Tesco fined over 'half-price' strawberries claim

The strawberries were on sale in England and Wales during summer 2011

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Tesco has been fined £300,000 after admitting it misled customers over whether strawberries on sale were genuinely "half price".

Trading standards officers said the £1.99 strawberries on sale in Sheldon, Birmingham, in 2011 had not been for sale at £3.99 long enough.

The store charged the same amounts at its other stores in England and Wales.

Tesco admitted four counts of unfair commercial practice at Birmingham Crown Court.

Judge Michael Chambers said the case was "shocking by its very nature" because consumers had a "high degree of trust" in national chains.

He said the promotion was "patently wrong and misleading".

Tesco has apologised for what happened.

The supermarket was told it would also have to pay £65,000 in costs.

The judge said he had taken into account the financial damage caused to Tesco's reputation when considering the fine.

'Employee error'

Birmingham City Council, which brought the prosecution, said Tesco had sold strawberries for one week each at £3.99 and then £2.99 in 2011.

The £300,000 fine may seem like a drop in the ocean to a company as large as Tesco, but it represents a significant part of its profits during the period in question.

The court was told that Tesco made £2.3m on sales of British strawberries during the summer of 2011, but those figures were similar to 2010 when there wasn't a summer-long half price promotion, and so it's fair to say that Tesco made far less in extra profit.

The judge also said the Supermarket couldn't use the practice of "flushing" as an excuse because of the length of time the promotion was in place.

"Flushing" is how retailers describe selling goods at a significant discount when there is a glut and the market is flooded.

It said the supermarket then sold the fruit at £1.99 over June, July and August 2011, labelling the 400g containers as "half price".

Under the pricing practices guide, the length of the new lower price sale should not be longer than the old higher price was available for.

The same prices were used at all the supermarket's 2,300 stores in England and Wales. The case did not apply to Scotland and Northern Ireland because they come under different legal jurisdictions.

The price of the strawberries was raised with trading standards by Sheldon customer Daphne Smallman, who has since died but was described in court as "tenacious" in her argument against Tesco.

The council agreed with her that the "overall presentation" of the offer misled or was likely to deceive the "average consumer".

Trading standards officials said it was not only a victory for Birmingham customers, "it also has wider benefits for all consumers across the country".

Sajeela Naseer, head of trading standards at Birmingham City Council, said: "It was the council's case, confirmed by Tesco's guilty pleas today, that this was a misleading offer which deceived the purchasers of strawberries over many weeks during the summer of 2011.

"Food pricing, presentation and the depiction of promotional practices is a crucial issue for retailers, and in turn, consumers."

What counts as a fair "half price" offer? Birmingham's Head of Trading Standards Sajeela Naseer explains

The court heard Tesco had apologised and said it accepted it had fallen well below its normally high standards.

The supermarket said it was not a case of "deliberate mis-selling" but an error made by an individual employee.

In a statement, Tesco said it "apologised sincerely for this mistake".

It added: "We sell over 40,000 products in our stores, with thousands on promotion at any one time, but even one mistake is one too many.

"Since then, to make sure this doesn't happen again we've given colleagues additional training and reminded them of their responsibilities to ensure we always adhere to the guidelines on pricing."

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