/ Shopping

Would you fall for these dubious supermarket special offers?

supermarket offer

Do you love special offers or hate being sucked in? In a survey of Which? members, we found that 50% of them don’t trust supermarket special offers and, according to our latest research, they could have good reason to be suspicious…

We took a snapshot look at the online prices of 223 of the most popular discounted branded products and found that some of the special offers advertised by supermarkets aren’t as good as they seem. This is despite new guidelines for supermarkets that were introduced as a result of a Which? super-complaint in 2015.

Following our super-complaint to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), we were promised that supermarkets would become more transparent in their pricing methods. However, is this happening across the board?

Supermarket offers

We used data from the independent shopping website MySupermarket to scrutinise deals on online grocery products offered by Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Waitrose, Ocado and Iceland.

Some of the offers we saw seemed misleading and broke government guidelines, which say supermarket offers must compare genuine prices and offer real savings or better value. Our investigation found three types of offer.

Not-so-special offers

This was the first type of offer that we found. Ever noticed that a product you buy is almost constantly on offer? We found examples that showed products sold at a ‘special’ price for up to 333 days a year, only spending 32 days at their ‘normal’ price.

What’s the problem? These ‘special’ prices become the norm, which means that when they are sold for full price you’ll fork out more than you should. Plus, the constant special offer labelling may be persuading you to routinely choose a product that’s not necessarily giving you the best value for money.

Misleading multibuys

The second type of offer we found was misleading multibuys. We’ve studied multibuys for years and, as we found in a March 2017 article, they are on the decline – but these seem to still around in some form.

Some items go up in price just in time for a multibuy offer, which means shoppers end up spending more money than they would have the day before, despite thinking they are saving.

Dubious discounts

If you’ve seen something advertised using ‘was’ and ‘now’ prices but can’t remember seeing it sold at that price, you won’t be surprised to find that sometimes products are sold with a ‘was’ price that hasn’t been seen for over a month.

This misleading practice makes you think you’ve got a better price than last time when that’s not the case.

Being a savvy shopping

We’ve looked at the psychology of special offers and how supermarkets use clever tricks to affect our shopping behaviour.

Some of the most common tactics are large stacks of items that interrupt your path as you walk into a shop, signs that break up the flow of an aisle as you scan it and seemingly dwindling piles that give a false sense of urgency.

We’ve shared our latest findings with the CMA, if you’ve spotted any dubious deals then let us know. Do you find yourself tempted by special offers, or are you a more sceptical shopper?


I try to keep my wits about me when I shop and yes I’ve noticed most of these. Particularly the price hike when a product is put on a 3 for 2 deal.

I just wish multi-buys were banned and all offers made on single items. It would be much harder to fool the public if this was the case.

Is it just me that finds regulators are weak and too easily swayed by big business ?

Many regulators are only there to advise and have very little power that’s if they are given enough money to do everything that needs to be done Many are set up by trade organisations as well so will work for the interest of the trade not the public

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I make the most of special offers on non-perishable or freezable products I buy regularly, but generally ignore the piles of special offer stuff inside supermarket doors.

I do however, peruse new products on Ocado and if any look interesting and they are on special offer I might take the opportunity to try them, otherwise I might add them to my favourites to try the next time they are on special offer.

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Shopping today I saw several 1@ £1 50 or 2 for £2. items and others similar at different price points. I didn’t stop to question whether the original price of £1 50 had been hiked, or whether the saving was genuine. With time constraints, I bought the two, since I shall be using them both. Another win for them. I do go in with a list and stick to it. I also know what I’m looking for, but don’t remember what I paid for it last time. Another win for them. I sometimes go through the receipt afterwards and look at where the money went. That can change what I buy next time. My shopping philosophy is to buy what is needed, waste none of it, and balance the food to get a healthy diet. If the supermarket provides this for me, then we’ve both won!

Simply looking at prices is not helpful when pack sizes are becoming smaller. I pay attention to unit prices, which help when comparing different products and deciding whether a special offer is worthwhile. Offers such as four items for the price o f three with the cheapest one ‘free’ annoy me because it’s not possible to work out the unit price. That presumably is the intention.

A friend shops for bargains and calls in with some offerings once or twice a week. Recently it was walnut loaf from Marks & Spencer, reduced from £2.70 to 30p and another bakery item reduced to 10% of the original price. Who is going to pay £2.70 for a small loaf? Tonight I am going to get some greatly reduced food from Waitrose.

I don’t buy ready meals unless they are greatly reduced in price and can go in the freezer. Like Duncan, I’m wary of processed food.

I’ll have to keep my eye out. I always think an offer is a bargain, must keep my wits about me.

Many supermarket offers are bargains but it’s not uncommon to raise prices and then launch an offer that is at best not much of a saving and at worst more than the original price.

Given the same product advertised as “Half price” vs. “Buy one get one free” at different retailers, most people seem to gravitate to the BOGOF deal, attracted by the word “FREE”, but this forces you to buy TWO items to get the half price deal. A straight “half price” offer allows you to buy ONE at half price.

Very true, Ian. I try to buy BOGOF when I’m only intending to buy two items anyway, or if they don’t expire, such as kitchen roll. Although, this is easier said than done!

The BOGOF offers can be a problem for single people, unless fresh food can be frozen. Those living in small flats may find it difficult to store bulky items such as kitchen roll.

Good point, Wavechange. They can encourage a lot of waste that way 🙁

So if you don’t want a bogof, don’t buy it? Let those who can make use of it benefit.:-)

Another problem is that the single item price has often been inflated, and the BOGOF price is the only sensible option. Getting rid of these offers will mean that everyone will benefit.

Multi-buy offers contribute to food waste because food spoils before it is eaten.

It does depend where you shop and what you buy – so it needs a little thought. My experience – the prices where we shop are not pre-inflated hen offers. And many of the offers we buy can be frozen if they are not going to be used within date – but are needed. We just have to use our common sense on what we buy; if you don’t agree with an offer, then simply avoid it.

I have seen many examples where the single price has been inflated. It’s hard on elderly people with little money who are not in a position to shop around. Let’s think of them. As Ian suggested, getting rid of the offers would help.

It wouldn’t help those who can take advantage. The world is full of “offers” and “deals”- discounted appliances, cheap day returns, cash back on purchases, energy tariffs, early bird holidays or last minutes deals, interest-free credit card transfers, ……It won’t change; we just have to be savvy. All paid for by everyone in the end of course.

If you are old and living alone on a small income and without a car, you might not be able to shop around for groceries. We need to care about those who are disadvantaged as well as those recognised as vulnerable.

That is not the point I make. The offers will still be made so trying to remove them disadvantages those who can use them – including those for whom it makes their budget go further, such as low income larger families, or the single elderly who shop prudently.

As I have replied before, I along with many others do care about the disadvantaged and vulnerable, and am active in doing so. However, I do not subscribe to the notion that if everyone cannot access something, no one should be able to.

Online deliveries are a lifeline for people living alone who may be unwell, although the substitutes can be a bit of a pain at times.

Before online shopping people had good helpful neighbours who would do their shopping for them ARE some still around (good neighbours that is) or does everyone now only care for themselves and nobody else I still have !!

It still happens, Bishbut and on-line ordering has made it better. A cousin does the ordering for her mother who lives 400 miles away to make sure she gets a regular supply of the essentials, plus anything else she wants or needs [which can include things you wouldn’t find in the village shop], as well as the occasional extra. Not exactly neighbours perhaps, but it shows the facility is there – people just need to use it.

| know that there are many people who care It’s the ones who do not care about others only themselves that get media publicity

At 84 I find it very difficult to weigh up the so called “bargains” I am lucky when one of my sons is with me when I go shopping and when I am reaching for one of the bulk buys, they restrain me and say, “Hold on dad, look at this, if you buy two of these items, they actually work out cheaper than the bulk buy offer”. They have their full count of brain cells, not like their 84yr. old dad! Great to have them with me, they often remove things from my trolley taking them back to the shelves and returning with the real “bargains”. “God bless them”. I’ll really miss them when they get into old age and can’t spot the real “bargains”.

I check the value of offers where we food shop and find them genuine. Quite right to point out the item unit price, wavechange; however if, as in an M&S £10 meal deal say, you want and will use all the components, then if the total comes to less than the individual items I’m more than happy (and they do).

It is a pity we do not have proactive local trading standards to keep an eye on dubious deals and take prompt action if appropriate. I would dearly love to see them restored to doing their proper job, properly funded and being the guardian of consumers (alongside Which?!). I’d happily pay a little more in council tax if that helped.

Are offers all in every supermarket or just in a few ? Do the offers come from head office of do the individual managers make them at times ? Some could even be mistakes by someone who cannot even add up two simple numbers or which there appears to be many in this computer age when a machine do all calculations for them (shop tills for example)

Have you seen mysupermarket bishbut?

Here is a link for all supermarket prices for Heinz Tomato Ketchup. Click on the picture then ‘see all’ and you can see the price in every supermarket.


These prices are not 100% accurate but they are a good guide. They seem slow to update sometimes which means there might be a special offer and it is not shown or the special offer has already gone. Prices also vary between areas and ‘local’ supermarkets.

Interesting question on who decides which the special offers to run. It is often manufacturers who run a product promotion. Then I also think it is supermarket chains competing for business.

“Funny you should say that, bishbut but I believe that “mental arithmetic” has been banished from many of our schools because it is assumed that it is no longer needed when “they” can just look it up on a computer/calculator and calculators are allowed in examinations! What a wonderful world we live in! I often find that shop assistants look at me in amazement when I give them the correct price for several items before they have reckoned them up on their calculators! Before they have actually entered all the prices into their calculators! We learned mental arithmetic at school and I have always found it one of my most useful attributes, whether shopping or in my workshop. John.

This week I did my weekly shop online as I was unable to travel to the supermarket. The delivery guy seemed rather rushed and in a hurry so I was not altogether too surprised to find a bottle of Bordeaux Chateau Pey La Tour 2015 which I hadn’t ordered or paid for amongst the groceries, until…………the mystery deepened still further when discovering the absence of all the fruit and veg!

I phoned customer services who seemed more surprised but advised they would refund my account for the missing items and I could keep the wine! I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for the customer who was expecting a nice bottle of red instead of a load of fruit and veg 🙂

And did you enjoy one of your five a day Beryl? 🙂

Not yet! The bottle is still intact! The plan is to keep it until Xmas 🙂

I hope you enjoy it, when the time comes.

Thanks Alex, I hope to share it with family. The following website is a useful guide for people like me who are increasingly reliant on delivery deals:

lovemoney.com – Cheapest supermarket online grocery deals: Save at Tesco, Asda, Sainsburys, Morrisons and more. It also provides a direct link to:
mysupermarket.com – Cheapest offers to compare how much your trolley would cost with a number of supermarkets.

Those living in rural areas rarely have a choice of supermarket, and usually no delivery service unless they are on the edge of a town. In many suburban locations and small settlements people are increasingly reliant on the smaller ‘local’ or ‘express’ stores that have a limited product range, don’t offer the ‘own label’ alternatives in many categories, and have higher prices than the same company’s supermarkets on fresh produce, bakery, and fish and meat. Residents in those areas might also be less-well off than their metropolitan counterparts because they have a higher cost of living due to travelling expenses and energy costs.

A useful retirement point to consider before contemplating ‘escaping to the country’ John. I am fortunate inasmuchas I am able to enjoy the best of both worlds as I live in an AONB with excellent transport links to local towns. My online delivery is a 3 weekly occurrence and the local village post office and shops are within walking distance if I run out of fresh produce.

The nearest small town to us is 17 miles away and we do live in a remote location, but fortunately Tesco, Asda, Waitrose and Sainsbury all deliver to us, along with just about all of the entire N Wales area. Waitrose get a special mention, since they have to travel around 30 miles to reach us.

There’s also something of a tradition in Snowdonia for Co-ops to inhabit villages, which does make life easier.

That sounds good, Ian. I expect you make their journeys worth while. It must throw the economics of the operation out of gear, though – subsidised by the townies, of course!

Do you still qualify for Waitrose free delivery Ian? 30 miles is a commendable distance to receive this extra perk, bearing in mind of course their £60 minimum limit now easily exceeded with recent food rises I have to say!

We only order occasionally, and when we do it’s always above £100. One problem can be the weather; sometimes the passes are snow-bound and there are only two routes they can use to get to us. Can be fun living at altitude in the mountains.

No doubt you have admirable storage facilities up there! Oh and a heli-pad for Santa 🙂

We do have a fair bit of space, which we need in winter, and plenty of hard standing for Santa’s Gravity-drive and inertia-compensation sleigh. 🙂

Del50 says:
17 November 2017

Don’t you find it strange how almost every supermarket sells half-price strawberries all summer long?
If you search for it, there’s bound to be a small sentence about “previously sold at …” in microscopic print.
But half-price ALL summer?
I’ve just been mailed by Waitrose about their 3 for £10 deals. Looks interesting, except I noticed their pizzas – the ones that are frequently two for £6. So, the third one is now £4? Their minced beef also seems to be a worse deal than normal.
Hmmm… perhaps not such a good set of deals as they want you to believe.

I am a fan of Ocado – their customer service and their prompt and fully complete deliveries are amongst the very best. However, beware all their special offers and especially on wine. They always have “Special Offers” of up to 30% off. These are seldom genuine offers; you only have to Google the wine in question to see that the offer only brings it back to the correct price; one can only assume that they have previously inflated the price solely in order to create the illusion of an offer. I no longer buy my wine from Ocado.

Sainsbury’s 3-week cycle scam is very trying. I first encountered it on Innocent juice which has 2 sizes 0.9L and 1.35 L. For the first 3 weeks they do the reduction on the big size, which is fine, but then they change it so that the small size has the lower unit price – so you are obliged to buy the smaller size to get the proper value, which for me is inconvenient. I have a photo which shows the two sizes on adjacent shelves, both priced at £2.50. In other words, for the same money, you can have a 50% bigger quantity. Now I find they are doing the same trick with olive oil. Most frustrating. I have complained to Sainsbury but they just say that they are being fair in giving promotions to their customers who prefer the smaller pack. Aye, right!

Recently I have found two instances of on-line website information at variance with the product available on the shelf and I suspect there are more. In the first instance it was the sugar content of Asda’s Smart Price peanut butter. It would appear that this product has had it’s recipe changed as well as the label and it now contains significantly more sugar than before as well as more than it’s competitors at a time everyone is being encouraged to reduce their sugar intake. However, on the Asda website the previous packaging is still shown along with the original nutritional information despite me contacting them several weeks ago. Also related to peanuts, the B&M website is advertising 200 gram packs of KP peanuts but in store the pack size is just 170 grams at the same price. Is this sharp practice or simply an oversight? Keeping websites up-to-date should surely be obligatory for these large companies or do they find it an inconvenience? Should these sorts of thing be something that Trading Standards need to look into if they aren’t doing it already?

A local branch of Sports Direct is closing down in the New Year and has placards claiming “All stock reduced” but when you go in, the bulk of the stock remains at the same price as it is in all the other branches, so no saving. The explanation was that their normal selling price was already discounted from the RRP so there would be no further discount. Is this acceptable as surely the implication of the sign is that everything would be reduced from their normal selling price?