/ Money, Shopping

If the full price tag’s a farce, what makes special offers special?

As food prices rise we’re all looking for bargains. But what if special offers aren’t all they seem and food was being sold at half price for weeks after only days at the higher price? Well that’s exactly what we’ve found.

We bought a basket of goods in Asda, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose every week for three months, as well as tracking wines online. Why? To see if special offers could mislead consumers.

We found strawberries, cherries and raspberries sold at half price, that we either never managed to buy at the “full” price or that were only at the higher price for a week. We also found a wine that was discounted for 12 weeks out of 14.

What’s so important about this is the way special offers affect our shopping habits. Nearly 60% of Which? members say that they swap items they were intending to buy for those on special offer. Certain types of special offers, such as multibuys, are also causing some of us to throw out food, which is a waste of money – and bad for the environment.

Pricing guidelines are too vague

So why are they allowed to do this? There are government guidelines intended to ensure any offers are a good deal. These say that an item should be at the higher price for 28 days before being on offer. And, overall, it shouldn’t be on offer for longer than it was at the higher price.

However, supermarkets don’t have to do either of these if they put up a sign explaining their offer, for instance ‘this was at the higher price for seven days’, or if something is going out of date. The rules also say that what’s reasonable will depend on the individual circumstances. This means that even offers we felt weren’t good enough were still potentially compliant with the rules.

I for one am certainly not going around the supermarkets after work reading the small print on shelf edges in order to work out if I think a special offer is a good deal. And I don’t think you should have to track the price of food week on week to work this out either.

What do you think? Do you think special offers are generally good value? Do you end up buying stuff you didn’t intend to?

James Lingard says:
11 September 2019

Re Dubious discounts or special offers
I am a single older male, and i usually visit the different supermarkets at some time in a month. What i have found is at Waitrose, Morrison’s, Asda and Tesco they often have these buy three and save on the price of one, i cant give you exact examples, but these products usually have a similar use by date,and i and others would have to eat the same meal very frequently or it would go in the bin Yet Supermarkets are saying they make these offers to offer value for money when all it is doing is adding to food waste.

I agree with you James. Many of these offers are for foods with a short life that are not easily frozen or cooked into something else that can be frozen.

I shop mostly with Ocado and 500g butter is buy 2 for a discount or buy 2 ham joints for a discount which we could never use, so don’t take up the offers.

In US supermarkets, we have bought just one item from a discounted multi-buy and they have still given us the discount. This means single people are not penalised by paying over the top and less food goes to waste.

It has been suggested many times that multi-buy offers on fresh foods should be banned to reduce food waste. One of these days we might have a government that cares about reducing waste.

“It has been suggested many times” but not by everyone, by any means. You have a choice not to buy them if they do not suit your eating habits. I can only speak for where I shop. The offers are generally useful. Banning seems a rather dictatorial proposal. Perhaps on this basis we should ban Coke, chocolates, and other fattening products?

What I would like to see is more supermarkets having “loose” goods as well as prepacked foods (providing the latter minimise packaging and, in particular, avoid plastics wherever possible). So I can buy 2 lamb chops, 2 sausages, one piece of fish and a small portion of whatever I fancy. I’d see that as both beneficial to many customers and avoiding waste. But a choice please.

We cannot carry on wasting food any more than we can putting plastics into the landfill and our oceans. One for the price of one and two for the price of two seems a good choice to me.

Here is one report:

“Special offers and consumer buying behaviour
Special offers, promotions and large portion sizes tempt consumers to buy more of the product than they
require.27 The more often consumers make unplanned purchases, the higher the levels of waste. This
applies in particular to consumers with impulsive buying behaviours.28 The main reasons for overbuying,
however, are not the special offers, but rather changed plans, cooking for more people than will actually
be present at the meal, trying out new products, or buying products for recipes for special occasions.26, 29

And one from WRAP

Table 1 in the Europa report (above) lists the “most wasted” foods and the reasons. Dairy and bread accounted for 44% of this, not products I normally associate with multi-buys (well, not where I shop). The main reason for waste was “past best before date”, a condition that needs better explaining to customers. The product is still OK; it is the “use by” date that matters (assuming it is correctly evaluated). Buying too much – either the pack size was too big or they bought too many units – were down at 18% and 13%. Others may have different experiences.