/ 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?

JonoIn says:
27 May 2012

When I do my Asda shop I keep an eye on the labels. They always have the items labeled wrong. I find Home Bargains are labeling items wrongly also. I have realised big shops always label things to confuse the shopper!

MY TIP don’t buy too much, buy smaller shop that way it is easier to keep a check on your bill. Get familiar with prices, it really is easy once you get into the habit. I always take my phone with me, when I see an item wrongly labeled I take a photo of it, I then complain to the shop!

Alegra says:
27 May 2012

At Waitrose I have been caught out twice by items placed on shelves exactly where a special offer is indicated and only finding out on my bill that the offer did not apply to the particular item I selected. Another “catch” is when single items are reduced, while the multiple pack or larger size of the same item is not. One usually assumes that there will be some saving on a multipack or larger size. I have found this on toilet rolls and fabric conditioner at Waitrose. When I commented on it to an assistant, I was complimented on my shopping know how!

My solution is to point out the problem, or remove the misleading shelf label if a member of staff is not to hand.

Sometimes the problem is caused by customers putting items back in the wrong place.

Brian@leeds says:
27 May 2012

My weekly shop is carried out at either Asda or Morrisons with emergecy shopping at either Co-op or Lidl, both much closer.
I have noted that the unit price on the shelf-front lables have been getting smaller as the years pass. Those shelf-front lables on the bottem two shelves are impossible to wholly read unless one is prepared to lay upon the floor. I now take an electronic calculator with me and have been surprised at the numbers of incorrect unit prices displayed. I am told store employees that those prices are determined at Head Office. One would expect that Head Office would choose an employee familiar with using an electronic calculator.

There are clearly many issues with all supermarkets. Lets hope whatever regulator, if indeed there is one, isn’t as dim witted as the new financial regulator otherwise I can see the suggestion of supermarkets charging admission in the vain hope that will make them clean up their acts.

YorkshireJumbo says:
27 May 2012

Mind you, there is an upside to their mistakes. I bought a couple of items showing as reduced on the Te$co shelves, but was charged full price at the checkout. When I complained, they said the reduction ended a couple of days before, but as the shelf pricing was wrong, they’d refund me twice the difference 🙂

Mike says:
27 May 2012

6 wks ago Tesco increased extra lge eggs from £1.78 to £2.03! Today (27 May 2012) £1.58!!!! Number of complaints made in the interim, no acknowledgement! Some way to treat customers. Chancey retailer, they’re heading for a big drop, steer well clear.

Mike says:
27 May 2012

Re YORKSHIRE J………….be wary and check your till receipt. It has been suggested to me that it is so easy to ‘tell’ a till to double charge an item once a running total goes over a certain amount. Think you’d notice a difference in an £85 bill of say £2????????? CHECK YOUR TILL RECEIPT FOR DOUBLE ENTRIES AND FETCH THE MANAGER.

The problem is compounded for pensioners like myself with no car who are dependent on on-line shopping. There you lose out even more compared to a bricks and mortar store where at least you can complain, and hopefully get some redress, when you get to the checkout and the prices are not what you were lead to believe. Online you have no chance other than to complain post the event where you have great difficulty proving what was on screen at the time you ordered. on-line the system seems to be riddled with “mistakes”. Here is a couple of current ” promotions” aka rip-offs.

Punnet Cherries Class 1, half price was 3.99. What does it ring up? £1.99 ? £2.00? No £4
Ripen At Home Peach, better than half price, was £3.99 now £1.00, but £3.99 is still rung up.

Another major problem shopping on-line is the lack of on-packet information. Rarely is the full on-packet information given on-line, mostly it is a watered down version, or a cop-out statement referring you to the manufacturers web site. I feel the law needs to be changed so that big on-line retailers are obliged to provide the full on-packet information and be subject to hefty fines if they do not.

I suggest that you check that prices are shown correctly in your ‘basket’ before placing the order and that you make a copy, so that you have evidence in case you are overcharged. If possible, save it as a pdf file, which could be sent to Customer Services if you are lucky enough to be able to find an email address. (Most companies expect us to use forms on their websites, and no attachments can be added.)

It would be quite difficult for online supermarkets to provide detailed information about all the products they sell, simply because the manufacturers often change what they sell. On another Which? Conversation there is a lot of discussion about changing pack sizes, and I doubt that this is all that is changing.

Wavechange, it is by checking what is “rung up” (and then deleting it) that I discovered the problem.

Re “It would be quite difficult for online supermarkets to provide detailed information about all the products they sell, simply because the manufacturers often change what they sell” I disagree. If the manufacturer changes what they sell then it becomes a new product with a new entry in the database so I see no problem for the supermarkets. Invariably such on packet information originates on the product manufacturers PC in word processed form so all that is needed is to agree standards of layout and mode of transmission so that it can easily be incorporated in the retailers database.


I am not opposed to what you are suggesting, but when supermarkets make so many simple mistakes concerning pricing etc., what you (and I) want – which would require extensive cooperation between the supermarkets and many manufacturers – is unlikely to happen soon. Maybe one solution if for online customers to send back items because of lack of key information relevant to food intolerances and allergies. That could convince the companies that customers need and deserve to have comprehensive and current information if they are unable to inspect the packet labels. Anything that costs the company money is likely to be taken seriously.

Hi Wavechange

Broadly speaking there are two types of mistake: those that happen at the branch i.e. having the wrong price against the product (e.g. showing a promo price when the promo has finished) or simply stacking the goods in the wrong place on the shelf and thus adjacent to the wrong price. This is all about branch management and discipline within the workforce. Since Branch Managers are judged on profitability there is no effective incentive for them to step up policing of shelf prices.

However the much bigger problem is mistakes maintaining the product/pricing database which affects all branches and typically takes place at Head Office. Considered a boring job, and again there is no effective incentive to get it right since mistakes do not directly affect anyone senior at the HO location.

It really needs aggrieved consumers to write in en mass, and as you know, few bother.

You suggest that we write en masse, Pureedfruit. Supermarkets and other companies are very good at ignoring complaints. Most companies do not even provide an email address, expecting us to use a form on their website, making it difficult to keep a copy of correspondence or to attach a photo providing evidence of our concern. Some expect us to tweet our concerns on Twitter. I would rather that Which? pushed companies to provide an email address rather than encouraged us to communicate with companies by Twitter.

I hope that our comments on Which? Conversation are used to help Which? to take action on our behalf. There is a lot of concern about supermarkets and I am not aware of much progress in the last couple of years.

Tropicana 1 litre fruit juice in Sainsbury’s, Nantwich was recently advertised as a multi-buy ‘All 1L Tropicana juice 3 for 2’. So I bought three, and when at the checkout I noticed I had been charged full price for two and a higher price for the third. On querying this at the customer services, I was taken to the label which, in small writing had ‘ See shelf for details’ where it transpired that one flavour was excluded, and I had bought it. The details card on the shelf was nowhere near the Tropicana but approximately 15 feet away beside other products. To me where it says ALL 1L cartons are 3 for 2, it should mean just that. It was clear that the customer servcies rep had dealt with similar complaints before. I will not be conned and now shop at Waitrose.

Richard R says:
31 May 2012

I notice that Waitrose are making much noise about matching Tesco prices – but I have spotted a number of instances where they highlight the Tesco price comparison – in large letters – but just above is one of their own special offers that is cheaper! And yes, please, please, compulsory clear unit pricing – again, Waitrose are very naughty here, for a supermarket that prides itself on its fairness!

I find it amazing that we are so tolerant of supermarkets playing with prices when there is an uproar when a mobile phone company raises the price of their contracts, even by a small amount. I assume that it is because we (very reasonably) expect a contract to be a fixed price.

Perhaps we should push for supermarkets to keep prices fixed for 12 months or 24 months. It would save a lot of hassle for customers and could save the supermarket and the manufacturers a lot of work and cost in playing around with package size and prices.

Our local coop has gone seriously downhill since it took over from Somerfield. Second year running cherries ‘were £4 not halfprice’ have NEVER been £4. Reduced stock actually displayed with mould on it and now then have rearranged their display so you have to walk through an avenue of special offers to get to the till. All, without exception, foods high in sugar and fat – and they like to call themselves a responsible company.

Tesco shopping is now so complicated I avoid it as much as possible – Aldi is definitely our best bet here, and I now use local shops as much as possible which are usually, surprisingly better value and much more honest. Admittedly I live in Ludlow, the foodies town!

It’s not just supermarkets that are misleading the customer. I have experienced over pricing and seemingly large reductions frequently at Debenhams on-line and in store. For instance the original price of an item I bought was £10 which was hidden by a £12 sticky label (so increased by 20 % to £12) then put on the sale shelf offering a reduction of 20% being sold at £9.60 which is actually a reduction of only 4% on the original price – I do think there is more to this as I have witnessed goods even on the internet being increased from one day to another,and being offered with an inflated sale percentage reduction on the next day. One particular occasion I noticed an item on sale at £49 from £99 and the next week it was showing as being reduced by 50% down to £100 from £199 – most peculiar and not very transparent I thought it was a genuine mistake but then I notice at sale times original prices increase, lulling the customer into thinking the sales reduction is greater than it actually is. Items that were perhaps £10 cheaper the previous week suddenly are inflated the following week in a buy one get one half price offer. The response to one of my observations to Debenhams was as follows “We do make every effort to keep prices constant by implementing as few price increases as possible, and customer feedback suggests that Debenhams’ merchandise is considered to be very good value for money. However, we must naturally meet our own escalating costs and when we feel that a price increase is inevitable a new price label is placed over the old one. Were we to change the entire price label this would naturally involve extra manpower and extra costs, and could lead to higher prices for customers – a situation which we very much wish to avoid. I would also like to confirm that the procedure of adding a new sticky label is by no means unacceptable in terms of retail practice, and it is most regrettable that an impression to the contrary seems to have arisen”. Beware of buy one get one half price offers as the same 2 items could well have been cheaper i day earlier!!

It is not just supermarkets that are misleading customers. I have experienced inflated prices in Debenhams prior to a sale, goods being marked up and then reduced in the sale to show a higher “percentage” sale price. I have also noted that goods being advertised as buy one get one half price where in fact cheaper the previous week with the original price being inflated.

Ive been shocked at Recent Price increases on Tinned Items at ASDA for weeks before they had been
Running speical offers 2 for a Pound yet i find a smaller store selling Princess Items at 79p per tin cheaper than ASDA so called special offers Salisbury too sell at double the price a smaller store sells at.The smaller store does not sell at a LOSS so its a Massive Markup on Tin Foods a right RIPOFF!..Unfortunately owing to the price of Fuel&Time most people cannot shop around the Big 4 or 5 only compare Prices with each other.If you like PUKKER PIES Checkout the Fat Content 1st!.

Maureen says:
12 June 2012

I was speaking to my friend today and telling her about the comments that are flooding in from shoppers about the Supermarkets.
She told me that in Tesco, a bag of bananas cost £1.20. Her friend takes them out of the bag and gets them weighed at the till and they are half price of 60p. It might well pay us all to take things out of the bag and have then weighed loose and save a few bob! Absolutely disgraceful to double the price for putting them in a bag.
It is about time something was done to stop all this cheating going on, as let’s face it, all the Supermakets are making billions each year and some of that comes from cheating as with the bananas.
This has been a very interesting survey with all the comments that have come in and we can’t all be wrong can we? Please keep them coming, then if enough people show the Supermarkets up for what they are, perhaps the Office of Fair Trading might get involved. It’s about time they did to put a stop to all this cheating the public with false offers and packaging.

Robert says:
12 June 2012

Everyone should be aware that pre-bagged fruit and veg is almost invariably more expensive than loose. They usually do not show the weight or unit price if it is pre-packed, so difficult to tell.

The real answer is not to buy from supermarkets if possible, but support your local greengrocer or market if you still have one.

Zoe Pritchett says:
14 June 2012

hello, even though they have apologised and ‘held their hands up’ they are still doing it! I have been buying Can’t Believe its Not Butter for several months at £1.25, approx 3 weeks ago it went on offer in Tesco’s at “£1.45 each or 2 for £2.00”! Now the offer has finished they have remained at £1.45 each, how on earth are they still getting away with this? this is probably just one example of many that they are still pulling the wool over their customers eyes!

I’ve just been caught out by a Tesco promotion. I noticed that Iams cat biscuits were on offer – £10 for 3kg. I duly ordered this item, but when I received it, I noticed that the actual weight of the bag was 2.55kg – 450g short. On my receipt it states 3kg. This is misleading and the most annoying thing is most people will not notice. I am sick of these huge companies treating their customers with such disdain.

That could just be as simple as the employee responsible for fullfilling on line orders picking up the wrong product. And due to the lack of an kind of QA in that company, you got the worng product. But somehow I doubt it. Be interesting to hear what Tesco have to say on that matter. Good luck.

William, I don’t think it is that simple. Even if, as you postulate, the picker picked up the wrong product, it should sill go through the checkout and ring up the correct product details (including the weight) and the related price. Here we clearly have a 2.55kg product being sold as a 3kg product. That’s a SCAM in anyone’s language.

Pepperty, if you prorate that 2.55kg would cost £8.50. I suggest you demand a £1.50 refund.

I don’t believe that Iams have ever made a 2.55kg bag of this product, until now. I think the manufacturer has reduced the pack size instead of increasing the price. Tesco has chosen not to pass this information on to the customer in hope that most people won’t notice. Something that seems to happen a lot. I have finally managed to complete their online form ( it insists that you provide a valid mobile phone number – WHY? I don’t have a mobile phone so I made one up!) and I have requested a refund of the difference, but I haven’t told them how much, let them work it out! I’ll soon let them know if they get it wrong.

Fair enough. Just glad I had added ” But somehow I doubt it”.

Just a quick update. I have just received a call from Tesco, they are refunding me 50% of the cost, i.e. £5. They recognise that there was an error.

@pepperty, Congratulations, And FYI Tesco used to offer double the difference if you could show they’d made a pricing mistake.

I think Trading Standards should be informed about this.I would like to ask the people taking part in these discussions at what percentage e.g.is a tin of Chicken curry if it contains less than 25% Chicken then it should be labelled Chicken Flavored Curry;same applies to any tinned or frozern product Frozen Fish is usually 50% of the box.I returned 2 tins of Chilli-con-carne to-day to Aldi because it only had 9%Beef Content.It should have been Chilli-con-carne Flavor 400gram tins it was priced at 99p yet same as in Asda is 54p.I think the big 4or5 are running a price Cartel.Why because Asda charging £1-49 for 400gram tins of Princess various Currys and other readymeals where a smaller supermarket in a local shopping mall charging 78p per tin and they not selling at a loss.Asda price check complicated must be done on-line and 8 products.

Akile says:
17 June 2012

Reference to June Which magazine, the blueberries at Tesco, I recently went into my Tesco on Hucknall Road in Nottingham to find the 225g Atlantic Blueberries (“on sale at £1.99”) replaced by a very similar looking product at the “special price” of £2. Upon further inspection they turned out to be a smaller pack (150g as compared to 225g) and not of the same quality! Daylight robbery!