, it’s unlikely, but I’m thinking in purely hypothetical terms): what then? Or, as often happens, there are only a couple of mushrooms left in the box? I was similarly tempted to say ‘fuck you, you can keep your two lousy mushrooms, I’ll take my 22p and spend it in a store that wants it.’
     I didn’t, of course. I’m far too polite and respectful for that. Instead, I handed her the correct change, and hissed, ‘Yes,’ through clenched teeth.
Because she was right. She can’t do business like that. Certainly not with me, because I won’t be going back any time soon.
You see, the customer might no longer be king, but they do have choices. She hasn’t just lost herself another 22p in a few days; she’s lost all of my future custom, and over the years, it could add up. Irritate enough people, and the odd few pence or few quid lost son becomes a big chunk of the takings. So I’ve made my choice, and let’s see how the old bat likes them onions.


And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk

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