Which?: The four ways supermarkets con shoppers

Updated on 29 May 2012 | 31 Comments

New research from Which? pinpoints how we are being tricked into thinking we are getting a good deal by the big supermarkets.

Supermarkets are using sneaky tactics to trick us into thinking we are getting a bargain, according to research by consumer champions Which?

Which? gathered data over one year on nearly 700,000 supermarket prices from independent grocery shopping website MySupermarket.co.uk and surveyed 1,802 UK residents online in February 2012.

Four main manipulative tactics were identified, employed by the supermarkets to confuse shoppers into thinking they are getting a better deal than they really are.

1. Multibuy scams

Most of us naturally assume buying in bulk will save us money. In theory it should work out cheaper, but Which? has found otherwise.

In one scenario with Asda, the price of a single Müller yogurt was doubled from 30p to 61p just before the product went onto a multibuy offer of ten for £4.

What makes this rip off alarming is that the price returned to 30p after the offer ended, meaning customers were actually better off once the promotion had finished.

2. The ‘offer’ charade

The research found a great number of products were sold as on ‘offer’ at the reduced price for longer than they had been sold at the 'real' price.

One case Which? cited was Tesco selling Beck’s beer for a total of 190 days at a discounted price and only 70 days at the higher ‘real’ price.

Why is that bad? Well, we are being tricked into thinking we have got a good deal. Psychologically we may buy more of an item because it is on offer, fearing that the the offer may not be there next week.

Plus if something is on ‘offer’ for 190 days, it does make you wonder about what the real price should actually be.

3. Epic price crashes

Which? found that supermarkets were hiking prices before putting items on ‘offer’, making the discount and potential money saving total much more significant.

In one case, Ocado strawberries increased in price from £3.89 to £4.38 for 13 days, then were put on offer stating ‘was £4.38 now £2.19/£2.29/£2.25’ for 112 days.

Genius! A saving of £1.70 sounds alright, but clearly not as exciting as getting them at half price.

4. Old prices

The sneakiest of them all was perhaps the use of old prices.

If you saw Aquafresh Milk Teeth Toothpaste in Asda, labelled with a bright red discount tag saying ‘was £1.74, now £1.15’ , all that most shoppers would do is work out the saving was 59p.

You perhaps wouldn’t think about when this product actually retailed for £1.74.

Which? in this particular example did, and found the highest price the toothpaste was sold at in their yearlong tracking experiment was £1.17. So a saving of just 2p.

Just mistakes

In response to the evidence all the retailers apologised and admitted they had made mistakes in some of their promotions. They blamed the fact that they change the price of millions of products each week, making it hard to get it right every time.

Although this could well be the case, the frequency of occurrences where promotions are confusing or unclear is enough to make anyone think that there is a strategy behind it, intended to trick shoppers and increase profits.

What’s the harm?

Iif supermarkets use dodgy tactics like the ones uncovered in this research, despite our best efforts we are being conned and could end up buying more than we need.

Based on these findings the average shopper needs to have a very good memory as well as be able to use a lot of maths to work out if they are making a real saving or should avoid the promotion altogether.

The fact we are unable to know when something ‘was’ a price and are unable to track the length of offers without our own lengthy research means we are at the mercy of supermarkets and their pricing strategies, never knowing when a special offer is really special.


Which? think this is unfair and have called for the Government to crackdown on this dodgy practice with more enforcement of the rules which state:

- The ‘was’ price should be the most recent price a product was sold at for 28 consecutive days.

- A discounted product must have been at the higher price for at least as long as it has been discounted.

What do you think? Are these tactics really that bad? What are your experiences of dodgy deals? Let us know in the comment boxes below.

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