/ Food & Drink, Shopping

Supermarkets must clean up their act on pricing practices

Put an end to misleading pricing

Supermarkets must act – and quickly – to clean up their misleading pricing tactics after an official investigation found there were hundreds of misleading offers on their shelves every day.

Just under three months ago, we made a super-complaint to the Competition and Markets Authority after identifying examples of dodgy multi-buys, shrinking products and exaggerated discounts over the past seven years.

In response, the CMA has confirmed what our research has highlighted repeatedly. They found a huge number of offers that could be breaching consumer law.

These included supermarkets running ‘was/now’ promotions, where a discount price is advertised for longer than a higher price. It also found that unit pricing needs to be made more legible so you can use it effectively to compare similar products.

It announced a series of measures to crack down on confusing pricing practices. And it recommended that the Government strengthens the rules so that retailers have no more excuses.

The supermarkets have now been put on notice to clean up their practices or face legal action.

No more excuses

With your help and examples of the so-called offers that you found, we submitted a dossier of evidence in the form of the super-complaint (PDF) to the CMA.

This highlighted the issues we’ve repeatedly uncovered on pricing practices in the groceries sector.

We asked the CMA to investigate confusing and misleading special offers; the lack of easily comparable prices because of the way unit pricing is being done; shrinking pack sizes without any corresponding price reduction; and the price matching schemes the supermarkets run.

More than 130,000 of you have supported the super-complaint. We believe that if all the changes are implemented widely, this will be good for consumers, competition and, ultimately, the economy.

Our executive director Richard Lloyd said:

‘Where there is evidence of breaches of consumer law the CMA could take enforcement action against supermarkets. In addition, the CMA also recommends changes to legislation in order to cut out promotional practices that could mislead consumers.

‘Given the findings, we now expect to see urgent enforcement action from the CMA. The Government must also quickly strengthen the rules so that retailers have no more excuses.’

You can sign up here and pledge your support.

What do you think of the CMA’s findings? Are you still seeing examples of special offers that you think are misleading?


I am totally in favour of taking any shops to task – prosecution if appropriate – for deliberately misleading customers. Unclear or sly “special prices” can lead to us choosing something that is not the bargain it seems.

It is a pity we do not have more effective Trading Standards departments at local level to both spot these, and to whom we could report misleading offers, for immediate action.

This introduction, however, seems to suggest (“hundreds of misleading offers on their shelves”, “a huge number of offers that could be breaching consumer law”) that this is a problem of large proportions. The CMA on the news this morning, after their investigation, said that while there were the problems reported, “they were not widespread”. If that is true then we should not be making a mountain out of a molehill, should we? That would be misleading.

Having seen this topic covered on the BBC and then Sky News this morning, when the CMA’s “not widespread” verdict was coming through loud and clear, I was surprised at the contrast with the line being taken by Which? suggesting that misleading promotions are endemic [which I have generally believed to be the case] and I felt the the CMA was pulling its punches. Perhaps it all hangs on the use of the words “deliberately misleading”. Personally I do not think the major supermarkets have a prevailing intention to mislead us over offers but I consider they should do much more to ‘audit’ their promotions and put things right much more quickly when errors do occur.

Incidentally, I think the BBC piece rather bungled the story by showing a VT of different offer scenarios where the pricing images did not correspond with the studio presenter’s narrative! Sky made a better fist of it altogether. Perhaps the BBC straightened it out later but at 07:05 am it was a mess.

I understand the principle that it is wrong to suggest that a product’s price represents a reduction compared to a previous price if the discounted price has actually applied for longer than the original price [i.e. the discounted price has outlasted the comparator price and thus become the regular price], but if the price shown as the previous price was genuinely higher then the lower price is still a bargain. The implication of the publicity was that the longer-lasting lower price should be killed, whereas in fact it’s only the misdescription of the price adjustment that requires correction.

I never look at the previous price stated by the retailer. I look only at the current price. I won’t be charged the previous price, only the current price. Therefore the previous price is irrelevant to me.

kyriacos adamou says:
16 July 2015

Dear Sirs, It gets worse, you have not hit the tip of the iceberg yet. Let me give you a little story, A supermarket that offers buy one get one free, is cheating customers, Why? Because the item that the customer gets free is not from the supermarket, it’s free from their suppler, every so often the supermarkets contact their suppliers and force them into given free items , not in so many words , if you don’t we will stop trading with you. And to add to the con, if the original price for example was £1.00, the supermarket would sell it for £1.60, and you get one free. What does this mean, well I will tell you, the supermarkets are earning 60p on an item which was given to them by their suppler free, Con Merchants!

I am very disappointed. The Which? super-complaint is well illustrated with examples and from the numerous Conversations it is clear to me that shoppers are frequently being treated poorly by supermarkets.

To focus on one issue, concerns about unit pricing seem to have been dismissed by the CMA, yet Which? has explained various problems relating to the frequent lack of easily comparable prices. These include failure to display unit prices on special offers, goods sold by weight and others by item, use of different units and unit prices in tiny print. Here is the advice given by the CMA, which ignores these issues: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/445633/Unit_pricing_-_information_for_consumers.pdf

“concerns about unit pricing seem to have been dismissed by the CMA”.

The CMA report states:
“In relation to unit pricing, we agree with Which? that issues of legibility and consistency are causing unnecessary confusion for consumers. We have also found that a clear and consistent approach to unit pricing would bring about benefits across nearly all of the issues raised by Which?, in particular by equipping consumers with the information to make simple and meaningful comparisons between different products, irrespective of brand, size, and any ongoing promotional activity. We are recommending that the law and guidance in this area be changed.”

To me, this says that, far from being dismissed, the CMA agrees action is necessary and is making recommendations to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Thanks Malcolm. I missed that paragraph. I wonder why the CMA document I provided a link to makes no reference whatsoever to possible problems with unit pricing. I’m one of those who makes frequent use of unit prices and it’s my most frequent concern.

wavechange, although your document was dated July 15 it is presumably superceded by the CMA report, following their investigations. I agree that unit pricing needs to be clear. I do, sadly, check whether I am always getting the best deal, but many rely on what the shop publicises as bargains.

I can only assume the CMA’s conclusion from their research that deliberately misleading pricing is not widespread is well-founded. If so we need to keep the problem in perspective and hope the CMA will see to it that changes are made and offenders dealt with. I just wish the public had access to Trading Standards so that problems could be reported directly, instead of being filtered through an overloaded CAB. Action might then be taken more promptly.

As far as I can tell, the document was created on the afternoon of 14 July, Malcolm. Maybe the approach is that if you want to encourage people to use unit prices it’s best not to mention possible problems.

Like NFH I focus on the current price rather than what is claimed to be a special offer. In Tesco, special offers usually represent a saving but not always. For example cucumbers previously on sale at 49p each have been offered at 90p each or £1 for two on several occasions.

My understanding is that CAB handles general enquiries and passes them on to Trading Standards or elsewhere, depending on the nature of the call – without which intervention, TS would be even more overwhelmed than it is at present. It would be great if TS was better funded but I have not seen any indication that this will happen.

One of my fascinations with unit pricing is of the occasional blunders. If I spot one in Tesco I remove the shelf label and hand it in at the customer service desk. Here’s one that got forgotten about, in 2011: “Seabrook Crisps 6 Pack. £1.28 Any 2 for £2.00 £21.34 per 100g.” It is difficult to know if these pricing blunders are made with the help of computers.

Just visited my local branch of Tesco to buy coffee. Noticed Kenco millicano (85g) being sold at £3. Ticket price read £3 for 100gm. On pointing this out to the manager he instantly withdrew the ticket!

I think all multi-buy special offers should be banned and all discounts applied to single units only.

It would avoid a lot of waste and allow shoppers on a budget to take advantage of special offers.

If Ocado are reading this, will you please stop selling Pure Spread at a discount as “buy any 2 for £2.50”. The second one can end up going to waste so I only buy one now so I don’t get a discount.

Quite right Alfa! Supermarkets sell direct to the public they are not Cash and Carry companies!!

We have the choice of whether to take advantage of a multi-buy or not. We regularly shop at M&S and their multibuy approach for us is very sensible. Offers are, for example, 3 for £10 giving a reasonable choice of different meats, fish for example. 3 for £5 in the deli – a wide selection to choose from. 2 for £2.50 in bread and bakery. These are all products we would normally buy, and save on their normal prices. And unless you go in specifically for a single item, I would have though most people would be able to benefit.

However, some might believe that the lower price should also be available on individual products, and I can see their point. We never know whether this sort of marketing actually increases sales, or simply subsidises the larger buyer at the expense of the smaller. But while it is there, i’ll benefit from it. Others might be better using shops that don’t make such offers – including the High Street (although our local butcher offers a meat pack at a discount!).

I just hope that M&S don’t get banned from offering their £10 meal deals 🙂 I don’t support the idea of the”banning” of legitimate practices.

We don’t have an M&S near us so don’t often shop there but those are sensible multi-buys. You don’t have to eat the same thing for days to get through them.

Multi-buys are good when they can go in the cupboard or freezer and don’t have to be consumed quickly but otherwise they should be banned.

Under current law, the onus is on a decimated Trading Standards to manually track every price, and PROVE that an offence had been committed. This is clearly impossible, especially when Trading Standards runs at a local level, and offers can apply to prices charged in a different branch.

Big retail businesses run on massive computing power, so they KNOW EXACTLY what prices were charged, and when – indeed that’s how they stay in business.

The law should be changed to make that sales data routinely accessible by approved regulatory bodies, such as CMA, Trading Standards, and I would suggest, Which. It should include unit price and special offer data, and be in a standardised format. Auditors should be required to use that data to analyze a snapshot of offers in more detail, and the results should be made public, with significant penalties for infringements or inability to comply. There would obviously be exemptions for smaller businesses, and for lines which don’t bear direct comparison, such as clothes.

Have you visited “mysupermarket dot co dot uk”? I am not sure whether historic data is accessible but it has current prices for numerous food and household products stores.

Interesting, and impressive if it works, but it’s still pushing the onus onto the consumer – which is only OK if you’re smart and have LOTS of time. The onus should be on the supermarkets. If I buy a car, the manufacturer has to prove things like mpg and the safety. Why are supermarkets still allowed to make these often dishonest claims without any justification?

I recently tried to buy a pack of smoked salmon in Morrison’s. The shelf had a white ticket with “Priced” on it – something I’d never come across before. The salmon pack were marked “2 for £5”. I didn’t want 2 packs but the price for a single pack wasn’t shown anywhere on the pack. It took 3 members of staff & about 10 mins to tell me the price of one pack. How on earth are you supposed to know if you’re getting a bargain when this type of underhand pricing still exists?

It’s not just on the shelves. Checked the reduced bin at my local Tesco’s this morning, Guess what? Cheese that was on offer at £2.00 last week, is in the reduced bin at must sell offer price of, you guessed, £2.00!?

Are we the only country in the world that has to constantly monitor everything we buy to prevent us from being scammed.
Between shopping, energy, and insurance we probably spend a week + every year trying to work out a proper deal.
What amuses me, is that all the big companies are spending a fortune dissuading customers becoming loyal.

How many people check their goods prices against the prices on their bills I bet not a lot of OAPS don’t .

Till receipts are not always easy to understand.

I have pointed out overcharging on a special offer only to be shown that they ring up the normal price and the deductions appear at the bottom and you have to work out for yourself what the item cost.

All done to confuse you.

That’s one of the reasons I look at unit prices. I find product descriptions confusing, and that’s not just with supermarkets. For years, Tesco referred to packaged salmon fillets as ‘meat’ on the receipt. 🙁

Morrisons latest trick – packs of green beans ‘reduced’ from 50p to 55p! Yep – really!