/ Money, Shopping

If the full price tag’s a farce, what makes special offers special?

As food prices rise we’re all looking for bargains. But what if special offers aren’t all they seem and food was being sold at half price for weeks after only days at the higher price? Well that’s exactly what we’ve found.

We bought a basket of goods in Asda, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose every week for three months, as well as tracking wines online. Why? To see if special offers could mislead consumers.

We found strawberries, cherries and raspberries sold at half price, that we either never managed to buy at the “full” price or that were only at the higher price for a week. We also found a wine that was discounted for 12 weeks out of 14.

What’s so important about this is the way special offers affect our shopping habits. Nearly 60% of Which? members say that they swap items they were intending to buy for those on special offer. Certain types of special offers, such as multibuys, are also causing some of us to throw out food, which is a waste of money – and bad for the environment.

Pricing guidelines are too vague

So why are they allowed to do this? There are government guidelines intended to ensure any offers are a good deal. These say that an item should be at the higher price for 28 days before being on offer. And, overall, it shouldn’t be on offer for longer than it was at the higher price.

However, supermarkets don’t have to do either of these if they put up a sign explaining their offer, for instance ‘this was at the higher price for seven days’, or if something is going out of date. The rules also say that what’s reasonable will depend on the individual circumstances. This means that even offers we felt weren’t good enough were still potentially compliant with the rules.

I for one am certainly not going around the supermarkets after work reading the small print on shelf edges in order to work out if I think a special offer is a good deal. And I don’t think you should have to track the price of food week on week to work this out either.

What do you think? Do you think special offers are generally good value? Do you end up buying stuff you didn’t intend to?


There is a plethora of so-called offers or special offers that are really not quite genuine… the law on the requirement of there being an item sold at full price for whatever period is somewhat vague, ambiguous if not misleading…. an item need be offered for sale at FULL price at a mere small outlet of a supermarket chain for the requisite period to satisfy stipulated legal requirement and then have it rolled out nationally throughout their major stores trumpeted as an offer at half price or whatever, it having been sold at a higher price previously and as having apparently complied with the law.

Like I’ve said, I stick mainly to the German discounters, oriental/Asian supermarkets, market
stalls, greengrocers and occasionally Waitrose and Iceland for my residuary grocery needs not
already met, and yes, I almost forget, M&S, for the odd item or two of ‘quality’ stuff which is a bit cheaper there, would you believe.

BTW selling at full RRP is something retailers hardly ever do, least of all in present recessionary times.

It’s exactly the same with musical instruments. It’s a well known fact in the industry that you’re a bit thick if you pay the RRP.
I have never paid retail price for anything (drums, guitars, basses, amps, microphones, mixers, monitors) and realistically, you shouldn’t really do the same for food, it’s just that it is a small purchase and so we care less about it.

RRP means Recommended Retail Price, stores can charge whatever they want in order to try and win business off their competitors

Most major supermarkets now has a price match/guarantee and unless you love wadding through all the small print online, it would be better to have a uniform policy or just keep it simple in the first place without silly limits.

How about the supermarkets website not always offering the same deals as in store? If the offers were only in several stores nationwide, then the login process should still apply those offers. I feel this is a grey area because of the warehouse location. Another issue is having 2-for-1 offers on for fresh items but expiring in 2-3 days time.

Even when the supermarkets have good offers on, there is sometimes a limit on the amount of items you can buy, or if there is a mistake as in the chocolate oranges error by Tesco’s, they call you in if you just so happen to use your Loyalty card as noted by some in various forums. Plus, there’s always deals on unhealthy snacks – which has continued for several years – and they rarely do deals on fresh fruit and veg. People really are struggling to get by and saying no your children on all those offers isn’t easy.

It seems that these deals are too good to be true most of the time, unless you’ve got a smartphone to compare products – phone signal permitting – there isn’t a fair way to find out how good/bad special those offers actually are. If you at work all day and checked online in the morning for the best store to get your shop from, by the late-afternoon those prices/offers can change.

And I am sometimes tempted by offers, but only on items on offer I would usually get such as pop or meat. More often than not I think better of it and stick to my shopping list – this makes sure I’m not as tempted.

Daphne Smallman says:
26 October 2011

I have been purchasing Tesco’s strawberries throughout the summer season at £3.99 – half price £1.99. Irrespective of whether they were ever on offer at £3.99, or for how long, I feel it wrong that at the height of the strawberry season, when supplies were plentiful and prices much lower, they were still stating the basic price to be £3.99. If, at the height of the strawberry season they were still buying at price of £3.99, surely they were buying in the wrong market or they needed to replace their marketing manager!! The price would not have remained at £3.99 when strawberries were in season and plentiful.
I did take this matter up with Trading Standards and they were looking into it but don’t know if they got anywhere with it.

Best wishes, Daphne Smallman

Whilst shopping at Tesco on Friday 28 October I noticed strawberries at £2.49 for 300 grams.
The pack size has shrunk from 400grams. Yet the price label states the product is £6.23 per Kilo.
Yes it was for 400 grams but at 300 grams it is now £8.30 per Kilo.
Is there not a legal issue here?

It would be good if someone took action against Tesco for mis-labelling products, and I wonder how many other offences they would ask to be taken into consideration. 🙂

Why are labels not computer generated to avoid these errors? We are in the 21st century now.

Dodgy Geezer says:
19 August 2013

Congratulations to the late Daphne Smallman, who has now passed on, but whose actions have managed to achieve a conviction for Tescos over this scam…

Dave Max says:
19 August 2013

This would have been a glorious day for you, Daphne. Your tenacity paid off and Tesco have today been fined £300000 with £65000 costs for misselling strawberries. It is a great shame that you did not live to see your victory. RIP

Graham Cartwright says:
19 August 2013

This has been going on for years. How can a supermarket talk about “Half Price” on seasonal products whose price should naturally fall during the season.

Deception is unfortunately a common retail tactic and the large supermarkets are worse than most. Let’s all stay loyal to Daphne’s approach and get onto our Trading Standards when we see simiolar things happening

Klsuper says:
19 August 2013

A Victory day for u !!
RIP Daphne

Yes, here’s to Daphne. We’ve written about this story in a new Convo, featuring Daphne’s comment and victory: https://conversation.which.co.uk/energy-home/tesco-fined-misleading-strawberry-special-offer-birmingham-trading-standards-daphne-smallman/

Yes, we have experienced exactly what you point out about pricing ruses. Additionally, we have found that special on half pack often do not compete with full packs. For example: 250 gm butter on special at £1.50, when you can buy 500 gm in the same brand for £2.80. Then there are the items that are advertised as specials but have not had the price changed in the computer that drives the check-out. How many people pay up without noticing? Also, the misleading placement of shelf tickets sometimes gives the impression that an item is cheare than it really is. One of my pet hates is slow re-stocking of depleted items. I do not drive to a supermarket to come away empty handed.

Why are we offered “Buy one get one (sometimes two) free!” Why not cut the price in half or to a third, and let everyone enjoy a cheaper shop.
Those on a fixed income such as our old folk on a pension could then benefit from a few extra bargains.
As for utility tariffs, god only knows.
I doubt if a professor of small print could work out the best deal for the him/herself, the average person has little or no chance.

We shop mainly at Lidl and Aldi. We like to support local traders, local farmshops, and the local market for fresh fruit and veg in season. Also we love our local Country Market (used to be W.I. Markets). We use a local butcher for most of our fresh meat. We are pensioners so we belong to an age where thrift was important in the family budget. It’s amazing how far we can stretch our pension and still enjoy the best. I tend to ignore the two for one, or whatever. The scams just irritate me.

Morrisons and Co-op seem to have a bizarre logic regarding ‘deals’ and we frequently see something, for example buy-one-get-one-free on a half-litre olive oil costing much more than a 1 litre bottle at normal price. People actually fall for it!

Same for Pepsi Max at the ‘bargain’ price of £1.25 when you can buy exactly the same thing at Home Bargain for 75 pence. However, Home Bargain are selling Halloween novelties that you can but exactly the same item (yes identical) in Poundland for much less.

For food, one of the most consistently cheap stores is Heron Foodstores. It also pays to travel to areas where there is lots of social housing and unemployment – prices are invariably cheaper than in towns and tourist centres. Also keep an eye open for bargains at your local ‘Premier’ or Nisa’ shops who publish regular brochures to let you know what’s on offer.

Want to save money? You have to work at it but If you have the time and inclination you can save a fortune just shopping around.

Not least of all – remember that ‘BEST BEFORE’ doesn’t mean ‘NO GOOD AFTER’ and some food items are good for several months after the dates shown. You nose and taste buds should tell you.

A couple of months ago I attended a customers’ “focus group” at a local supermarket. I felt very sorry for the young lady given the job of running it when we started talking about special offers! Every person at the meeting said that the vast majority of special offers were bogus. In cases such as “buy one, get second for half price”, the price of a single item was increased to make the offer seem advantageous and this discriminated against pensioners and other single people and is the main cause of food being thrown away- a staggering 8.3 MILLION tonnes/annum in the UK., which is a tragedy in its own right given World hunger.
Most supermarket pricing is designed to confuse and obfuscate and the labelling probably dreamed up by some young “go-getter” in the marketing dept. who wants to go far. There are a couple of simple questions that Which could ask the CEOs of all the major supermarket chains to check the veracity of my statement.
1) If labelling is designed to allow informed choice and comparison, why is the price which one can use as a comparator ( price/per kilo/100grms/tissue/) always in 8 point and squeezed right at the bottom of the label?
2) Why are price increases never announced in the same way as special offers? According to an OECD report, Britain has a faster rising food inflation (4.9%) than most other OECD economies and food prices have significantly outstripped food retailers’ cost inflation.
We all know the answer, it would just be nice for the CEOs to be honest for once.

Victor Meldrew fan says:
6 November 2011

Well said, Principled! I was going to post a comment myself, and then saw that you (and your focus group allies) had pretty much said it all. I totally agree that supermarket pricing policy is now designed to increase margins primarily through confusing their “loyal” customers into buying bargains that are not bargains. And, as you say, the waste that is encouraged by getting us to buy more than we really want or need truly is disgraceful – not only in the additional food that is thrown out, but all the associated wasted water, fertilizer, transportation and refrigeration fuel, and so on. Also, making it artificially cheaper to buy two 250g units instead of one 500g unit (for instance) prevents a further problem to the customer with the time and determination to dig beneath the price deceptions: to contribute further to wasting natural resources used for packaging by buying two smaller jars of coffee to obtain a better deal, or to help save the environment by buying a single, larger, but more expensive jar.

It’s a shame that the supermarkets can get away with being so blatantly deceitful. It doesn’t take a marketing guru to know that all customers really want is decent, honest pricing, and don’t want to spend hours checking whether every item they buy is at an inflated price. Which? – please do what you can to pressure them into going back to the good old days, where a special offer really was that, and not simply confirmation that customers were being charged yet another ridiculously inflated price last month, or are paying through the nose because they’re only buying the quantity they actually need.

Mrs A Johnson says:
3 November 2011

According to your report, Waitrose say “We would never intend to mislead customers” and “… to ensure our special offers are … completely clear to consumers.” I find it very confusing and time-wasting trying to work out which products are included in any offer, which is often NOT clear. I have told them that I would much prefer a discount on the purchase of one item, which would be much simpler, and means I can buy one at a time without losing out. Those who can use more can buy more while the price is reduced, without increasing waste. If I don’t want two, I usually refrain from buying a product at all, as it annoys me to have to pay more for one.

It seems to me (whether true or not) that for the last several years they have put on sale strawberries etc. at “Half Price” from the beginning of the season, and as you say, their multibuy fruit ‘offers’ are constant all summer. I imagine this applies to other retailers too, and the price is certainly the same in Sainsbury’s, where I go occasionally. What matters is what you have to pay that day!

If not off-topic in saying it here, I notice the peanut butter I bought at LIdl has its roasted peanut content
reduced by 2% which results in an altogether more inferior diluted product but being still charged at the same price…guess I’ll have to go back to making peanut butter from scratch AND certainly NOT buy from Lidl anymore this now watered-down stuff. The change in taste is very noticeable, believe me.
Slimy and oily!

Being in the business of screwing as much as possible from the consumer, I don’t trust supermarkets at all in the way they deceptively price things and this includes upmarket Waitrose as to even their basic so-called ‘essentials’ range as to in particular content deficiencies of a tin of stuff I had bought. The number of fruits therein has gone down without a matching decrease in price. On the contrary, was actually up from 51 pence a year ago to 63p now.

Anthony Wood says:
8 November 2011

I live alone and find that 2 bags of potatoes or most fresh food BOGOF’s are too much for me to use within a reasonable time so I take advantage of the offers and pass the “free” item to anyone nearby who might appreciate it. This action seems to worry the cashiers but it seems they can think of no reason to object.

Supermarkets must think special offers work, just take the current round of Tesco’s 50% off special offers on the tv at the moment. Not one individual price is listed, just the fact that the items are 50% off.

About time the regulators got a good kick up the ………

Lidl sells 4 x 130 g (dr wt) cans of tuna at £4.00, reduced from £5.39….
and next to them, individual cans at 66p each…. what do they take us for?
…… idiots buying at the higher price?

Ken Grahame says:
15 April 2012

I know this has all been explored some time ago, but I couldn’t resist reporting this one I saw in ASDA yesterday.
In their “home baked” section is a “promotion” to buy “3 items for £1.50”. This included a shelf full of items priced at only 35p each!! I could buy more than FOUR for their “special price” for 3!!
(Also, so much for their “reducing mutibuy options” – when they have a whole WALL full of this “offer”)

Ken Grahame says:
19 April 2012

Another sneaky one I saw yesterday in ASDA – although I don’t know whether the pricing structure is unique to them, or if it’s a con originating from the company. Nevertheless, it’s a classic con!

Ginsters Cornish Pasty – £1.28 (for 227grams)
OR – just next to them –
TWO Cornish Pasties (in a “double pack”) – only £1.63 – GREAT!
EXCEPT, the “double” pack only contains 260 grams!!
I would also add that the “double” pack appeared to be double the volume, but on closer inspection, containes a good deal of vacant space in the pack.

If you (a) spot the disparity in weight, and then (b) do the maths – even a rough calculation will do – you are being TRICKED, (I can think of no more polite word, but a good many less polite ones), as it really isn’t unreasonable to expect better value for bulk-buying.

But WHEN is something going to be done to STOP these cons???

John says:
12 July 2013

I shop every week at Tesco, but recently have started to experiment elsewhere. The plethora of offers is now so irritating that I cannot see myself continuing to use them. Offers like buy one for £1.75 or two for £2:00 simply indicate to me that buying one overpriced item is not good value and buying tow means I will probably simply add to my level of waste. The result: increasingly, I just don’t buy at all. When this was the occasional item, I could ignore it, but it is now so rife that it is hard to find a genuinely priced single item. Come on Tesco. Do you really think we are so naive to think that one item at £1.75 is a genuine price if you can add another for 25p?

One which always confuses me is the dishwasher tablets that are sold in bag sizes of for instance 40, 50, 60. It seems that the supermarkets overprice two out of the three so that they can then “reduce” the price on the third by putting it on offer or BOGOF, and they then rotate which one is on offer so they can get around the rules on how long something has to be on sale at the higher price.

Also the other week I was sent some Waitrose vouchers. £4 off when spending £20 is a good deal. but they also included discount vouchers on for instance cleaning sprays, and it was obvious at the shelves that the discount only took them down to a normal price for that product.

Dishwasher tablets are one of many products I only buy when ‘on offer’ and I agree they are not true discounts.

If Which were brave they could send some of their staff into the most blatant phoney pricing super markets dressed in stripy jumpers and masks (robbers) with bright red arrows pointing out the worst examples of cheat pricing.
If the media were to know in advance it would make for headline news and persuade the stores to toe the line for a while until they think we have forgotten their tricks.
I appreciate their security would evict them , but for a short time it would highlight their cheating tricks.

I do understand the psychology behind special offers. As you say, we all like a bargain. But I also so regret that fact. Surely, and ideally, what we should be asking ourselves is, ‘Is this a reasonable price? If it weren’t ‘on offer’ would I buy it at this price?’ And, in these days of over-consumption with its terrible effect on the environment, ‘Do I really need this?’