Suspicious of special offers and dubious about discounts? You've every right to be. Supermarket special offers are still misleading shoppers, according to our latest research into a year's worth of supermarket pricing.
We tracked pricing and offers for 450 products available at seven online supermarkets (Asda, Iceland, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Waitrose), and found that it's worth treating the discounts and multibuys that fill supermarket aisles with a degree of caution.
While most of the deals we monitored did represent good value, we spotted 65 instances across the year of supermarkets use misleading discounts that didn't represent the bargains they claimed. We found suspicious offers in six of the supermarkets we checked - only Sainsbury's had all of its offers meet the guidelines set by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).
Special offers come in all shapes and sizes, but our research found three general types of dodgy offer that are worth looking out for:
Who can resist buying three pots of hummus for the price of two, even though you only really need one? Multibuys are one of the most popular discount options, and it's easy to see why.
Claims such as '3 for the price of 2' or 'buy one, get one half price' suggest that you're saving money in the long run, even though you're paying a little more. But this isn't always the case.
Multibuy offers become dodgy when supermarkets increase the base price when the offer starts, or just beforehand. This means that, despite the offer, your three pots of hummus 'for the price of two' actually cost more than they would have done a week or so before.
Here's one example we found:
Kellogg's Crunchy Nut Cornflakes 500g
Date: Week of 3 September 2018
Offer: £2.99 or '2 for £4' (£2 each). However, the week before each packet was £1.49 ('was £2.99').
Buying the two 'discounted' packets together for £4 would actually be £1 more expensive that it would have been for the same two packets the week before.
You'll see discounts framed as 'was £x, now £x' offers all over the supermarket. When you see a label that says '£2, was £3.50', you'd expect £3.50 to be the most recent price - making the new price of £2 a bargain. But that's not always the case.
Our pricing analysis found plenty of examples of discounted items with 'was' prices that didn't tell the whole story. Some were previously the 'now' price without a discount.
The cheese in the example below had a £2 base price a month before the discount. This increased to £3.50, only to soon drop back to a discounted '£2, was £3.50' offer. You're not necessarily missing out, but you're not making great savings either:
Cathedral City mature cheddar cheese 350g
Date: Week of 17 September 2018
Offer: 'Was £3.50 now £2'. In fact, this had a base price of £2 the month before, which increased to £3.50 and then dropped back to allow a 'discounted' £2 price.
Endless discounts are a long-running joke, but if an item is always on offer the 'special' price stops being so special. Discounts create a sense of urgency, and encourage you to buy products sooner rather than later. So if that's not true, you may be nudged towards a purchase you don't need.
In some of the examples we found, the products were on offer and/or at a lower price for more than half the year. This might give a false sense of having to snap up that deal immediately.
Some were almost constantly on a 'was/now' discount, while others switched between 'was/now' and multibuys.
A few, like the example below, were sold at the lower price for more of the year than at the higher price, despite 'was/now' offers suggesting the higher price was the norm:
Wall's Carte D'Or Strawberry ice cream (1 litre)
Offer: Sold at £2 for more of the year than £3.50, despite 12 weeks claiming 'was £3.50, now £2'
We spotted a variety of offers like this across a variety of products in six of the seven supermarkets we looked at. We didn't find any dodgy discounts at Sainsbury's - all of its offers met the guidelines set by the CMA.
In 2015 we took a super-complaint to the CMA on misleading and opaque pricing practices. In 2016, the CMA worked with supermarkets and Trading Standards services to ensure that deals are genuine. While it's positive news that this year's investigation found fewer instances of dodgy discounts than we have in the past, it's clear that there is still work to do to make sure shoppers can have confidence they are getting a good deal.
We will be reporting our latest findings on special offers to the CMA, and will keep you updated on any action that is taken.