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Jo Swinson: how together we made supermarkets price it right

Food on supermarket shelves

Jo Swinson has been working with the supermarkets and Which? to make food prices clearer and easier to compare. In this guest post, Jo shares the progress they’ve made and plans for the future.

We’ve all been there before – rushing around a supermarket, trying to get in and out as quickly as possible and thinking of a million other things. We’re distracted by the big, bright signs which are emblazoned with deals and discounts. But are we actually getting the best deal? It’s not always as easy as it should be to check.

In times like this we’re fully aware that hardworking people’s household budgets are being stretched. That’s why, as Consumer Minister, I’ve been championing greater transparency in how supermarkets display the value of everyday items. Little known to many is the detail at the bottom of the label – the ‘unit price’, or the price we’re paying per gram or millilitre. It’s a great way to compare items.

However, it can be confusing. The likes of soups and sauces can be measured sometimes in weight, sometimes in volume. Promotions like ‘three-for-two’ don’t always include the unit price. Popular items, for example, the mince pies sold in their millions at this time of year, can be priced individually or per gram. And on top of this, the labels can be difficult to read for all but the eagle-eyed.

Supermarkets to price it right

That’s why earlier this year I held a roundtable with the industry, major supermarkets and Which? to discuss the matter. The supermarkets have now updated us on their progress which shows that things are improving:

  • All 10 supermarkets are improving the visibility of the labels by increasing font sizes and/or stripping out unnecessary information like barcodes.
  • All of the 10 major supermarkets are committed to making sure that, where it is in their control, unit pricing is consistent across brands and within their own brands.
  • Six out of the 10 supermarkets are going a step further including the unit price on promotions for multi-buys of the same item.

Still more to be done

These are good developments but there is still more to do. On top of this we’re setting up a group, with industry involvement, to look at the legislation to see if it can be improved. And the Government is also calling on brand manufacturers to do their bit by being more consistent on the measurements they use on their labels.

These are steps in the right direction. But if shoppers are really going to get better value with their shopping basket they need all the tools at their disposal to get a fairer deal. It’s a good start but it’s just one way in which we’re working to give shoppers the help they need.

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Consumer Affairs Minister Jo Swinson. All opinions expressed here are Jo’s own, not necessarily those of Which?


“Six out of the 10 supermarkets are going a step further including the unit price on promotions for multi-buys of the same item.” which ones aren’t doing this?

“Promotions like ‘three-for-two’ don’t always include the unit price.” that’s because the Consumer protection from unfair trading regulations 2008 was written up with that gaping hole in it. So why not firm it up to plug it. So that those 4 supermarkets have to do it.

“Promotional offers should be unit priced to reflect the single standard product.

Retailers may give additional information if they wish – that is, the reduced unit price if purchasing a multi-buy offer may be shown, as long as it is clear to which products it relates.

Limited period promotions (such as 10% extra free), which relate to individual products, may retain the unit price of the standard product for the period of the offer. Retailers may give additional information if they wish ”

WHY ? As you can see they’ll never do anything to help the consumer unless they’re forced.

This pricing subterfuge has been going on for years. Why has the government not put in place legislation to deal with it before? And why, when they do, are gaping holes left to be exploited. I do wish we could have competent politicians and civil servants who earned their keep. Or is there pressure from vested interests?

I very much share Malcolm’s concerns about politicians, and I am equally disappointed by ineffective regulators. That is only part of the problem. Companies are taking the opportunity to exploit their customers and no doubt look for new opportunities when legislation catches up with their underhand tactics. It is not just an unfortunate oversight that supermarkets don’t usually show the unit price for products.

I would like to see it made illegal for companies to use underhand tactics to cheat customers, with large fines being levied where appropriate. When fines are handed out, the amount should depend on the previous record of the company, so that other companies do not have to cheat customers to be able to compete for custom.

If supermarkets and other retailers get their act together then we don’t need to rely so much on ineffective politicians and regulators to sort out the problems. Look at many of the topics covered in the magazine and on Which? Conversation and it is clear that many companies need to clean up their act.

I really can’t see supermarkets or other retailers cleaning up their acts.

Even after being spoken to, 40% are sticking with the poorly thought out and poorly written act.

You’d think an act about giving consumers protection from unfair trading practices would do what it says. A bucket with holes in would do a better job, ‘cos at least we’d have something to hit them with.

Maybe the CEOs of the 4 companies could be named as shamed as well. Companies do after all like publicity. /wink

I’m not optimistic either, William, but one of the reasons that I am interested in consumer affairs is because I want to do something about the problems. I am surprised that Which? has not identified the companies that have not agreed to improve their labelling. I have looked at the Which? website and it just links to this Conversation.

We would be grateful if Jo or Which? could let us have more information.

Getting some supermarkets to agree to display slightly clearer unit pricing is better than nothing, but far too weak. At the very least, we need ALL the supermarkets to be FORCED to display clearer unit pricing, and not just that, but also CORRECT unit pricing (something that we all know that Tesco will never be able to do). Maybe this need not be restricted to supermarkets either.

In situations where:
* the pack sizes on the labels are incorrect (very common)
* the offers have expired but the labels been left behind (very common)
* the prices are incorrect or the unit prices are incorrect
* the price label is nowhere near the product it concerns, but a similarly named product has a label nearby
* or any other kind of basic mistake,
then the supermarkets should be forced to honour the price displayed, or if they have already overcharged, then refund the customer TWICE the difference between what the customer paid and the lowest price that was effectively displayed (Tesco used to do this, but it doesn’t help that their receipts often don’t name the items bought or the product codes, just a general category), plus some kind of additional penalty fee for the inconvenience.

The current system of the supermarkets not caring when customers report incorrect pack sizes or prices, or expired offers, is just not good enough. And when customers are overcharged, having to wait 20 minutes at the “Customer Service” queue just to get “put right” (often a couple of quid), often without so much as an apology or for the problem to be fixed on the shop floor, is not good enough.

This is especially so when the (sole) customer service assistant at the desk (which at least in Morrisons happens to be a tiny counter tucked away in a corner of the store without even having proper till facilities – highlighting the clear disregard that the supermarkets have for customer service) says that lots of customers are affected by expired offers that are still advertised every Monday, most of the offers expiring on a Sunday, but still make everyone wait while they wander around the store to check you are telling the truth about the offer displayed (for the sake of your couple of quid), and complain that it is “not their job” to ensure that the offers are displayed correctly. They also claim to be “doing you a favour” by honouring the advertised offers or prices, rather than feeling that it is their legal duty to do so. Then, after signing something, you get your couple of quid back, now having waited about half an hour. Not a good return on the time spent, probably why most people don’t bother, and hence the need for a penalty to be payable by the store. But, as a matter of principle, I do not want the supermarkets to be exploiting me by charging incorrect prices, in addition to the thousands of other tricks they already have to exploit customers.

There really needs to be an incentive for them to get this right, and soon!

prices being incorrect and labels not being nearby should also say “very common”!

I keep looking for bin liners for a parent’s under sink kitchen bin. It is a well known brand and is a 12 litre bin – I know that because that is what is written inside it. The local supermarket has lots of dimensions and their descriptions don’t match. Consequently we have a variety of bags of the wrong size. It is a minor irritation getting more irritating as time passes by and the solution hasn’t been found locally yet.

Lessismore, at least when you find the right bin liners you’ll have somewhere to put the wrong ones.

Deception is rife. it seems, in many shops. I watched Panorama a couple of nights ago that identified many allegedly misleading “deals” in TKmax where it seems the RRP shown to make you believe you are getting a bargain might not always be quite right. The product allegedly might not be what you imagine either.Think it only sells mainstream brands at low prices? It was claimed a lot of products are made for themselves under a large number of different appealing brand names (of their own invention) at low prices, but with a high RRP shown also; think it must be a bargain?. Other outlet shops seem to trade on the trust the customer has in brand names – but they are not all what they seem. A defence of the sort “some things will always slip through the net” always ends up with the customer losing out, not the store.

The problem is not just stores trading on our trust, but a seeming general lack of interest and action from trading standards in dealing with their underhand activities. Perhaps TS should be separated from local authorities and made a national body. Perhaps Which could feed misleading or illegal activities to TS to spark some action? Perhaps Which could formally ask all its subscribers to keep reporting any misdemeanors to it to collate information and produce some action. Best not leave it all to the politicians.

One tactic I’ve seen Tesco employ is to quote a unit price for Jaffa Cakes (the proper ones) per 100g. when I quizzed Mcvites about it they stated that Jaffa Cakes are not sold by weight and never have been. The truly underhand tactic was to price one packet size per 100g the others per biscuit. I did complain to both Tesco and Trading standards without much joy.

I see Tesco are still claiming the packet of 24 (the twin pack) as 2 x 150g yet you find a weight on them. Oh wait you can’t.

Nothing short of jaw dropping fine will wake these companies up. Its all they understand.

And I don’t mean thing like the recent £28m that Lloyds were find. One good lotto win would cover that and still give alot of change over. Fines should be based on a %age of turnover and not profits after hiding much of it via legal loopholes. And it should be the directors who pay and not the company, cos we all know that if the company gets fined, its the consumer that pays.

Does Trading Standards have any money to pursue any complaints?

Aren’t they another casualty of the Government’s and so Local Authorities’ cuts?

Probably not enough, that’s why they’ll get you to ring the Citizens Advice Bureau on their expensive phone numbers ro report anything.

Simple fix, let them keep and set the fines. They’ll be making millions very soon therefafter

Why don’t we ask Jo Swinson what scheme she would propose that effectively deals with trading standards?

John Emerson says:
18 December 2013

Whilst I fully support the Which? campaign on misleading supermarket offers I am surprised that you are only targeting supermarkets.
The whole of the retail trade is full of misleading offers, the most common being for the original price to be hiked up accompanied by huge discounts which in many cases are not discounts at all.
Which? web site has a number of examples of this already, eg. Theatre tickets, Train Tickets etc.
It appears that we are all being conned all the time, is there any basic honesty left?

Carla Pittau says:
7 February 2014

Joining in the chorus about the unfair practices supermarkets have been able to maintain, I would like to ask if doubling the price of an item bought online from Tesco is indeed legal.
On Wednesday I placed an order online for home delivery, which included two bags of dishwasher tablets which were on special offer at half price. £7 instead of £14.
Toilet paper was also on special offer, two 9 roll packets for £7.
I only needed a few items, so my basket totalled £55.48 when taking into account delivery charges £3.50 and using a voucher for £9.50. Times are hard and I now always consider prices everywhere when shopping, which is why, when I received the delivery yesterday evening, I was able to spot that the cost of my shopping had gone up to £74.30
Tesco had decided that the half price offer on the dishwasher tablets no longer applied, and neither did the “2 for £7” for the toilet paper. When you calculate the percentage of increase, this is a wapping 33.92%!
I run a business which sells products online and can only imagine what my customers’ reaction would be if I followed such a practice!
I only spotted the price difference on the dishwasher tablets and sent them back with the driver, but in the confusion of getting the delivery I didn’t realise it wasn’t the only item on which they hadn’t honoured their advertised price.
I would like to ask: “How on earth can this be legal? How can they change the price of items which they are advertising as a special offer, and only advise the customer ON DELIVERY?”
I can imagine thousands of customers receiving bags and bags of items and being totally unable to check all prices to send items back, and hey presto, 34% more money to Tesco.
I know they have a disclaimer to this effect, but I honestly thought it would refer to a variation in pence of the prices, not a doubling of a price from a day to the next.
I called their Customer Service Centre to complain and they sounded totally bored and uninterested and more or less said “well, you sent the items back so you won’t be charged for them” which was a big concession, I guess.
Not impressed. But please, could you tell me if they can just do this?

I think you’ll find the problem with online supermarket shopping is the price you actually pay if the price at the time the order is packed for delivery and not the time you place the order. I guess if you read the small print you’ll find something along those lines. Can I assume you ordered before Tuesday/Wednesday and had delivery after that date ? As that’s around the date the Tesco apply/remove special offers.

I agree that this is totally unreasonable of Tesco. I nearly found myself in a similar position this week, because their offers expire on a Tuesday and I had placed the order a few days in advance. What’s even worse than not being notified of the price changes is that when I logged onto edit the order, the original prices that I ordered at were still showing, despite the fact that I know those would not be the prices I would pay. Suggest putting a formal complaint to them in writing, especially as their customer services number have been unhelpful as usual.

Carla Pittau says:
7 February 2014

I placed the order on Wednesday evening (Tesco confirmed it with an e-mail at 20:32 showing the prices I viewed) and delivery was the following day at 19:45.
I saw their disclaimer but I couldn’t actually believe they would increase the prices by 34% in 24 hours! And if something is no longer going to be on special offer when they deliver, they should say so WHEN I’m placing the order, NOT when they deliver!
This, in my view, is undistinguishable from fraud!

Carla Pittau says:
7 February 2014

Thanks GG, I think I will take them up on this, and I think that this practice cannot possibly be fair and therefore it should be included in the “unfair contract conditions” which should not apply.
I would like to hear what WHICH thinks of this and have called the Legal Service, although I was really surprised to get a recorded message that said their lines are closed for the New Year Holidays and that they should reopen on January 2nd!!

PeteM says:
2 March 2014

I recognise that my point is not connected to supermarket pricing but does follow on from Carla Pittau’s experience of Tesco customer service. Am I wrong in thinking that supermarket customer services are failing customers? I have an issue with Asda and after initially agreeing to refund me (3 months ago),for a defective product, Asda HQ are now refusing to respond or answer my correspondence. When I telephone customer services they cannot help because HQ are involved? Anyone any advice as to how to get Asda to respond?

Yesterday went into my Tescos at Church Langley, Harlow. At the end of a row – not a place that grabs your eye – they had cans of complete range of Heinz soup at 60p each, just four feet away they had a huge box with a special promotion of Heinz 4-cans of soup at £3.29. You do the maths!

When I complained about this the assistant said there was nothing they could do, HO was responsible – I said helpfully – sic – “I could go over there and cross out your £3.29 and place a big arrow pointing to the right – where the display for 60p a can was showing” Did not go down well!!