/ Food & Drink, Shopping

Can you trust supermarket special offers? We investigate…

Food prices can

Have you ever been baffled by the seemingly endless succession of BOGOFs, rollbacks and 50% extra free deals adorning supermarket shelves? More to the point, do you trust them to actually save you money?

When we last devoted a Convo to this thorny topic, we asked whether you thought special offers were designed to provide the average shopper with good value. And cynicism was rife in your comments:

‘In their “home baked” section is a “promotion” to buy “three 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 three!’, said an outraged Ken Grahame.

‘I find it very confusing and time-wasting trying to work out which products are included in any offer, which is often NOT clear’, said Mrs A Johnson.

‘Supermarket pricing policy is now designed to increase margins primarily through confusing their “loyal” customers into buying bargains that are not bargains’, commented the frustrated Victor Meldrew Fan.

Biggest ever look at special offers

Clearly the problem is still rife, and you’re right to be cynical. In our biggest ever look at special offers, we reveal a whole range of tactics designed to make bargains look unmissable when, in fact, we don’t think they were ever really bargains at all.

Some notable examples include:

  • Products that always seemed to be discounted, with a ‘was’ price that we never saw during our tracking. Aquafresh MilkTeeth Toothpaste was sold at ‘was £1.74, now £1.15’ at Asda. The highest price it was sold at prior to the offer, during our tracking period, was £1.17.
  • Products that increased in price just a few days before being sold ‘on offer’. Tesco’s blueberries increased in price from £1.80 to £3.99 for 14 days before going on ‘offer’ for £1.99.
  • Multibuys where the products were more expensive per item when they were on offer than when they weren’t. Asda doubled the price of a single Muller Yoghurt from 30p to 61p at the time they went on to offer a multibuy at ‘10 for £4’. They went back to 30p when the multibuy offer ended. This meant they were more expensive per yoghurt when you bought 10 under the offer than when you bought one before or after it.
  • And products that were on offer for longer than they were at the higher price. Tesco sold Becks beer for 190 days at a discounted price, but only 70 days at the higher price.

We examined a year’s worth of data from independent shopping website mysupermarket.co.uk

The way forward for pricing

We’re calling on supermarkets to make their pricing clearer. We want them to show clear unit pricing – the price by weight, volume or unit – so that you can easily compare what you’re buying. We’re also putting pressure on them to sort out special offers so that they’re exactly that – special.

What would you do if you were in charge of supermarket pricing? How long would you say something had to be at the higher price before it went on special offer? Or would you just ban special offers altogether, and charge consumers a fair price all year round?


I assume that anything that is not on special offer is likely to be overpriced and that anything on offer could still be rather pricey. It’s all a game, but most shoppers are wise to what is going on.

It used to be possible to buy some BOGOF items at heavily discounted prices, so that the supermarket actually paid you to buy the goods. Unfortunately, the supermarkets learned what was going on. What a pity because it is so nice to be able to outwit those who are trying to cheat and confuse their customers.

Tesco offers on fruit and veg are always annoying, as they drop the amount in a bag when they do a 2 for 1. This is surely not a mistake or human error as they do it all the time.

Jaffa Oranges are usually in a 5 pack, but when on BOGOF they’re dropped to 4.

Maureen says:
24 May 2012

I am amazed at all the tricks now used in supermarkets, including these “not so special” special offers!
As long ago as 1961 when i worked at (a famous cheap chain store) I was very surprised to find that we had to put higher prices on most items, 2 weeks before the sales! I learnt early to pay more attention and now I find a trip to the suppermarkets very daunting with so many new tricks/ gimmicks and you eyes in the back of your head to not get caught out in one way or another. The most annoying thing for me of late is wrongly priced goods, which is so common now and having to check and double check my receipts, and then to go to customer services to get things corrected! How many people are ripped off because they dont even notice or haven’t got the time to check ? Everyone need to be made more aware.

I really dislike the way supermarkets go about displaying their special offers. I’m lucky that I live with someone who has worked in retail for so long, that he has an eye for a good offer. However, our shop also takes twice as long as the average person, as we carefully calculate the best offers based on prices per gram and so on.

It’s difficult to suggest how supermarkets should solve the problem, but I’m sure that misleading customers is not the way to go. I’d love to see awareness raised but, even better, I’d like to see supermarket special offers made clearer. Perhaps they could reduce the sheer number of offers and focus on a few cost-effective, useful special offers, as well as lowering prices across the board.

Surely its quite simple to solve this problem, taking one example quoted in the article above.

“Aquafresh MilkTeeth Toothpaste was sold at ‘was £1.74, now £1.15’ at Asda. The highest price it was sold at prior to the offer, during our tracking period, was £1.17.”

Solution fine ASDA a very large amount say £100 million, and then ban the CEO and every director and senior manager from being able to run a company ever again. You’d be surprised how quickly they get their acts together.

If the supermarkets are worried about the odd mistake resulting in such a huge punishment, I wonder how long before they employ more staff as that would be cheaper than the punishment.

And while I’m being radical, have a go at whatever regulators are supposed to oversee this mess, as they clearly aren;t up to the job.

It’s kinda like a professional footballer being fine £75k which for him is a weeks wages, that will have no effect. His match ban might.

I fully support the idea to have clear pricing. Supermarkets rely on people not having time to check everything. When I have the time, I calculate the individual cost of an item and compare that with other packs.

In Sainsburys, where to be fair many items are priced per unit, cans of Coke are sold in packs of 6, 12, 20 and 24. Often the cheapest is not clear especially when there is another price for buying multiple packs. (eg. 2 x packs of 6 can be cheaper than a pack of 12).

I have problems with comparing items sold by weight. Comparing vegetables sold in packs with the price sold loose is very difficult. I usually assume loose is cheaper but can’t be sure.

I try to check that offers are recognized at the checkout but often the discounts are not calculated until everything has gone through. I check the receipt now ever since a relative told me she regularly returns to customer service because of errors.

On a positive note, at least all this mental arithmatic keeps the mind active! Must be very difficult for people who struggle with maths.

Hi jonas131415 (that’s quite a mouthful!) – you make a really good point about unit pricing. It can be extremely difficult to work out which product represents the best value when some are priced by weight and some are priced by item. This is something that we’re hoping to change, and we want to encourage supermarkets to add clear, consistent unit pricing all of their items (including on their ‘special offers’) – that way you should be able to see at a glance whether an offer is a genuine bargain, and which product you should go for if you want to get the most for your money.

Please do help us out with this campaign by signing the pledge and letting us know which supermarket you usually shop it – it all helps us out when we’re on the campaigning trail!

mummychildminder says:
25 May 2012

I totally agree with the lack of clarity of pricing – for example: bags of 6 or 7 apples for £1.70 compared with the loose produce – which is cheaper to buy? I challenge anyone doing the supermarket shop with children to work this out!

djaceng says:
24 May 2012

This has been going on for some time now but it is accelerating. For example go to Mysupermarket and look at how many “offers” are presented to customers each week. For me I have the time and capacity to keep up with what the supermarkets are doing but what about those who are not as mathematically able, those who are infirm, those who haven’t got the time, those that cannot read?? Supermarkets now seem to think these people are “fair game” and I feel so sorry for these people that get hit by the supermarkets tricks.
Examples are:
Cases of beer on offer if you buy 2 or 3 cases – older folks like a beer every now and then.
Never heard of before bottles of wine sold at half price when nobody has ever seen it at full price before and it doesn’t warrant being priced so high.
Smaller quantities of items priced cheaper per unit than larger quantities – designed to deceive.
Never ending variation in carton content size/number – eg dishwasher tablets. The reason R&B keep changing carton size is to confuse – there is no customer demand for all these different sizes.
Regular discounting – take Ribena for example – for the last year or so every 6 weeks the price has been halved – not so special really just a regular trick.
Fruit and Vegetables seem to be priced to the nearest pound – is this indicative of getting value for money – whatever happened to pennies – why are soft fruits always £2 or £3 for one or two cartons?
New potatoes arrive (Jerseys) and as soon as they enter the shop they are sold at half price even though its the beginning of the season.
Has anyone every bought prawns recently without them being on offer? Chicken breast also?

As usual these tricks will be perpetrated by the Head Office staff until one day someone will go too far in terms of deception and all of a sudden there will be a public outcry – lets hope its soon.

Rosemary says:
24 May 2012

There are a lot of false discounts being offered in shops such as Spar, Costcutter and Mace. When are these going to be investigated?

notcheaper says:
24 May 2012

if you check the offers on mars & snickers and other chocolates on offer for £1 for 4,but in the past they used to have 5 in the packet so again what a rip off.

David Betterley says:
24 May 2012

I have just read a news item regarding supermarket pricing. Not only are there soem dubious practices regarding offers there is another hidden pricing matter. Most people would consider a larger item such as a litre bottle would be cheaper than two half litre bottles. This is often not the case. Recently I visited a supermarket which labled a litre bottle of cooking oil as £3.59 and next to it the half litre bottle was £1.69. In other words two half litre bottles were a total of 3.38 a 21.p saving. Now I am not complaining because I noticed it and in any case I wasn’t buying that particular brand. It does however mislead the customer who might not have either noticed or have the time to check. There was another example from the same supermarket recently where packets of biscuits were on sale in double packs at sevral pence more than two single packs. It is good if you have the time and or inclination to check but not for those who do not.

Leslie says:
24 May 2012

As pensioners, my wife and I only have ourselves to cater for and we resent all the 2 for the price of 1 type offers because we know that the unit price must be high. This is particularly annoying for perishable items. A fair price for everything with no multiple offers would be very welcome.

Maureen says:
26 May 2012

I couldn’t agree more. It is even worse living alone. It appears that ALL supermarkets cater for are families who are able to spend in excess of £50.
They do not cater for single people or couples at all and in my book, that is DISCRIMINATION.
I know that I do not have the storage space to bulk buy and I know I don’t stand alone.
It is about time all supermarkets were checked on and told to toe the line and be fair, or face the consequences. We are being ripped off all the time, which is not right.

On your facebook post it says you went thru a years worth of data. Is it easy for individuals to get hold of this data? I’ve had suspicions of pricing irregularities but have been unable to prove as I don’t have any data to back it up.

All4One_One4All says:
25 May 2012

A years worth of data from supermarket.co.uk is only the superficial and easily checked data.
It doesn’t include incidents where shelf label data is NOT for the adjacent product.
It doesn’t cater for incidents where the label says ‘ExpensivoFruito’, but the barcode is for ‘CheapoJamo’ with a price correct for the jam.

On a slightly different topic, have you ever wondered how supermarkets that use EPOS systems can run out of a particular product and fail to get re-supplied for days or weeks?

Hmm, you didn’t seem to get my post listing a couple of items, so here we go again.

All concern tesco:

Cadbury’s twinpots seem to have been on 4 for £3.00 for months and months.

Pringles many ago I seem to recall them being 99p a tube, then they jumped to something like £1.99 only for a a week or so later to be on offer something like 2 for £2.00.

This latter tactic also applies to Frijj milk

@All4one, I know that Tesco don’t have any system in place to warn when stock levels on the shelves is getting low, so the shelves can be restocked, as when I queried this with a member of staff about how come the shelves with offers on are empty she said well this is Tesco what do you expect.

@Alice, Any joy in proving or disproving the pricing tactics on the products I listed?

This is why I asked if the data is available as I could have found the answers out myself by now. One of the joys of being umemployed.

I agree with the all the above, what irritates me are the wine offers, as mentioned by djaceng and known ‘brands’ which usually sell for around £5 a bottle, but have supposedly been sold for £9.99 and now reduced back to £5. Another trick is wine priced at £8.99 but 3 for £10.
I also notice that a lot of perishable fruit is prepacked as half price! we’re meant to believe that Blackberries are normally up to £24 a kilo.

Andrew Natt says:
24 May 2012

Its not just the super markets what are doing in this. Why not look at the carpet superstores and the furniture industry. 60% off or free underlay and fitting. Do they think British a consumers are stupid

Robert says:
26 May 2012

We bought an off-cut at CarpetRight the other day. It was 75% off retail because it was an off-cut. I worked out that the full price was around £50/sq.m. and queried this with the salesman as I had not seen anything at that price. He told me that they sold it at 50% off retail as standard! There must be huge margins on carpets if they make a decent profit at 50% off list anyway.

peter carter says:
25 May 2012

i use to work in retail up until recently and a few years ago saw prices double then revert back to the old price marked as a sale item. can we blame the 28 day rule that says a shop somewhere in the country sold an item at a higher price then reduced it, this is then blanketed throughout the country. it started when the vat rose from 17.5% to 20% many items instead of the 2.5% rise which it should have done to 20% went up considerably more than that in some cases 20% . im not sure if many people saw this and excepted the rise without thought. coop has had some outrageous posters in their windows saying 4 chicken breasts were over £7 now £3.50 while at the same time selling whole chicken at £2 to £3. iv tried shouting this on twitter or face book but felt ranting at myself. at the mo coop is selling 4 cans of chopped toms at old price £4 and over offer price £2 just over (from memory) when ever did they cost that much?.i walked out and went down the road to Tesco and got more for my money but they were just as bad. how can any of these company’s say that they made a mistake i feeling we are all being b*********d. its the marketing teams who are pulling the wool over our eyes believing us all to be idiots. as a single dad and used to doing my own shopping and being fond of looking for a bargain i have a good memory for old prices and at the moment we are being robbed i dont feel its cost of transport or labour its just greed and targets and no matter what the government does with vat the supermarkets are going to want to make there wedge and we are the ones who are being stung. there are some good offers out there but few and far . and what is it with asda ” all these items for a pound” b******s! in many cases you can find those items a lot cheaper elsewhere. pound land were doing it ages ago using the perception of customers idea of a bargain. i think the best thing pound land did was bring down the price of a 4pint bottle of milk to a quid and you can use that example as a marker as to their influence on the bigger supermarkets .

What supermarkets get up to features regularly in Which? Conversation. Most customers are well aware of the games they play to convince us we are buying bargains and some of their tricks are used widely in retail sales. I reckon it’s disgraceful and an insult to the consumer, but in most cases what they get up to is legal.

I am not convinced that further raising of awareness will achieve much. Is there any real possibility that supermarkets will clean up their act?

Timmus says:
25 May 2012

How about a smartphone app to display your recent (3 months, perhaps) price trends per product/store?

Use the camera to scan bar code or SKU to find out what’s really a price reduction and what isn’t, and who has a better offer.

There are already apps to compare spot prices, especially for white goods, across several retailers but nothing specifically to thwart supermarkets.

Jason says:
25 May 2012

You know, just shop at Waitrose! They are a partnership and are far more honest about their pricing. In my experience it is simply not true that they are more expensive, they are just more realistic and less likely to rip you off unlike the ‘big boys’!

John Pohl-Webb says:
25 May 2012

I shop at Morrison’s 85% of the time due to its convenience and location here in Loughton, Essex but even so I still purchase goods based on a standard measurement of cost/100ml, cost/100mg or multiples thereof. Much to my disgust Morrison’s have now copied Sainsburys in displaying on their Price Labels for Toilet Rolls the value/sheet. To do a price value comparison one has to study the packaging to determine the size of individual sheets and the number of sheets on average/roll. Then to complicate matters even more a customer then has to investigate whether the product is 2 ply or 3 ply that may or may not substantiate why their is a variance in number of sheets/roll.
With your initial discussion on the history of pricing of products over a pre-determined period on time to conform to ‘best practice regulations’, is not practicable from the common man aspect. We often buy more so based on visual stimulation, emotion and lastly the need and if it is strong enough and the pocket can withstand any pain.
Overall, I have found Morrison’s to be more fairer than all the others but the ‘toilet roll’ issue on piece pricing I trust is not the thin edge of the wedge. Finally, cost/ml or cost/mg is always in the smallest font and does not encourage usage by anyone.

Les Potter says:
25 May 2012

We shop regularly at Sainsbury’s and the offers drive me crazy. We could go elsewhere but the other supermarkets are no better. Examples: English strawberries half price for £2 (When were they ever £4?) and the local greengrocer is selling them at £1.75), Pineapples, buy 2 get one half price (why would anybody want two large pineapples unless they are throwing a party), all the loose cream cakes, buns etc are 3 for 2. We are both in our 70’s and pensioners are particularly badly affected by the supermarkets ploys. Half a pineapple is more than enough for us but they do not sell half pineapples. Two cream cakes as a treat is ample for us. Why are the supermarkets allowed to get away with it? Simple, too many shoppers are either foolish or can’t be bothered to take the time to look more closely at the offers. The rules on offers need to be tightened up.

Calum says:
25 May 2012

Special Offer in Tesco Nescafe 200g at £4.00 (reduced from £4.79)
Just beneath a small display of bigger jars- 300g of the same product at £3.75 !!!!
Think this may have been a “c**k up” as when I took one up to the till it scanned at £5.99, however on checking the price displayed they honoured the lower one to be fair.