Supermarkets are using underhand taxes to make customers believe they are getting a bargain, when in fact, in many instances they will be paying more than the standard price.
Research from consumer group Which? shows that all major supermarkets indulge in “misleading” price promotions which aim to persuade customers that they are getting a better deal than is actually the case.
Which? undertook its largest ever investigation into the practice by analysing 700,000 supermarket prices over a 12-month period looking at price data from both multibuys and discounted products and found instances where the “supposed” recommended retail price was hiked to make it look like the multibuy deal was better value than it was.
Which? used data from independent grocery website MySupermarket.co.uk from between 31st January 2011 to 1st February 2012.
Four supermarket strategies
Which? found that there are four main methods used to make shoppers think they are getting an unbeatable deal.
One method that supermarkets use is to highlight in colours that immediately attract the so-called “savyy” shopper to what they expect to be a good deal an “offer”. However, many of these promotions of products have been on “offer” for longer than they were ever at the original price.
Which? highlighted how Tesco sold Beck’s beer for 190 days at the discount price, compared to 70 days at the higher price.
The research discovered that some items increase in price from what they had originally cost as a single item when they are put into a multibuy offer.
A third ruse followed by supermarkets is t increase the original price just before an item is put on “offer”, making the discount appear more attractive. At Sainsbury’s I discovered that a 225g punnet of raspberries was on offer at half price, down from £3.99 to £1.99. However, other types of raspberries at the same weight were available at an original price of £2.99, suggesting that the half price offer was in fact just £1 off.
Which? says that supermarkets also say that items have been on sale at a “higher” price just before going on offer.
Another ruse I have come across is to sell a larger quantity of an item at what is advertised as a “special price”. In the run-up to Christmas, at my local Tesco I noticed a litre bottle of Bells Whisky promoted at £17 surrounded by the familiar red coloured price tags that shoppers look out for when they are trying to spot good deals. However, almost next to this product was a 70cl bottle of the same Bells Whisky on sale for £11.
The smaller bottle had no promotional signs but actually works out cheaper per ml of whisky than the product that was being highlighted as a good deal.
'Anomalies are just mistakes'
The supermarkets have responded to the Which? research by saying that they have to price up millions of items every day and that anomalies are just mistakes.
A Tesco spokesman said: “We change millions of price labels in store and online each week and we do sometimes make mistakes, for which we apologise. We make every effort to ensure that we act in accordance with Government guidelines on price promotions."
This is undoubtedly true in many instances but there are too many examples of the same behavior occurring to believe that at times there is not a strategy behind this designed to entice shoppers to spend more in the belief that they are getting a better deal.
It is also fair to make the point that supermarkets do offer very good value most of the time and that despite increases in the last few years for some staples, the price of food in proportion to income has fallen a lot in the past 20 years.
But shoppers need to be savvy and good at maths to work out exactly whether what is promoted as excellent value, actually is. A good memory is also useful to remember what the original price of an item was before it has been dramatically “reduced” to offer apparently unbeatable value.
Legislation that details the price per litre of beer, the cost per dishwasher tablet and the price per 100g of a product are all innovations that allow customers to easily compare prices to make an informed decision on their purchases.
The Which? research is designed to act as a call to the government to tighten rules on pricing and give more protection to customers.
Richard Lloyd from Which? said: "It's unacceptable that shoppers are confused into thinking they're getting a good deal when that might not be the case.
"Consumers should not have to worry about whether a special offer is really 'special', so we want the supermarkets to play fair and the government to tighten up pricing guidelines so that people can shop with confidence."
Asda said: "We are only human, and occasionally we make mistakes. By and large our systems and procedures ensure those instances are kept to an absolute minimum, but when we do get it wrong, we put our hands up to say sorry, and put things right as quickly as possible."
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