/ Food & Drink, Shopping

Clear the supermarket shelves of misleading multibuys

Special offer campaign labels

From daft special offers to dodgy discounts – does your supermarket send you off your trolley with its pricing tactics? Our latest Which? campaign is calling on the supermarkets to Make Special Offers Special.

I’m new to the Campaigns team at Which?, but over the last couple of weeks, with the help of our special offer guru Alice Rickman, I’ve begun to take the supermarkets to town over the not so special offers we’ve discovered in our latest investigation.

This included a well-known beer brand being sold at a higher price for just three days before being discounted, and an offer that would have been cheaper to buy off the shelf days later than part of the deal.

Misleading multibuys

Eight in 10 of people say they look out for offers in supermarkets, with most saying these deals help them to make the most of their budget. However, three in 10 have regretted buying products that you only bought because they were on offer. And two fifths believe that offers encourage us to buy products we don’t really need. To me, this indicates something is wrong with the way supermarket promotions are affecting our buying habits, and not necessarily in a positive way. What really grates for me though is that some of these special offers don’t even save us money.

There are three ways we can address this issue and the first is quite simply to ask the supermarkets to put an end to misleading special offers. We’ve alerted the key supermarkets that we’re looking for them to take action. We quizzed Asda, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury’s and Tesco on our findings and received a mixture of apologies and challenges to our findings.

Secondly, we need the Government to make the rules for special offers simpler, clearer and stricter. We’ll be in close contact with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, to make sure this happen.

Supermarket fined for breaking rules

And thirdly, we need tougher enforcement action to clamp down on rule breaking supermarkets. You may remember the case of the mispriced strawberries reported by Daphne Smallman back in 2011. Well, Tesco was fined when the courts heard that the offer ran for 14 weeks, whereas the higher price was available for a shorter length of time. This was in breach of Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (CPRs) and Tesco was found to not be playing by the rules.

Do dubious special offers irritate you when you’re shopping? Have you ever spotted a deal that’s too good to be true? We’d love your help convincing the supermarkets to take action and we’re keen to hear what dodgy discounts you’ve encountered down your supermarket aisle.


I never pay any attention to the previous price of goods stated by a retailer; it’s irrelevant. All that I care about is the current price. If I want to compare prices, then I compare with another current price from a different retailer, not historic prices.

In theory it would seem that historical prices are irrelevant, and only today’s prices compared to those of other shops are relevant. However, in practice, we go mostly to the shop that’s closest to us, and the historical price is a rough indicator of the likely future price, which helps us figure out whether it’s worth buying a product (especially a non-perishable one) at today’s price before it goes up again. I usually buy bottles of wine that are “half price”. I know full well that these bottles are only worth the price they are actually at, even if they are labelled “half price”. And I can tell they are only worth the low price I pay because they taste very mediocre. However, I am scared to buy a “full price” bottle of wine in case it’s actually worth £6 but temporarily priced at £12 so that it can be offered as “half price” when it goes back down to its normal price next week.

I disagree that the historical price is a rough indicator of the likely future price. If a price is falling, it could fall further; or it could rise again. A previous price doesn’t suggest anything, particularly if that previous price was just a spike.

A single previous price in isolation does mean nothing however a series of previous prices does provide a trend or benchmark.

In a distress purchase such as buying petrol on a an empty tank previous prices are irrelevant : )

I also occasionally use the press for instance to tell me if their has been a poor coffee bean harvest and what it is doing to spot prices. If it makes the normal financial press it will also tell you an effect on retail prices is expected.

Coffee stores particularly well : ) My largest purchase was when the Coop closed some stores and were selling 200 gramme jars of Douwe Egbert for the same price as 100 gramme jars – I assume overstocked. So 20+ jars and a 100% saving.

clint, wine does seem to be a great example of misleading marketing – not just in supermarkets but newsagents and corner shops. Rarely do you get genuine half price bottles. The wine with £10 meal deals from a well-known store is genuine value. However, we buy most of our wine from a “society” (see Which Local) where their 12 bottle cases for less than £6 a bottle offer very pleasant drinking. Hope this doesn’t break any guidelines. Please drink responsibly.

I never buy wine in British shops anyway, because of the ridiculous alcohol duty in this country which adds £2.40 to a bottle of wine. Living only two hours from Calais by car, I buy wine and beer in France and Belgium where I don’t have to pay this unreasonable tax.

A well known “society” has an outlet near Calais where you can not only benefit from the lower prices, but from the consistent quality of their wines. Not advertising – just based on satisfaction in a seller (or should that be cellar?) you can trust – and from many cynical comments in other conversations this is something to nurture. Bottoms up! (is that still PC?).

I used to use one such society and agree their selection of wines was always very good. However, it’s no longer convenient because there’s noone at home to take deliveries and no alternative place to leave a case. On the earlier subject of historical prices, in reply to NFH, you can actually see the relevance of historical prices by looking at the graphs at mysupermarket.co.uk. Choose any product at any supermarket, and most likely you will see a series of dips (lasting about two weeks every month) but these usually go back to the exact same “normal” price, which remains constant for about a year before going up by an inflationary amount. So, from this graph, I would deduce that historical prices are indeed a rough indicator of likely future prices.

We buy food at M and S and find their offers genuine and sensible, with plenty of variety, and well labelled. Not always so at other supermarkets.
There is a difference between misleading offers – these should be tackled – and offers that “encourage you to buy”. The latter is down to the customer to decide upon. For the misleading ones, perhaps Which? should encourage its members to report these in to it so that it can make complaints to the offending supermarkets and to Trading Standards, as well as report them in the magazine and online.
I am not in favour of legislation for special offers. This can often have unforseen consequences, and the marketing people who are determined to mislead will always find ways round the rules.

I think most supermarket shoppers are incredibly canny. There’s a special offer on Fairy Liquid at Tesco’s where obviously there’s some fiddling about with bottle sizes going on because both 433ml and 530ml sizes are available at exactly the same price [£1.50 each or two for £2.00]. The interesting thing is that despite the difference in bottle size being almost imperceptible, all the 530ml bottles have gone leaving only the 433ml left on the shelves. Needless to say there are better unit prices on other washing-up liquids, and although Fairy might be a superior product, consumers are not that bothered between brands [or they probably go to Aldi down the road instead]. I expect the 433ml size is the next category to be subjected to a special promotion related to the previous price of its bigger brother – just my hunch, mind, not an accusation of jiggery-pokery. While admiring the perspicacity of the average consumer, I strongly agree that we all need protection from misleading marketing although I agree with Malcolm that legislation on special offers is not the best way forward. We need a Wicked Which? permanently on duty and on the case with every supermarket chain and the administration of slapped wrists [notwithstanding that hands that judicious can be soft as your face . . .].

An interesting subject as we all shop. My strong suspicion is that the people who write here are “smarter than the average bear”. With the reported uselessness of the general public at mathematics I am very grateful unit pricing is more common.

However if we were going to be truly kind and make shopping easier standardised weights and measures would be useful. Whats with 430grammes and 530 grammes but to confuse. Packaging regulations should be standardised that contents are in 100grammes. Obviously special cases for toiletries, perfumes etc.

I am keen that Which?, rather than Conversations, allows members to have a forum to talk and generate ideas. And with discussion refine the idea to a form worthy of Which? comment.

As a Victor Meldrew clone sometimes, I despair when we use the maths ineptitude of the public as an excuse. First I don’t believe most are as inept as is made out. Secondly, it is arithmetic, not maths, and most of it very basic – your mobile phone can do the sum for you if you can’t.

Well Victor

” Arithmetic or arithmetics (from the Greek word ἀριθμός, arithmos “number”) is the oldest[1] and most elementary branch of mathematics” My innate knowledge of quantity tells me I saved 6 pixel eating letters by going for the general word : )

” 17 million adults in England (just under half the working-age population) are at ‘Entry Levels’ in numeracy – roughly equivalent to the standards expected in primary school. The figure in 2003 was 15 million (in percentage terms there was an increase from 46.9% to 49.1% – the overall population increased in size). The equivalent figure for literacy is 5 million adults (15%).”

Well, it is only primary school arithmetic that’s needed, after all. And I bet more than those can use a mobile phone and the necessary application. So much in life requires a basic working knowledge of numeracy. It is a disgrace that we seem so poor as a nation at taking this fundamental tool for life on board. I don’t believe it.I blame the government! Do the teachers not have some responsibility as well?

The provision of goods and services act – and shop staff are providing a service – should be amended to state that staff too, like products and like ‘services’ as commonly understood, should be fit for the purpose for which they are intended (employed).

Perhaps parents also have a role? I was always keen on my children playing games where skills would be needed. Playing 301 in darts, Scrabble, Acquire [the greatest ever boardgame] and computer games such as the Civilisation series.

I was not manic about it though. If you are in a believer in Tony Buzan’s theories on how the brain tags information and builds associations then you can understand laying the seeds in a young brain to add to.

should be a mandatory read. And using statistical tricks on impressionable young minds may alert them in adult life to the hornswoggling that is a feature of so much we read generated by politicians , advertisers, and businesses.

Arctophile says:
20 November 2013

Watched a fellow customer point out to a very dim member of staff in W H Smiths at the weekend a major error in the book promotion £10 each or 2 books for £22.00, her reaction to his point was laughable not sure she understood first time , finally said she would point it out to a manager !!!!!!!
Welwyn Garden City branch.

Quite. What galls me is not just the very low wattage of whatever light bulb might come on in their heads, but the sheer lack of gumption on the part of certain store staff.

There is a problem with any ad that encourages us to buy more food than we need, if the result is that we end up throwing it away, because of the sheer amount of food that nations (not just us here in the UK) throw away – waste – every year.

Many ads are produced to persuade us to buy things we don’t need – not just food. We need to exercise our personal responsibility and judgement to ensure we do not succumb.

Only supermarkets?

High street stores do it too

CindyC says:
22 September 2014

I would like a campaign to stop the current trend of ‘Buy 2 (or 3) for £….’. ?More often than not I walk away from these offers as I am not prepared to pay extra for just one item. At my local food store, they were selling 3 quiches for a so-called reduced price and when I questioned this was told that I could freeze two of them. I am a pensioner and don’t want my freezer filled up with items I may not use quickly. Is it all a con and are single items being sold at an inflated price? I would much prefer to buy more regularly. What do others feel about this? I am trying (where possible) to boycott these special offers, so from my point of view they are losing sales. Please could supermarkets reduce the price of single items.

Ruth Baumberg says:
13 May 2015

I went into Superdrug yesterday to buy Imodium for my holiday in India. Surprise, surprise special offers on 6’s but none in stock, only 12s which were not discounted (3 times the price of special offer 6s) When challenged, they quoted that offers were only if available stock. I suggested they remove special offers where stock is not avilable; they denied this was a problem. I have had the same problem elsewhere – eg Lidl French wine offers where you need a cardboard crate to put the 6 bottles with a discount. When no crates, the offers are invalid. You cannot leave the wines till crates arrive, cos then the wines are gone! Dilemma