Page last updated at 23:27 GMT, Sunday, 27 July 2008 00:27 UK

Italians dial up best food price

By Alka Marwaha
BBC World Service

Tomatoes
Italians don't mind paying more for home-grown produce

A text messaging service set up by the Italian government is helping its citizens to haggle on their high street.

The rising cost of food is a growing concern for many people across the world.

There have been protests, and even riots, in countries including Mexico, India and Egypt, clear evidence of the struggle that many people are now facing.

However, if Italians feel that their local food retailer is charging unreasonable prices, they can now call on a new service to help them haggle or walk away.

After a few seconds you will receive an SMS that will tell you the different prices in the different areas of Italy
Luca Di Maio,
Consumer Federation, Rome

Thanks to a short message service (SMS) text system set up jointly by the Italian agriculture ministry and consumer associations, shoppers can check the average price of different foods in northern, central and southern Italy.

With prices spiralling out of control in some parts of the world, some people feel that it is high time consumers could check just how much traders are profiting.

Luca Di Maio is a consultant for the Consumer Federation in Rome, and explains that the new system lets consumers type the name of the food product they want to price check into their mobile phone and send a free text message to a dedicated number.

"After a few seconds you will receive an SMS that will tell you the different prices in the different areas of Italy", he says.

Trading tomatoes

BBC reporter Emma Wallis from BBC World Service's Culture Shock programme decided to find out how much 2kg of tomatoes cost in a market in Rome.

She found that the wholesale price of a kilo of cherry tomatoes is 69 euro cents (54p).

Whereas the retail price in the north is 2.9 euros, in central Italy it is 2.8 euros, while in the south its 1.85 euros.

We are in a free market and consumers should be able to buy or not buy, or go around and check for better prices
Luca Di Maio

By contrast, for bigger tomatoes the wholesale price is 62 cents compared with 2.15 euros in the north, 1.85 euros in central and 1.50 euros in the south.

However, the tomatoes are bought by the wholesalers for only 22 cents a kilo from the farmers.

Mr Di Maio explains that the problem facing Italian shoppers is that there are a large number of traders and prices can vary hugely between them.

He explains that the price checking system is there to let the consumer know and understand the pricing dynamics of the market, and make a more informed choice.

"We are in a free market and consumers should be able to buy or not buy, or go around and check for better prices", he adds.

Dealer's prices

Emma Wallis hit the streets of Rome to find out how many people had actually heard about the new price checking service.


Markets are more efficient when you have got more information

Tom Standage,
Economist magazine

"I've heard about this line and I think it's a great idea" said one woman, adding that everyone puts the prices they feel like putting.

"If you stroll down this market for instance, there are courgettes for two euros, 2.5 euros and 1.5 euros, you never know which ones to choose", she adds.

Another woman explains that she would be interested in using the price checking service, but only in certain situations.

"I do my shopping pretty quickly but I do try and check prices when I can. But I trust this stall holder so I wouldn't really need it here," she says.

But she was not sure she would use the service for shops.

In perspective

According to Tom Standage, business editor at The Economist magazine, markets are more efficient when you have more information.

"If you are in a supermarket and there's a price for tomatoes and that's the only piece of information you have, you've got no idea whether you should be protesting by not buying it," he says.

He explains that for supply and demand to work at its best, consumers need to be able to compare different prices from suppliers on the spot, something the texting service and others like it should help make easier.

"There are even services where you can scan a barcode in with your mobile phone and it tells you how much the internet retailers are selling a particular product for," he says.

If a price is too high, people will not buy the product and the trader will have to drop it, he adds.

With many analysts warning that high food costs are here to stay, Italian consumer are unlikely to be the only ones hoping to find the High Street's best prices.


SEE ALSO
Q&A: Rising world food prices
11 Apr 08 |  Business
The cost of food: Facts and figures
29 May 08 |  Special Reports
Long era of cheap food is over
29 May 08 |  Business

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