/ Food & Drink, Shopping

Misleading special offers still on supermarket shelves

Put an end to misleading pricing

It’s been nearly a month since we submitted our super-complaint on supermarket pricing, and we’re still finding more evidence of misleading pricing tactics on supermarket shelves.

You may have seen last month that Which? made a super-complaint (PDF 4.7Mb) to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) about misleading and opaque pricing practices used by supermarkets.

We’re now at Day 29 out of the 90 days the CMA has to formally respond to our concerns and are continuing to unearth more evidence that the problem isn’t just isolated mistakes (as the supermarkets claim).

In a new investigation published today we’ve found yet more examples of misleading offers on the shelves of Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, along with some offers at Boots and Superdrug, that have raised eyebrows in the Which? office.

Not-so special offers

As an example (and not to pick on it particularly), at Asda we found that two litres of Pepsi spent most of the year sold at 98p or £1, except when Asda wanted to put it on offer. It then increased the individual price of a bottle to £1.98 while selling it as part of a deal at ‘2 for £3’.

Asda did this several times during 2014 and early 2015. So, for those of you who bought your Pepsi at Asda on this offer, you saved nothing and were, in fact, £1 worse off.

Products shrinking in size

We also found more evidence of products shrinking in size but not in price. For example, a box of 100 Twinings Assam tea bags was £4.40 in Tesco but, when the pack shrunk to 80, the price increased to £4.49. In Sainsbury’s the price of the tea bags remained the same (£4.50) despite the loss of 20 tea bags.

It’s pricing tactics like these that we’ve spent many years trying to resolve by working with the supermarkets and others. The lack of progress drove us to use our legal powers and compel the CMA to look into the market.

What pricing practices we asked the CMA to look at

Essentially: enough was enough and we asked the CMA to look at misleading and opaque pricing practices such as:

  • Confusing and misleading special offers
  • A lack of easily comparable prices because of the way unit pricing is being done
  • Shrinking pack sizes without a corresponding price reduction.

The CMA announced this week that it will be publishing its response on Monday, 20 July. With just over 60 days to go, we’re still finding problems on the shelves of the major supermarkets. But will the CMA take action? We’ll find out soon enough.

Have you spotted any pricing tactics that really wind you up? And if you agree it’s time to put an end to misleading pricing, please sign our petition and share it with your friends.

wev says:
20 May 2015

I’m not sure if this still happens, but Original Source use to make two versions of their shower gel. At the launch start of every flavour, they would stock a thick version with little water and a lot of flavourings and scent on supermarket shelves. Then months later when the supermarkets were putting them on to buy one, get one free offers, they would take the thick ones off the shelves if they hadn’t already run out, and sell weak, watery ones with very little flavourings and scent.

Maybe Which can check this from time to time to see if it still happens? And are they allowed to do that anyway?

John Gibson says:
22 May 2015

Do you eat shower gel ? what is this about ‘ flavourings’ ?

The example of tea pricing compared to Pepsi is perhaps not that strong as tea is a natural material rather than water laced with chemicals.

In March 2014 tea per kilo was 237cents and in March 2015 it was 307cents per kilo so nearly 30% more expensive. It would therefore seem natural that there would be some price movement for the finished articles even allowing for hedging against delivery.

I think there needs some care in picking targets to make sure they are legitimately moving either price or amount packaged.

In 2010-11-12 where there was speculation in foodstocks what did Which? do? I thought I should know but cannot find anything.but that might be a fault in the search facility.

“Chief executive of Unilever, Paul Polman, January 2011: “One of the main things in food inflation is that it has attracted the speculators for short-term profit at the expense of people living a dignified life. It is difficult to understand that if you really want to work for the long-term interests of society.”

Chief executive of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, May 2011: “Without any real supply or demand issues we are witness to the fact that most agricultural food commodities are at record highs at once, and coffee is at a 34-year high. Through financial speculation … the commodities market is in a very unfortunate position.”

John Gibson says:
22 May 2015

Soltan ‘dry touch’ suncare lotion at Boots. Large sign ‘SAVE! 2 for £11’
Normal price – £5.50 each. So, no saving at all. Misleading, untrue, cheating, disgraceful trading practice.

Unit pricing was introduced to make it easy for shoppers to compare prices. For items I purchase regularly, I pay attention to unit prices rather than the price of a packet, etc. In Tesco, the smallest bottles of HP Sauce are almost always the best value for money.

Unfortunately, I often find mistakes in unit pricing in Tesco. If there is no sales assistant nearby I remove the shelf label and take it to Customer Services. Some of the errors are not very obvious but some are absurd. For example, I once found a 650g tin of Fox’s biscuits marked £5.00 and the unit price was shown as 76.9p each. How did they arrive at this figure? I still have the shelf label because I forgot to hand it in.

wavechange, presumably each biscuit weighed 100g (one broken)? No wonder obesity is on the increase.

Maybe the chocolate ones stuck together. 🙂

Lets have a Wall of Shame for these cheating offers. And a group to email HO with the proof of their contempt for their customers.

Not that I a great believer in committees and due process …..

Just another example of why we need an effective Trading Standards organisation to clamp down on this malpractice.
In the meantime perhaps Which? could organise as many willing subscribers / members as possible to routinely report these “errors” to them for Which? to take action. Who else is there to act on behalf of consumers?

I am losing faith in Trading Standards, Malcolm. My own experience and that of friends has not been positive and they seem to bee grossly underfunded, so my problems and yours will probably not receive appropriate attention.

In the absence of a consumer minister, I’m still not sure who we can push at government level.

Agreed wavechange. Perhaps we should press Which? to put this at, or near, the top of its agenda when it talks to the government?

In response to their latest campaign – “What would you like to see Which? prioritise in our meetings with Ministers in the new government?” giving just three choices – Pension safeguards, NHS complaints and energy prices – I did suggest they added Consumer protection. The reply was they had thought about adding a “something else” button.

Perhaps a campaign just aimed at Consumer Protection – including an active government minister and funding trading standards properly – might address a lot of the issues raised in these conversations?

Incidentally, Trading Standards at local level could be funded by a levy on traders through business rates. It is traders who benefit from our custom, and in their interests to see that unfair trading is properly dealt with.

Perhaps the issue of Consumer Protection should also be addressed in the context of quitting the European Union. Whatever our occcasional criticism of the EU, the way things are going now in the UK it might be our only bulwark against the power of big corprations and if we stepped out from under the European umbrella what would the future hold for protecting consumers in this country?

I wish we could focus on core issues of consumer protection on these pages rather than the quality of supermarket bread and the seat pitch on aircraft, but I imagine such topics help attract new readers.

I agree that we should push the issue of the current inadequacy of Trading Standards.

I think Which? has become less combative in the last decade and seems to be moving towards a non-campaigning role. you may say look at all the signature driven sign-ups but then is this simply a reflex to deal with 38 degrees and other on-line pressure groups,

We now have the corporate hub part of the Which site, the charity accepts money – currently up to £30,000 a year – for use of the Best Buy logo. And as you may know from my frequent mentioning of the Logiks Steamer review and its Best Buy status our testing or subsequent reviewing of status following customer complaints is suspect.

I also feel that Which? has increasingly looked for the easy pickings from the shallower end of the consumer scene. I can understand why that might be – there are a number of internal and external reasons. To some extent it reflects the changes that have taken place in society and the perceived change in consumer values and priorities. While moving in line with those changes I hope Which? will keep its eye on the bigger picture. It think this particular topic is right on target and gets to the heart of consumer concerns. Despite higher gross incomes in real terms for many, household budgets nowadays have to carry a huge ballast in the form of non-discretionary committed expenditure [mortgage/rent, energy, utilities, transport] plus all the discretionary but contracted expenses [phone, ISP, satellite TV, etc] so shopping for food and cleaning materials is under much more of a squeeze. The statistics tell us that goods are cheaper and going down in price every day (!), but the experience of many is at odds with that. Keeping a close watch on the price:value equation of everyday goods is vital.

Reductions in quantity are usually noticeable; the dilution of liquid products is an insidious way of ripping us off. The ingredient that dare not speak its name, commonly stated as “aqua”, seems to be taking up more of the composition of many things these days, especially at the ‘basic’ or ‘value’ end of the ranges.

I aksed on a previous Conversation whether the people who compile the consumer price index and the retail price index make the necessary adjustments for alterations in size/weight/volume when doing their calculations; reducing everything to unit prices might be a way to compare baskets of groceries with a previous period but we can’t actually buy products like that and we have to have the quantities available in whatever packages the manufacturer chooses. Are sugar and milk the only things still sold in a uniform weight or volume?

You are absolutely right JW.

This aspect of the CPI/RPI needs to be very clearly defined and made public.

I have made the point that Which?’s own supermarket shop is rather flawed as it only looks at branded goods sold at the well-known supermarket chains. Given Aldi has overtaken the the smallest of these chains and will overtake Morrisons 10% in the next year or so Which? really needs to consider a basket based on own goods.

Comparing the quality of the offerings from this basics basket would be a very useful and necessary side to this improvement : )

lessismore says:
23 May 2015


I notice that a lot of items are shrinking. Is the packaging staying the same size? Or are we again going to have massive boxes with less in them – and should be contacting Trading Standards because of overpackaging. There are regulations about excessive packaging..

Actually in a way I’m pleased that we will be getting smaller amounts as what was happening in the past was that we were getting bigger and bigger packets of everything and more was getting wasted and we were eating more as a result. Perhaps inadvertently we will decrease our waistlines as a result. Wouldn’t it be good if it wasn’t so underhand though.

Has anybody seen any advertisements saying “NEW – SMALLER SIZE!” ?

In fact we all have.

The smaller boxes of washing powder proudly trumpeted as concentrated and using less packaging and transport. Which the giants like Unilever and P&G used to burnish their green credentials!

It was also the EU who prosecuted these two firms and a German one for operating a cartel when this requirement was introduced. It makes rather chilling reading when you go through the full report.

“P&G, Henkel and Unilever “took the opportunity” to organize a cartel while coordinating on the environmental program, said Joaquin Almunia, the commission’s vice-president in charge of competition policy.
“They sought to ensure that no one could use this initiative to gain a competitive advantage over the others, so they agreed to protect their respective market shares,” Mr. Almunia said. “They agreed also not to decrease prices when decreasing the size of packages, and afterwards, they even agreed to a price increase.” April 2011

I think Which? missed a major trick in alerting and educating consumers on what household names are prepared to do. And it is not just the EU who have been busy as a similar case in wash products occurred in Australia and was in 2014 making its way through the courts. And France also for a variety of consumables involving a large number of companies.

Very interesting dieseltayler.

I have just gone to the kitchen and now have in front of me 2 lenors – one old bottle and one new super concentrate.
Old one – 1.5L 42 washes
New one – 1.1L 44 washes

Now, I would imagine most people automatically add a full cap of fabric conditioner to their normal wash.

But, the caps on both bottles are EXACTLY THE SAME SIZE.

The old bottle tells you to use a full, third or two thirds of a cap depending on the wash.

The new bottle has some vague levels on a picture of a cap.

How many people read the instructions of something they have been using for years? How many people continue to put a full cap of conditioner in their washing? How many people are only getting 31 washes per bottle? And, I haven’t noticed anything over conditioned.

What a rip-off !!!

Sorry dieseltaylor, my finger missed the “o” by a mile !!!

Good point Alfa. I think most people just fill the conditioner receptacle in their machine and take no notice of the blurb on the bottle. People who are more sensible than us probably don’t use fabric conditioner at all – it’s a product imagined from nowhere and marketed intensively on the back of a fabricated concern.

Sensible people must love ironing and rough towels then !!!

The Fench cartel judgement is recently decided – December 2014. The list of those involved is interesting.

“Vu les observations présentées par les sociétés Topaze, Unilever France, Unilever France
Holdings, Procter & Gamble France, Procter & Gamble Holding France,
The Procter & Gamble Company, Henkel France, Henkel AG & Co. KGaA,
Colgate-Palmolive, Colgate-Palmolive Services, Colgate-Palmolive Company,
Colgate-Palmolive venant aux droits de Sara Lee Household and Body Care France,
Hillshire Brands Company, SC Johnson SAS, SC Johnson & Son, Inc., Reckitt Benckiser
France, RB Holding Europe du Sud, Reckitt Benckiser PLC, Bolton Solitaire SAS, Bolton
Manitoba S.p.A., Procter & Gamble France venant aux droits de la société Groupe Gillette
France, The Procter & Gamble Company venant aux droits de The Gillette Company,
Johnson & Johnson Santé Beauté France, SCA Tissue France, Johnson & Johnson
Consumer Holdings France, Vania Expansion, Lascad, L’Oréal, Beiersdorf SAS,
Beiersdorf Holding France SARL, Beiersdorf AG ”

My own opinion is that whilst heavy fines are handed out the “Court of consumer opinion” is poorly advised and in fact that any personal boycotts and loss of company reputation is minimised by consumer organisations not mentioning it.

Alfa – I thought it was recommended not to use fabric conditioner for washing towels as it reduces their absorbency. We never do and they come out alright. Washing powders and liquids themselves have become gentler. We use fabric conditioner for most other laundry, however, but I bet we get nowhere near the stated number of washes out of the bottle! Fabric conditioner does make things a little bit easier to iron but good washing and drying practices can achieve the same results.

Maybe it is a combination of hard water and “not that new” towels, but they sure are nicer when we use fabric conditioner.

That’s correct John, our advice which seems to be less official but quite common is to never use fabric softener if you’re going to tumble dry them, as this is a big source of residue.

Crispy laundry can be caused by a build-up of detergent residue left by machines with poor rinse cycles, as well as residue from hard water. To keep your laundry fluffy, we’d always recommend to use the correct dosage of detergent and choose a washing machine that is excellent at rinsing.

Thanks Andrew. With towels, I think the correct washing liquid dosage and a good rinsing action are key to the results but I would also recommend (a) not putting too many towels in the machine at a time so they have plenty of room for the washing and rinsing actions to get in amongst all the thread loops, (b) taking them out of the machine as soon as the cycle has finished, and (c) hanging them outside if possible for a spell to allow the breeze to fluff them up a bit with fresh air. Obviously, towels don’t get ironed so that particular property of fabric conditioner is irrelevant. I think any roughness in towels, and hard water effects, are as likely to come from the moisture absorbed when people use them for drying themselves as from any part of the laundry process. Frequent changing and renewal is a way of reducing the problem.

The weight of the contents of a product is only normally reduced by a few grammes and the packet stays the same size so you have no idea at a glance what the producer has done; but if you consider that they may make perhaps 100,000 of this item in a day those few missing grammes add up to a hefty lot.
It is being done all the time now.


Tells you about the science but not about the necessity for using them. I have no doubt that for some articles they are useful.

You may want to bear in mind that with the increase in allergies etc conditioner is not always good news:
“I have had the same awful problem with the new Lenor range. My lower legs were itching like crazy and I was drawing blood from the scratching. My GP suggested a reaction to my detergent and as I had switched from Comfort to Lenor I realised this was the culprit. I changed back and problem gone. It’s going to take a while as I had washed do many clothes and linen so it flares up every now & then. Such a shame as I love the scents of Lenor but just cannot tolerate the itching .”

From the Allergy UK site a leeter dated 9/2/2015 along with 4 pages of letters from other sufferers including those allergic simply to the smell.


Fabric conditioners go in the final rinse water so are never rinsed off.

I have not used fabric conditioners because they contain a bunch of chemicals that would remain on my clothing and bedding. Apart from skin irritation, which Dieseltaylor mentions, some chemicals can pass through skin. As an everyday example of this, creams containing ibuprofen and other anti-inflammatory chemicals. Every year we withdraw chemicals from household and garden use because hitherto unknown risks are discovered.

Having rougher towels and shirts that take more ironing seems a very small price to pay for avoiding possible skin irritation or something more serious.

Here are brief details of the penalties for involvement in the price fixing cartel mentioned by Dieseltaylor: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-12-18/l-oreal-to-unilever-fined-1-17-billion-by-french-antitrust-arm

I presume that the outcome will be higher prices for consumers to pay for the fines and then business as usual.

Playing silly games with price labelling is just the tip of the iceberg.

Is this under the heading of misleading offers? Last night the BBC programme about teeth included a test on a range of tooth-whitening products available from chemists and supermarkets. None worked, despite costing up to £50 – and apparently they cannot work because the EU limits (quite sensibly) the amount of active ingredient (usually hydrogen peroxide isn’t it?) to a concentration that is useless for the claims made.

So, should these products be banned as fraudulent? Should the manufacturers, supermarkets and chemists be prosecuted for misrepresentation? Would we like to see Trading Standards deal with this sort of problem? Perhaps Which? would like to report on this.

Sorry if this is too big a diversion from the topic, but it did seem topical.

wev says:
5 June 2015

malcolm, will you be making a complaint to Action Fraud and Trading Standards, or a claim in the small claims court?

wev, I haven’t tried any of these products, so no. I think it is a general issue that Which? could take up.

On 30th June, Tesco were offering Pizza Express pizzas at £2.25 each or 2 for £6.When I queried this, they said that the “half-price” offer of £2.25 finished on the 30th June, after which it would be 2 for £6., or £4.50 each
The following day, the website still showed the same price (£2.25) , but we were charged £6 for two. Their response was “if you are not happy, return them to the store for a full refund” NOT Impressed.

On 15th June, I reported to Marks & Spencer that the measurements for their Melamine embossed salad bowl and salad servers had been transposed. (salad bowl 6cm wide!!).They promised to correct it, but 3 weeks later, it’s still incorrect.
Don’t these companies listen to their customers any more?

What I find most annoying is the obsession that Which? has with supermarket pricing. Consumers are being treated as if they were infants or idiots.When I am in a supermarket I look at the price, the quantity and the quality of everything I am contemplating buying and decide whether something is good value for me and I should buy it or whether it can stay on the shelf. I don’t care one iota how much it cost previously or for how long it was on sale at one price or another. And I can work out for myself whether pricing is stupid, like last week in Sainsbury’s when I wanted an 18 pack of toilet rolls and spotted that the 18 packs were £6.50 but the 9 packs were on offer at £3 each. Of course I bought two 9 packs, I didn’t feel any need to go and whinge about it and I cannot see why I should have any sympathy for anyone who bought one 18 pack. I object to my membership fee being wasted on these campaigns.

Whether you personally can work out the best deal is not really the point, Bill. The fact is that many offers and promotions are misleading, and possibly against the law in some cases. And another fact is that many shoppers are being duped, or at the very least falsely drawn, into making a bad buy. It is in the interests of all consumers that we tackle misleading pricing claims in order to protect the integrity of the market place and to protect all shoppers, many of whom might not have your ability to quickly pick out the better price. If we do not clamp down on the this type of market misrepresentation where will the malpractice stop? And what other tricks and deceits will traders come up with in order to baffle the public?