/ Shopping

Order condoms, receive a pregnancy test

Shopping trolley button on computer keyboard

Ever tried lining a bin with tinfoil, or making a fresh fruit salad with peach-scented shampoo? Welcome to the world of bizarre supermarket substitutions. Wouldn’t customers be happier with a refund rather than an unsuitable replacement?

Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve never done an online grocery shop. With a Sainsbury’s Local, Tesco Metro and several independent convenience stores at the bottom of my road, not to mention the Waitrose near work, I’ve never felt the need to.

Instead, I’ll go shopping at the weekend for food for my lunches, evening meals and essentials such as milk, and then buy other items as and when they run out throughout the week.

When I do need to get in a larger load – say if I’ve got guests coming or I’ve run down the cupboards like Old Mother Hubbard – I’ll fire up my car and head to the nearest big supermarket.

And now I’ve read the results of our recent survey on bizarre supermarket substitutions delivered to online customers, I’m even less inclined to ever start buying groceries this way.


Regular Which? Conversation community members will know we’ve debated this issue a few times before, the last time in January 2015. On that occasion, a few of you told us of your bizarre supermarket swaps.

Jane told us:

‘I recently received a packet of Gillette ladies sensor excel razor blades as a substitution for a pack of Granny Smith apples from Tesco. Fortunately I realised before the delivery driver had left. He was so baffled he took a picture of it and tweeted it.’

While Christians Nannie said:

‘My son ordered a box of black drinking straws from Morrisons and received a small bale of hay!’

And two years on, it seems the problem persists.

Among the more ‘interesting’ examples in this year’s survey was the shopper who received dog food instead of clothes hangers – and another who got window cleaner instead of mayonnaise. That would make for a fatal substitute in your tuna sandwich.

Vegetarians got a particularly raw deal, with Quorn mince being replaced by beef mince, and veggie sausages being substituted with pork ones.

Some even appeared to be the butt of a bored warehouse worker’s joke, like the person who found their salad replaced with a bar of Dairy Milk or the one who wanted condoms but got a pregnancy test. Not very funny if you’re watching your weight or not planning to have children.

Give us a refund, not a replacement

Now, I’ve already stated that I’m not au fait with online grocery shopping, but I do know that some supermarkets offer a ‘no substitution’ function on their sites and will refund unsuitable replacements within a set time after delivery.

But why don’t they get rid of this function and just all set a rule that if the item you want isn’t available, you never get given a substitution? Rather than delivering something that’s so wildly different (and often wholly unsuitable) from what your ordered, why not credit your account and send apologies instead?

Our analysis shows that online supermarkets that don’t make many substitutions, or stick to sensible ones, generally tend to get a better customer score in our surveys. It’s easy to see why, when you look at these substitution fails. Not only is it frustrating to be sent such unsuitable products, it’s also inconvenient and, at times, insulting.

Do online supermarket substitution fails drive you crazy? What’s been the worst example you’ve had delivered recently? Does it put you off doing your grocery shop online, and would you prefer a system where out-of-stock items never get substituted?

Have you had unsuitable supermarket substitutions in your online grocery shopping?

I don’t do online grocery shopping (73%, 743 Votes)

Yes (14%, 144 Votes)

No (13%, 127 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,014

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Having shopped online with Ocado, Waitrose, Tesco, Asda & Sainsburys, I have never had a real problem with substitutions, probably because I set up no substitutions in my account.

But if ordering a multibuy where you get a choice of products, it is a good idea to request one of the other items you have already ordered in the offer for a substitute otherwise you might get charged full price on the remaining items.

Substitutions or only receiving part of your order are mostly a problem with online supermarkets that don’t know real-time stock levels or where the order is hand-picked from a High Street store rather than a warehouse.

Our only problem was when ordering several bottles of filtered milk the order was consolidated into one giant container. We didn’t return it because we wanted the milk, but it was inconvenient because, although the ‘consume by’ date was far enough ahead, once opened, the milk has to be used within four days. Buying filtered [long-dated] milk in smaller volumes suits our way of life and minimises any wastage. A substitution of regular milk would have been more useful as most of it has a reasonable ‘use by’ period remaining. Other than that we have been well-satisfied by on-line orders using both Sainsbury’s and Waitrose.

Having occasionally watched the on-line order pickers going round our local big Tesco store I am not surprised at some of the errors, but I am not sure whether they are making the substitution selections themselves or they come via their hand-held computers. It seems to be a fairly soul-destroying job where boredom, lapses of concentration, and general ignorance feature highly. They seem to be picking orders for six or eight customers simultaneously and it is probably easy for an item to end up in the wrong box.

This seems to be a bit of a non story. I shop with Tesco online and the driver discusses any substitutions before delivering the order. They are listed at the top of the receipt/delivery note and they are packed in different coloured bags so they are easy to find and reject if you don’t want them. Additionally, in the case of Tesco, they substitute with an item of a higher price and charge the original so I have in the past had Champagne for the price of Cava and 2 litres of Bells substituted for 2 bottles which were on offer at £20. There are many other examples and it has been a long time since I rejected an offered substitute!

We shopped with Tescos online for years. Initially some substitutes were silly- two kg of carrots for two loose carrots on one occasion- but it had got much better, and as mentioned before, the substitutes were always clearly identifiable and usually pointed out by the driver. We switched to try Sainsburys because the choice from Tesco was getting narrower and narrower since they had swapped to providing our deliveries from a warehouse rather than a store. Sainsburys have recently opened a new store locally and it seems the pickers still need some training. The substitutes we’ve had so far haven’t been brilliant but worse much of the food comes with expiry dates within two days. I prefer how Tescos price match the substitutes though, Sainsburys charge the higher price but issue an e voucher for the difference if you accept, which means you are forced to spend the extra money with them either way.

This is straight out of a Monty Python sketch. I blame an electronic translator somewhere. “Where is the nearest chemist please?” comes out as “I fancy your sister”.

Don’t order hot dogs!

Vicky says:
29 July 2020

I ordered 1 packet of sushi rice as part of my online shop and Sainsbury’s sent me 10 packets of nori seaweed as a substitution – and charged me £20+ for the privilege. Pretty racist substitution, why not just send me 1 bag of different rice?

They issued me an online coupon for their site, which didn’t go through when I placed an order. I rang customer services and they told me that “it happens and vouchers disappear sometimes” and reissued me with another coupon. Frankly I just want a refund of the money they stole from me but apparently their “subs policy doesn’t allow”.

MOST DEFINETLY!! Makes me feel as if supermarkets are holding a gun to my head with this STUPID substitute idea. Talk about being invaded!! These places should note that they are only in business in the first place because of consumers and that without any customers they would have no businesses. I’m with you one zillion percent – if they don’t have the item then simply give a refund!!! (hardly rocket science is it). Housebound I am reliant on this online garbage and despite me stating quite clearly on their site that no substitutes should be given under any circumstances I have just received an order with substitutes YET AGAIN!!! I state categorically that they’ve never to do this and told them time and time again that it’s medical reasons and yet they still do it repeatedly! In what universe does that make any sense? With 50yrs of daily medication prescribed by hospitals having brought food restrictions on recently, supermarkets substituting an item doctors stated you could take and replacing it with something doctors said you’ve to stay well clear of doesn’t make a bit of sense to me. Funny but I always thought it was doctors that took care of illness and supermarkets that sold groceries! Apparently not!! (all those years sitting in doctors and hospital waiting rooms when all I had to do was head to the supermarket instead! I could’ve spent much more time with my kids if I’d only known that one)