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Confusing supermarket prices

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X-Ray production team X-Ray production team | 19:30 UK time, Monday, 19 October 2009

Supermarkets are big business and last year British consumers spent a massive £90 billion on trips to the supermarkets.

In the desperate battle to attract shoppers away from their rivals most supermarkets offer a range of exciting special offers and bargain buys that promise to save the consumer money.

But are these special offers really as good as they purport to be? American journalist Denis Campbell reckons not.

On a trip to Tesco in August Denis noticed his regular brand of dishwasher tablets was on a Buy One Get One Free offer. The store was offering two packs of 20 dishwasher tablets for the price of one. For £6.61 Denis stood to get 40 tablets!

However, further down the aisle, he then noticed the same dishwasher tablets on sale as a box of 30 tablets for £2.32.

Denis likes to buy in bulk - 120 tablets at a time - and when he did his calculations he worked out that buying 120 tablets of the 'special offer' would cost him £19.83 whereas buying 120 of the 30 tablet packs would only cost £9.28. Taking advantage of the 'special offer' would actually cost Denis £10.55 more!

We asked Denis to go supermarket shopping and find us more examples of 'special offers that weren't so special' and pricing structures that were confusing to the consumer. It didn't take him long.

In Tesco he found more dishwasher tablets. This time a pack of 40 tablets that had been reduced from £12 to £9. '£3 saving' proclaimed the shelf display.

However, right next to it was a box of 38 of the same tablets on sale for £5.75. In essence, if you went for the 'offer' you'd be paying £3.25 just for two extra tablets.

In the fruit and veg aisle Denis found grapes on a special offer. Two 500g punnets for £4 was the offer. Further up the aisle Denis found the same grapes on sale loose for £2.97 per kilo - that's £1.03 cheaper for the same thing.

In Asda Denis found butter on sale in 250g and 500g portions. The 250g portion was offered for 99p. Denis expected the 500g portion to be on sale for slightly less than twice the price of the smaller portion. However the 500g portion was actually for sale at £2.14. It would be cheaper to buy two small portions of butter.

In Morrisons beer was being offered on the end of aisle at £11 for 18 x 284ml bottles. However further down the aisle you could buy the same brand of beer in 15 x 440ml cans for £13. If you compare the 'cost per litre' the cans actually work out cheaper than the 'special offer' bottles.

Rhodri took a selection of the offers onto the streets of Bridgend to see whether the general public found the prices confusing. The majority of them did! A lot of the people Rhodri spoke to mistakenly chose the 'special offer' automatically assuming it must be cheaper.

Dr Kelly Page, a lecturer in Marketing and Strategy at Cardiff Business School says that the supermarkets could be accused of deliberately making their prices confusing.

She says we should bear in mind that their ultimate goal is to sell product and make profit. We shouldn't assume that just because an item is being offered as a special offer that it's the best value.

We contacted the supermarkets featured in our film and here are their responses.


Tesco say that they work hard to keep prices down and over the last year have invested a billion pounds in lowering their prices. They say the dishwasher tables that Denis originally found were discontinued and thus cheaper. The cheaper tablets he found on his subsequent visit were part of a promotion run by the manufacturer.

As far as the grapes are concerned apparently pre-packed fruit in punnets are more expensive due to higher production costs.


Morrisons say that they follow Government guidance on clear pricing. Unit prices are clearly displayed to allow customers to make direct comparisons between products and brands.


Asda say that they DO change prices regularly in order to ensure they offer customers the best possible value. However, with over 30,000 products in their stores they don`t always get it right and they agree that in these instances their pricing can be confusing to customers.

They also say that they no longer run Buy One Get One Free offers as they feel they do not offer customers value for money.

The next time you're shopping in a supermarket why not bear the following tips in mind?

  • Allow yourself more time to do your weekly shop.
  • Take a calculator with you to help you work out if a bargain is a good as it's purporting to be.
  • Take a close look at the 'per unit' price which will be displayed on the shelf next to the product. This will enable you to make a 'like for like' comparison.


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