/ Food & Drink, Shopping

Do you question your supermarket’s pricing tactics?

Special offer campaign labels

You may be a shopper who follows a list, compares prices and doubts every offer. Or you may just sling things in a basket and hope for the best. But however you shop, working out what’s cheapest is not always easy.

Supermarkets and big brands want you to spend money with them and so they employ a host of tactics to get you to part with your cash. We’ve pulled out five shopping tactics or issues that we think you should watch out for.

These might not be deliberate ploys or attempts to mislead customers, but they do all make it harder for you to know how to get the best deal. So, here, we’ve suggested ways to beat the system.

Shrinking products costing you more

To compile our list we crunched data from the independent shopping website Mysupermarket.co.uk, visited each supermarket and recorded details from their websites. Not all supermarkets could be included in all categories, as some don’t sell online. Some of the tactics we unearthed include products that shrink in size but not in price –  a topic we’ve discussed in great length before.

Now as the saying goes, sometimes good things come in small packages – and when it comes to refills, this may well be the case. In Asda, the Kenco Eco Refill (150g or 275g) was the same price per 100g as the 200g jar. And it’s thanks to the trusty unit price that we can see these kinds of anomalies at a glance – as surely you’d expect the refill to be cheaper?

When bigger isn’t always better value

And on this note, bigger doesn’t always mean better value. We found examples where the bigger pack wasn’t better value, even though some of the larger packs were claimed to be at a special price. This was the case with Tesco selling four cans of Green Giant Original Sweetcorn for £2 (was £2.44) but six cans were proportionally more expensive at £3.56. And that’s despite the fact the larger pack said ‘special value pack’. Sometimes, buying separate items can work out cheaper.

Late last year we called on supermarkets to Make Special Offers Special. We are continuing to talk to the supermarkets about their offers as we think all special offers should be transparent so that you can easily tell which products are cheapest. We’re keen to hear if you’ve been lured in by this pricing tactics and if you feel they’re costing you money in the long run. What is your pet hate when it comes to supermarket pricing?


The top priority must be to have unit prices on all goods, including multi-buy offers. Then we can compare unit prices and it does not matter what games the supermarkets play with prices.

Let us fight the battle for unit prices on every single product.

You can blame the poorly thought out and implemented Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 for that one. It completely missed out multi-buys. And the fact that some 6 years later on its still not been plugged leads me to believe it won’t happen anytime soon, although with an election coming hope I can only hope.

Just two years ago, we were discussing Asda’s plan to cut down on multi-buys: https://conversation.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/asda-supermarket-multibuys-phase-out/comment-page-1/

I have not heard any more about this, so I presume that the Asda is back to forcing us to buy more perishable food than we need, just like the other supermarkets have continued to do.

Well considering the multi buy is a mechanic for moving more stock for the supermarket rather than being a benefit to the consumer I’m not surprised.

And here was another unpopular epetition I started 🙁


Lets us have straightforward discount offers no bog offs, no false pricing. Multi buy offers discriminate against the less well off and single person.

Not only unit pricing, but unit pricing that can be seen and read without changing to reading glasses. Unit pricing that is consistant throughout the store. Unit pricing that is un-ambiguous.

My pet hate is quite clear here also, and will get negative comments I know.
NO dual pricing, NO dual labeling, NO unit prices per lb, specially when its the same size font as price / kg.

Some time ago I got caught with this unit price per lb for one item thinking it was the cheaper. Yes it was stupid and nieve, but in the instant it worked. In Tesco this week chestnuts were singled out for ‘price per lb’. Why chestnuts I wondered? Does it really serve to inform, or does it serve to confuse? It certainly confuses me, but then I am an old fogie and easily confused.

I thought dual pricing was displayed to help old confused fogies. Although I’m an old fogie, sometimes confused, I use metric measures only in supermarkets. Because there are still some elderly shoppers who shop in imperial the dual pricing may help them but it may just be part of the supermarkets foggy pricing policy. Whatever it is, they must all be consistent and show the metric price in larger print than the imperial.

Elaine says:
18 February 2014

I regularly shop in French supermarkets and it makes me angry that UK supermarkets don’t:
A) price everything prominently by the kilo, whether loose, shrink wrapped, bottled, in jars, in tins etc. Then you can compare prices accurately.
B) let you weigh and price your own fruit and veg, so you can see exactly what you’re spending before you get to the checkout.
C) cut back on the wasteful, often uneconomic, BOGOF and three for two offers. You don’t see that many in France, and where you do it’s mostly on non perishables, particularly shampoos, soaps etc.
D) stop offering carrier bags, even those that are charged for. Shoppers soon get used to remembering their own reusable bags if there is no way of being provided with the means of carrying shopping at the tills!

“To compile our list we crunched data from” hope you took into account that some supermarkets the online price is not the price you pay in the store. I know ASDA fall into that category.

I’d like to see all multibuys banned, or implement the same system they have in the USA, where the cost of a single item is prorated from the cost of the multibuy. e.g. single item is 20p, buy 10 for £1 yet if you buy one you’re only charged 10p.

“That’s despite the fact the larger pack said special value pack” is that still the case as I know many companies have now removed any indication the the large items are better value and that’s been the case for some months. Kellogs Crunchy nut now say The Biggest One. When I noticed I asked them why they changed it and the reply from the company lawyers was it was more in-keeping with the image they wanted to portray. Wonder if all the other companies that had just renamed large boxes did it at the same time for the same reason. This was a few moths after it was pointed out that supermarkets were making not attempt to ensure that was the case. Co-incidence. Yeah right.

“We’ve pulled out 10 shopping tactics” yet the link takes you to a page with 5 listed, the URL even has five-pricing-tactics-to-watch-out-for-in-supermarkets-354071 on it. Where’s the other 5 ?

The regard to smaller sizes it should be a legal requirement to state in large letters SMALLER, on the product. They’d New larger etc on without needing it to be a law though wouldn’t they.

Sorry William, the full list of 10 tactics is in this month’s Which? magazine. We’ve just pulled out five online, so we’ve tweaked the copy of the Convo 🙂

Nicely found William 🙂 We have more detail on the tricks online here if you’re a Which? member: http://www.which.co.uk/home-and-garden/leisure/guides/food-and-grocery-prices-what-you-need-to-know/10-pricing-tactics-in-supermarkets/

Well wavechange’s top tip is to focus on unit prices and compare them.

Tesco sometimes get unit prices wrong, but the errors are so large they are obvious.

Tesco are so infamous for their poor special offers there’s even a dedicated facebook page about them


Looks like the OFT were supposedly looking into seem of these practices around 2011, maybe you could ask them why they’re still going on and why they’ve not done anything about it 3 years on


We really do need regulators that are fit for purpose.

Will someone remind me to take a calculator when I do my next fortnightly shop. It won’t solve all of the supermarket tricks but should help working out the some of the dodgy offers!

Clutter says:
20 February 2014

Your mobile phone will have a calculator on it.

Clutter says:
20 February 2014

400g Asda Baguette £0.50 last week is £0.75 this week. Fully expect ‘Roll back’ £0.65 soon.

How many people are deluded into thinking that with Sainsbury’s Brand Match, Tesco Price Promise, etc., that there is no need to shop around to get the lowest prices?

Because these schemes (in all senses of the word) average out the gains on special offers and losses on higher priced items across your shopping basket, the supermarket isn’t giving you the best prices on each item. You can nearly always save more money by directly buying the best offers available in each of the comparison stores. OK, few people have time to do this in practice, but I regard these schemes as misleading and anti-competitive by discouraging the need to shop around.

Em of course they are misleading as nearly everything else is in the supermarkets and in most of the large retailers. I did once get £6.00 or so back from Tesco but nothing since. I do not expect to get anything again. They as usual think we are all slightly backwards. Many times have I seen offers that are very misleading and it would be cheaper to buy the non discounted variety/quantity. Just be aware is all I can say.

PeteM says:
2 March 2014

I think Asda’s Price Guarantee is truly deceptive. I have not yet managed to get a comparison that is more than half of my total spend and is usually only a third of my shopping total.

JTodd says:
4 March 2014

3 for £10 at M&S. I bought 3 stickered products last week and did not get the discount. I questioned this and the staff said there were two different 3 for £10 offers, one for chicken and one for meat; however they gave me the discount. There was nothing on the packaging to say they are different, and nothing on the display and the M&S website said all types of product are included.
It pays to check your receipt, but I wonder how many people this caught?

Tesco back to its old tricks today – tomatos – some priced per kg and others by unit! So 1 tomato 16.7p others 2.75 per kg. Thought they had signed up to fairier pricing!

carole hannah says:
27 May 2014

I am disgusted with tesco picked up some childrens milk drinks at 2 for £2.00 only to get to self scan and the total cost is £3.00 questioned this and the manager highlighted the offer had run out 2 days ago yet the label was still up there, having checked other offers the same applied no longer on offer its a disgrace.

Mark says:
29 May 2014

At Sainsburys a smaller pack works out cheaper!
Loo rolls were on offer, 9 pack for £3, I usually pick up the family (x18) pack but this was £6.60!
For once the maths was easy to spot, usually you need to resort to a calculator to work out the equivalent cost.
I have just complained today to Sainsbury’s (customer care line 0800 636262) about this. One voice won’t change anything, but many will! Please complain to the supermarkets if you spot such things. With enough complaints I am sure they will eventually stop doing it!

I think you’ll find that most supermarkets have stopped claiming that larger sizes are better value as basically they could never be bothered to ensure they were. That’s why they now use words like family and bigger, and there’s no mention of value anywhere in sight. So I think you’ll find they’re not doing anything wrong for once. 🙁

Mark says:
29 May 2014

Not saying it is illegal, just unnecessarily miss-leading.
Too easy to get caught out by this, unless you go round with a calculator all the time and are prepared to spend the time properly comparing the prices.
A larger size of the same item should never be worse value.
Is this not a reasonable customer expectation?
Still think if enough people complain they will stop.

You should’t need a calculator as products should have a unit price, oh wait that law is broken too. Unit prices on promotions are left to the discretion of the store. Sigh 🙁

And good luck.

Complaining that smaller packs are misleading may be counter productive. So long as the unit pricing is correct then the package price is down to consumer preference. In Tesco 160 bag boxes of tea are almost always cheaper than the 240 bag boxes. I just assume the big boxes are too big, but then it may be that as the small boxes are cheaper that is what people buy, so they become cheaper … So the circle of confusion continues.

Supermarket dodgy offers are not confined to the UK. Amongst many other Brits I regularly call in to the Auchan Supermarket near Calais to buy some wine on my way home. There are frequent offers to, say, buy six bottles of quite expensive wine for the price of four. My shopping list is quite large and the bill considerable! However, I now always carefully check the amount charged for the special offers. On at least two occasions, I have been charges the full price. It is then necessary to queue at the customer services desk and explain the problem. It always takes ages to sort out and never an apology. If it happens again I shall believe it’s a scam. Please beware. It is no good waiting till you get home to check the bill.

Incidentally, I was overcharged today at Homebase, where I was charged £6.99 at the till for a bag of compost clearly marked on the stand at £5.49. I thought I must have got it wrong. I had not!

David Woodgates says:
1 August 2014

Have you tried buying Hellman’s Mayonnaise at Waitrose recently? If you buy it in a jar, it is unit priced by weight, but if you buy the same product in a squeezy bottle, it is unit priced by volume. This means that unless you happen to know the specific gravity of mayonnaise (don’t all shout at once) you cannot work out which is cheaper.
Aunts Waitrose would never fall for this one, thought I, so I checked. Essential Waitrose mayo in a jar – priced by weight. Essential Waitrose mayo in a squeezy bottle – priced by weight, hooray!
Oh-oh, Essential Waitrose salad cream in a squeezy bottle – priced by volume!
Is this Waitrose’s fault, or as I expect, the EU?

Mabel says:
5 September 2014

Marks & Spencer and Waitrose see no need to provide a price per kilo for their pre packaged fruit as it’s not a legal requirement, or so they both told me recently when I was trying to figure out the best value fruit to purchase. I thought Which? had a campaign on this. If so, it has been a dismal failure when our two top (priced) supermarkets are only willing to change if it is a legal requirement. It seems only “Head Office” can change things and when I pointed out to an M&S manager that their job must include passing on the comments of their customers I was told once again that they priced in accordance with the law and providing a per kilo price for packaged fruit or veg was not a legal requirement. Their next advert will probably say “we are listening to you”!

I’m not a 100% sure but I believe that’s the flawed Consumer Protection Against Unfair Trading Practices 2008 act you’re referring to. It doesn’t even cover multibuys 🙁

Thanks for your feedback Mabel. We do indeed have a campaign on this, calling for simple food pricing. Consumers Affairs Minister Jo Swinson explains in a guest post for our site some of the commitments the 10 main supermarkets made: https://conversation.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/jo-swinson-supermarket-simpler-food-prices-shopping/.

While our campaigning effort on this is less visible at present, we meet regularly with the supermarkets to find out how they are fulfilling the commitments they made. We’re also still working to change the law on this.

We asked the supermarkets to ensure simple consistent unit pricing is used on special offers too – otherwise it’s difficult to tell if you’re really getting a good deal if you’ve nothing to compare it to. Your point on pre-packed fruit or veg is a good one. We’ve passed this feedback on to our corporate affairs teams so that they can bring it up with the supermarkets when they next meet.

Perhaps it is time to ask each supermarker to respond on their progress to date on unit pricing and explain what they understand by ‘unit’ pricing. I would be interested to see their response.

Each time I bring the subject up on fresh produce pricing in Waitrose, I am told that the law does not require them to provide the per kilo price on prepackaged fruit and vegetables and that ‘head office’ sets the pricing policy. In M&S recently a bag of apples did not even show the weight, only the price per bag and per apple. Are they refusing to change because they would no longer be able to rip us off if they had transparent pricing?

This makes a total nonsense of any form of ‘voluntary code of practice’. If it is not enforced then for the most part it won’t happen. Unless of course it is to the benefit of the retailer.

Megan says:
9 September 2014

Ocado have buy one get one free on their website for certain items. For the past three weeks and despite the fact that I have reported the problem to them on quite a number of occasions, i have been charged for both items advertised as Buy one get one free. The first week I was overcharged twice, the second week twice and this week, three separate items have gone through on my final receipt as being full price despite the fact that Ocado are advertising them as BOGOF. I wonder how many people have not checked their receipt and paid far more than they were led to believe by Ocado. It is shameful that Ocado are continuing this blatant overcharging when they have been made aware of it!!!!

Am I imagining that the nasty habit of pricing fruit and veg individually is spreading? I can understand individual prices for fruit that may be bought for lunch boxes such as bananas but why would we want to know the individual price of tomatoes or onions? I’ve recently noticed it in the normally admirable Aldi as well as Tesco. What is this but just another way of making it harder for us to check for value for money between alternatives?

We are being ripped off royally by supermarkets not displaying an appropriate unit price on prepackaged fresh produce. Recently in Marks & Spencer, they charged £1.95 per kilo for loose braeburn apples and £2.50 per kilo for a pack of six small braeburn. Of course they did not display the per kilo price for the prepackaged apples, just a price per apple and per pack. Because they did not have a digital scale for customer use, I asked a supervisor to check the price per kilo for me so I could make an informed purchase. She disappeared for a while and after about 15 minutes I found her and two other staff members just after they had worked out the price per kilo. I told them I was astonished at the price difference and one of them said the small prepackaged apples were of better quality. Oh, and nobody else complained I was told. They probably thought their customers would prefer six (small) apples to four large apples. They really must think we are stupid. Perhaps we are if we put up with this pricing policy, without complaint.

I’ve noticed more and more at Sainsbury’s that when they have a branded product on special offer, the (still) cheaper Sainsbury’s own brand disappears from the shelves. This forces you to spend more than you otherwise would if you need a product. Have seen it with low cal hot chocolate, hand soap and pasta recently.