You might think a consumer group would be cheered by the massive range of discounts that Britain’s major supermarkets have been offering of late, but in April Which? reported the grocery industry to the authorities for having too many ‘misleading’ promotions.
The group had said ‘dodgy multibuys’ and inconsistent pricing could be costing consumers hundreds of millions of pounds, but today the Competition and Markets Authority said there was no evidence of supermarkets flouting the law on any great scale.
‘These problems are not occurring in large numbers across the whole sector and…generally retailers are taking compliance seriously to avoid such problems occurring,’ it said. It did add that ‘there are still areas of poor practice’ and that ‘more could be done’ to make relative prices clearer to consumers, but retailers unsurprisingly see today’s findings as vindication.
‘It is very clear that the allegations contained in the super complaint were blown out of all proportion and that the CMA recognises supermarkets take compliance seriously,’ said Tom Ironside, the British Retail Consortium’s director of business and regulation.
Which? isn’t giving up the ghost though. Its director Richard Lloyd said the group now expects to see ‘urgent enforcement action’ – which seems unlikely given the placidity of the CMA's statement. The regulator did say it would be investigating further to see if handing out fines would be appropriate, but most of its proposed solutions are much more gentle, including helping trading standards to monitor promotions better and the production of new best practice guidelines on unit pricing.
To be fair to Which?, it’s probably correct in saying there are ‘hundreds of misleading offers on the shelves every day.’ But when the ‘Big Four’ supermarkets (Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons) have well over 2,000 supermarkets between them, and a large store can stock tens of thousands of different items, that’s hardly evidence of widespread malpractice.
It may not be to the great detriment of their customers, but supermarkets do have a problem with discounting. As MT and many others have pointed out, no business can keep cutting prices forever and hope to turn a decent profit - the grocery business needs to be about more than BOGOF meat joints and impossibly cheap milk. Nonetheless today’s ruling should come as a crumb of comfort for the Big Four.