Has the Which? supermarket price promotions ‘super-complaint’ arrived too late?

22nd Apr 2015

Consumer watchdog, Which? declared this week that it would use its legal power to issue an unprecedented form of ‘super-complaint’ to tackle UK supermarket pricing promotions.

Which? has reported that the current supermarket price wars are having a “devastating” impact on suppliers and small grocers, causing extreme levels of financial distress in many cases.

It also accuses the leading supermarket chains of ripping off shoppers with confusing prices, and has encouraged the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to take action.

The watchdog gave one example of a misleading multi-buy offer from one leading chain which increased the price of a Chicago Town Four Cheese Pizza Two-Pack from £1.50 to £2 last year as it went onto multi-buy at two for £3, only to put the original price back to £1.50 after the offer had ended.  

Which? executive director, Richard Lloyd said that, "despite Which? repeatedly exposing misleading and confusing pricing tactics, and calling for voluntary change by the retailers, these dodgy offers remain on numerous supermarket shelves", and that using the super-complaint was an effective method for gaining the right level of publicity around the issue.

The CMA has 90 days to respond to the complaint, which it is obliged to examine before declaring whether an inquiry and news laws will be necessary to tackle the problem.

Despite the level of concern, many industry experts have rejected the complaint as arriving at a time when consumers are themselves actively changing supermarkets’ approach to pricing through the increasing popularity of discount stores such as Aldi and Lidl.

Catherine Shuttleworth, CEO of retail and shopper marketing agency, Savvy called it “a case of closing the gate several years after the promotional horse has bolted”.

“Over the last 7 years, whilst Which? has been running their research they've missed what's been happening to the market.

“We shoppers have switched in enormous number to discounters like Aldi and Lidl and Pound stores where there has never been unit pricing displayed just straight forward prices which shoppers believe are keener than those offered by the big 4. This has (albeit in some cases belatedly) shaken up the market and ensured that for the shopper there's never been a better time to find great deals on the goods they want to buy.”

Tom Ironside, director of business and regulation for The British Retail Consortium added: "With thousands of products and special offers in store every day, errors may from time-to-time occur, however these are rare in nature and are resolved quickly by the retailer concerned.

''Millions of shoppers across the country enjoy the benefits of price promotions and special offers. Recent research has shown that, with the exception of fruit and vegetables, food prices in British supermarkets are on average 7% lower than the eurozone average."

Despite this, the issue of how supermarkets drive down their supplier prices is a topic that is unlikely to disappear any time soon.

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