Some supermarket promotions in UK are misleading, CMA confirms

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The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), UK has officially confirmed Which?’s stand on misleading supermarket promotions and has announced a series of measures to improve compliance, bring greater clarity to shoppers and simplify the regulations.

CMA’s response comes after Which? filed a super-complaint with the CMA against supermarket pricing tactics claiming that retailers are baffling shoppers with a range of confusing pricing tactics. Which? says that it has, for the past seven years, identified a range of misleading and confusing pricing tactics employed by supermarkets including dodgy multi-buys, shrinking products, exaggerated discounts and inconsistent unit pricing.

Some of the instances of such tactics identified by Which? are listed below:

  • Which? found that Asda increased the price of Robinsons Orange Fruit Squash (1 litre) from £1 to as much as £1.59 while on ‘2 for £2.50’, creating the illusion of a saving but actually costing shoppers 50p more when buying it on offer.
  • A box of 100 Twinings Assam tea bags was £4.40 in Tesco, but when the pack shrunk to 80, the price increased costing £4.49. In Sainsbury’s the price of the tea bags remained the same (£4.50) despite the loss of 20 tea bags.
  • Which? found instances were ‘was/now’ pricing promotions were being run for longer than the higher price. A 2 litre bottle of Pepsi Max was sold at £1.98 for 28 days but then went on a £1 ‘was £1.98’ offer for 63 days, which appears to break government guidelines. Similarly, McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits (500g) and McVitie’s Ginger Nuts (250g) were both sold at £1.09 for 29 days, then 98p (‘was £1.09’) for 81 days.
  • Inconsistent unit pricing, with some sauces in supermarkets priced per 100ml and on others per 100g making it impossible to make a price comparison. We also found cakes being priced per item or per 100g. Unit pricing needs to be made more consistent on products so consumers can use it effectively to make a price comparison between similar products.

Which? found that tactics aren’t working for consumers with seven in ten consumers (69 per cent) saying that they sometimes find it difficult to work out whether an offer is a good deal or not. That’s against the backdrop that around 40 per cent of groceries (by revenue) are sold on promotion.

Which? says that retailers are baffling shoppers with a range of confusing tactics and so it used its powers to lodge a super-complaint with the CMA in April 2015.

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: “Supermarkets have been using smoke and mirrors for years to manipulate consumers’ spending and create the illusion of savings that don’t exist. When the regulator reports back, we expect it to listen to the tens of thousands of people who have backed our super-complaint and put an end to misleading pricing practices.”

To this complaint, CMA responded and announced a series of measures to improve compliance, bring greater clarity to shoppers and simplify the regulations after it found examples of pricing and promotional practices that have the potential to confuse or mislead consumers and which could be in breach of consumer law. Where there is evidence of breaches of consumer law this could lead to enforcement action.

To improve compliance the CMA also recommends that, in its ongoing review of the ‘Pricing Practices Guide’, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute clarifies how the legislation applies to certain promotional practices.

The CMA also recommends that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) publishes best practice guidelines on the legibility of unit prices, and looks at ways to simplify and clarify legislation, including how the law requires items to be unit-priced when they are on promotion.

However, it has concluded that these problems are not occurring in large numbers across the whole sector and that generally retailers are taking compliance seriously to avoid such problems occurring.