Campaign group Which? found evidence of ‘money-saving’ multibuys that were cheaper to purchase as individual items, limited ‘offers’ on sale for longer than the original price, artificially inflated tickets immediately before a ‘reduction’ and others that incorrectly stated the ‘usual price’.
Today, Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury, along with Waitrose's home delivery service Ocado, said ‘sorry’.
But it has prompted calls for government guidelines on promotional price tactics to protect consumers to be tightened.
The study, published in the June issue of Which?, Magazine, tracked 700,000 tickets from January 2011 to February 2012, when supermarkets came under severe pressure as shoppers tightened their wallets and manufacturers began resisting rollbacks.
But if the wide-boy tactics were evidence of desperate measures to fight the slump, they failed. Even Tesco’s £500M Big Price Drop campaign last year could not prevent a 1% drop in UK profits.
No excuse for duping customers
Richard Lloyd, executive director of Which?, said there was no excuse for duping customers.
“At a time when household budgets are squeezed and food bills are going up, many people are on the look-out for a bargain. It’s unacceptable that shoppers are confused into thinking they’re getting a good deal. Consumers shouldn’t have to worry about whether a special offer is really ‘special’.
“We want supermarkets to play fair and government to tighten up pricing guidelines.”
The four supermarkets that apologised blamed “human error” and denied any intent to mislead. A spokesman for Tesco said: “We change millions of price labels each week and we do sometimes make mistakes for which we apologise.”
Richard Dodd, communications director of the British Retail Consortium, said it was not in retailers’ interests to damage their brand by inflating the value of offers.
“Where claims are made they must be accurate, but things sometimes go wrong, whether it’s time lags between pricing multibuys and single items or retailers responding very quickly to price matching with competitors.
“But consumers aren’t stupid,” he added. “They are very capable of judging what represents value.”
He said evidence now suggests that retailers are moving away from individual price promotions.
“What we are seeing is a trend towards vouchers off the total shop – whether that’s related to more robust negotiations with suppliers, I don’t know.”
A spokesman for the Department of Business said it had no immediate plans to review the Pricing Practice Guideline issued to retailers in November 2010, but added: “We will consider the Guidelines in the light of the Which? investigation.”