Consumers need a comprehensive way to police misleading offers at the supermarket, writes John Denham MP.
In a tough economic climate, consumers need to know that they are getting the best possible deal. But despite the growth in online supermarket shopping, most have to shop around in much the same way they did decades ago. How much better it would be if consumers had, at their fingertips, comparative data on the price of goods, not just retailer by retailer, but shop by shop, product by product.
On January 15th I will be introducing a private members bill that would require supermarkets to make available, in an online format, all their pricing data by product and by store.
The Bill has quickly gained wide-ranging support from MPs across five political parties, as well as from consumer champions Which? and from the open data community.
This Bill would enable both existing price comparison services and the creators of smart phone apps to find innovative ways of making this data publicly available. I anticipate this would not only give consumers the ability to compare the price of their weekly shopping basket at each major store, but the transparency would also force supermarkets to put an end to the kind of misleading ‘special offers’ that we see so regularly.
In the past year, there has been some strong criticism of supermarket pricing policies, leading to November’s report from the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) that gave supermarkets new guidance to stop misleading consumers with special offers. The Grocer, the trade magazine, investigated a major Tesco price-drop campaign in March 2012, finding that more items went up in price over six weeks (3,258) than went down (1,962). Tesco allegedly created the illusion of a big price drop by moving prices up just before the campaign. For example, Tesco placed adverts in newspapers showing its own label cream of tomato soup “Was 59p, Now 45p”, however, six weeks before this advert was placed, it was just 46p.
In May 2012, Which? looked into misleading multibuy deals, finding a long list of bad deals, including a Goodfella’s Pepperoni Pizza initially on sale at Asda for £1 that went up to £2.50 for one or £4.50 for two in the multibuy ‘deal’. But did the OFT’s new guidance stop this kind of offer? New research from MySupermarket ahead of my Bill shows that the supermarkets are still at it. This new research showed a host of ‘special offers’ in which the new offer price was higher than the average price of the same item in the store. One of these was a Goodfella’s Pepperoni Pizza, this time on sale at Sainsburys at two for £4.50 – 16 per cent higher for each pizza than their average price for one. This is almost exactly the same misleading offer that Which? identified eight months and a set of OFT guidance before.
We need a comprehensive way to police these misleading offers, and make sure that shoppers are getting value for money right across the country. Making price data accessible online would make such policing much easier and far less time consuming for public agencies and retailers alike. More effective market scrutiny might reduce the need for further regulation and codes of conduct. More transparency would highlight where supermarkets price things differently depending on which part of the country you live in, and let you know if you’re really getting a bargain.
In principle, price data like this is publicly available. All consumers need is an army of volunteers to go into every store. But I believe that there is a simpler way. My Private Member’s Bill, to be introduced in the House of Commons on Tuesday 15 January, would make sure shoppers are really getting value for money.