/ Food & Drink, Shopping

Supermarket prices – can you compare apples with apples?

According to the Panorama special ‘The Truth About Supermarket Price Wars’ it seems a lot of the time you can’t. And many of you have joined us in criticising supermarkets’ confusing product prices.

When we last wrote about confusing prices on supermarket product labels, Terry said:

‘I’m a Chartered Accountant so I feel comfortable with numbers and I’ve noticed this “marketing scam” by Tesco’s, Sainbury’s and Asda of late. I normally can’t be bothered to calculate what the best deal is.’

But many of you disagreed with Terry and thought along the lines of Richard:

‘To me it’s simple – take the mini bananas and weigh them on the scales usually provided, then you will have the price per kg for both items – the choice is easy.

‘At least it was when I taught Everyday Maths at school. Has the standard of “sums” dropped that low? I don’t think so, though the level of laziness has grown. I’ve never been that busy that I couldn’t spend a minute literally to check…’

Unfortunately, it’s often not a case of every day maths. Particularly when you have to compare something like clementines at £2.89 per kilogram with clementines at £1 for six.

Getting to the bottom of confusing supermarket prices

As Richard points out, scales are usually provided, but should you really have to use scales to tell which product is cheaper? There are a number of other reasons why supermarkets have to sort out their product pricing:

1. Older people, or those with learning difficulties, can not be expected to do the calculations required to work out which is the cheaper item.

2. People with young children in tow don’t have time to do these calculations, even if they are able to.

3. There can be several types of the same product (sometimes up to 62 types of jam) – the human brain just isn’t capable of storing the amount of information required to calculate which is cheaper if the unit pricing isn’t consistent. And even if you are up to it, this could significantly increase shopping time.

4. Furthermore, as Panorama showed, prices are often displayed in such a way as to make shoppers gloss over a product’s unit price. Shouldn’t it be the supermarkets’ responsibility to clearly display the unit price so that comparisons can be made quickly and easily?

We’ve had lots of examples of supermarket labelling issues sent in by readers, some of which you can see at www.which.co.uk/pricing, so we know there’s a problem and we want supermarkets to fix it.

If you watched Panorama earlier in the week, did it change your mind or confirm your thoughts about how supermarkets price their products? Do you get frustrated by confusing supermarket prices, or is this issue just a load of hot air?


Unfortunately the only thing I leant from it was the Consumer Proctection against unfair trading 2008 act. the rest I already knew or was aware of. I have tried to point out some if not all of those things to my local tesco. But now I won’t put up with the we have over 24k products in store you should expect the odd mistake, as I will now point out that even 1 mistake is breaking the law. And they do it so frequently, they’re particularly good at using different units in the price per unit. 12 and 36 packs of jaffa cakes ( no weight on the box) price per cake, the 24 pack ( weight is there) priced per 100 grams, and without knowing if they’ve used the same cakes in that its impossible to compare.

Compared with the many complicated issues discussed on this forum, the price comparison should be easy to resolve with a bit of cooperation from the large supermarkets. All shelf price labels should give the price per kg, irrespective of whether goods are loose or bagged. If there is an offer, the offer price should also show the price per kg.

I’m less concerned about special offers. My immediate reaction is suspicion that the price may actually have risen. As the Panorama programme points out, it is complicated by manufacturers labelling products (e.g. larger pack, better value). If you have the price per kg then ignore the special offer labels.

Perhaps Which? should challenge the big supermarkets to give the goods away free if customers find a mistake or a dishonest statement. That would focus some minds and generate good publicity for any supermarket that is up to the challenge.

Tesco’s already give a 10% bonus when refunding money that’s their mistake. Like selling an item with the price printed on the packaging yet still charging their own price. You’ve never seen a shop assistant move so fast to remove the offending items.

Thanks William. I did not appreciate that this still applied, since I have not been offered this bonus when I have reported errors in the last couple of years.

At one time Tesco would give free goods to customers who had been charged incorrectly, but that was a few years ago.

Jimbo says:
8 December 2011

This time last year it was reported that supermarket profits has risen by 6% over the previous 6 months. This coincided with an increase in a particular type of offer; the one where you can buy 2 items which are individally priced at, say, £4, for £7. Another would be 3 items individually priced at £4, for £10. I am certain that the proper selling price for these items is £3.50 and £3.33 respectively. This means if you only want 1 of the items you are effectively being penalised 50 pence or 67 pence. It’s my submission that this is so profitable that it is the reason for a huge increase in the number of these offers.

Irene Jackson says:
12 August 2012

I couldn’t believe when shopping in Sainsbury’s earlier this year that I was unable to compare the prices of packed versus loose vegetables because one was priced in pounds and the other in kilos.I mean POUNDS. When did become illegal to sell products in pounds? I am 60 years old so I do know the weight of imperial measures but I have embraced the metric system as I think it is easier to work out. By the time I had tried to work out the difference using the calculator on my phone (having had to first find my reading glasses) I had gone off the idea all together and didn’t buy the item at all.

Zaf Syed says:
16 August 2012

Another type of Rip Off used by the Super Markets and most of the Manufacturers is pricing the items in some odd measures i.e. 900 grams, 850g, 454g instead of giving you the full 1.0 Kg, 750g (3/4 Kg), 500g (1/2 Kg) and so on. Price comparison will be easier too if multiples of Kilo Grams were used on the packages.
It is about time something was done to stop the Rip Off and confusion.

Unless supermarkets are forced by law to standardize their pricing policies they will keep the status quo as it is in their interests for shoppers to be confused. Most will not bother to work out the best buy. ( If an accountant can’t be bothered, how many others will?) If the law is changed you can be sure prices will rise so that the supermarkets don’t lose out. That means that those of us who do the maths to outwit the supermarkets will lose out.

Just checked out the pricing of bottled water in Aldi in Stockton-on-Tees; and I do drink tap water without any problems. For 4 x 2 Litre bottles of either still water, or carbonated water the price labels advertised 99p. There is however a unit price shown in smaller text proudly advertising the products both at only 1.2p per 100 millilitres. I took some photos, and told staff that the price is not correct it should be 96p.
The manager later approached and said that he has checked it on his calculator – that there are 8000 millilitres so 80 x 100 millilitres; and 99p divided by 80 is 1.2375p, and clearly they couldn’t show the unit price to 4 decimal places.
I explained that 1.2p per 100 millilitres is 12p per litre (just be moving the decimal point one place to the right, – there are 1000 ml in 1 litre), and then 8 litres x 12p = 96 from when I learned my 12 times table in primary school, so the price must be 96p.
I understand how Aldi are taking the proposed pack price of £1 less 1p, and divide by the number of units 80 of 100 millilitres, and that they have rounded DOWN the unit price to 1 decimal place.
Had Aldi priced their units in Litres the sums would be easier, as the rounded price per litre would be 12.4p; and 12.4 * 8 litres is 99.2p which seemingly could justify the 99p; however they chose to state a unit price at 1.2p per 100 millilitres so the consumer is entitled to be charged only 96p, and by charging an extra 3p fraudulently they will be making a huge profit.

These prices are horrendous. Tap water is much cheaper and contains a lot less bacteria than most still bottled water. Making bottles for bottled water uses oil and more is needed to transport the bottles to shops, and then there is all the non-biodegradable waste to be disposed of.

Bottled water has been so successful that it may not be long before someone tries to sell us air.