Saturday, 26 February 2011

Confusing supermarket offers

Sainsbury's store on Huddersfield ring road is, as usual, like most supermarkets, filled with special offers, such as BOGOFs (Buy One Get One Free). When I popped in a couple of weeks ago there was a major discount promotion on the Mexican food section, items like tortilla chips, tacos, fajitas and jalapeno peppers. These small tins of refried beans were on offer at 3 for £3. Yet a single tin was priced at 85p. I was confused, it seemed to mean that if you bought three tins you would pay 45p more.

I would have mentioned it to the customer service desk on my way out, but there was a slow moving queue and I haven’t got all day. When I got home it occurred to me that I could have put three tins of the refried beans in my trolley and seen what happened at the checkout, if the till receipt would show that the so-called 'special offer’ was actually a rip off and customers were actually being charged extra. Then I popped back to the store and had a closer look, and realised the 3 for £3 actually meant you could buy 3 items from a range of Mexican food products, the idea being that the price adds up to more than £3. I am not sure what would happen if you did misguidedly just buy 3 tins of the beans. I think its confusing, there are so many different kinds of offers, so much writing on the shelves and on packaging, not to mention the offers announced on the tannoy system.

All kinds of discount offers, even the more straighforward ones, are a problem as the price cuts don't benefit everyone. There is a problem for less well off shoppers, and for people living alone or in small households. If you do not have a car, so you can load shopping trolleys full of food into to the boot, you are faced with hauling multiple heavy shopping bags home on foot, or on the bus, so your purchasing of ‘buy more for less' deals is restricted. If you live alone you buy fresh produce in smaller quantities, otherwise it will go off before you can eat it. More and more of the fresh produce is pre-packed in plastic, so the only option is to buy it in a certain amount, and these packets are often quite large, such as big bags of most of the varieties of carrots and potatoes. We throw a lot of food away in the UK, so it could be encouraging us to buy what we don't need and more food will end up in the bin. And special offers to buy more for less can't be helping with rising obesity rates.

The buy more for less offers benefit richer people. Anyone living hand to mouth with a tight food budget of what they can afford each week cannot take advantage of the offers. This affects pensioners in particular, who are often living alone, not at their peak of physical strength so less able to haul loads of shopping up a hill (nearly everyone in Huddersfield is uphill from the main Sainburys store), among the worse off, and vulnerable to malnutrition.

Which? magazine has a lot of information about supermarket offers that are not what they seem, the latest being products for which deals are offered online, then when the order turns up on your doorstep you find out you have paid full price for it, because the order expired before it was delivered. Other instances include 'better value' multi packs which are not better value than buying single items. Also, there actually are 'offers' when buying mutliple items costs more than buying just one, the most ridiculous being a fruit drink, on offer at 2 for £4.

One category that is always on special offer is alchohol. Trading Standards have investigated Tesco, the UK's biggest retailer, the common supermarket practice of using heavily discounted alcoholic drinks to lure bargain hunters into their stores. Tesco was also investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority for promoting offers with banners at store entrances, in spite of not having the stock to sell.

Also, not to do with special offers, Trading Standards in Lincolnshire bought a landmark case against excess packaging. A joint of beef was encased in multiple layers of plastic - a vacuum packed layer, a tray, a lid and then covered in a cardboard sleeve. Lincolnshire County Council dropped the action at the eleventh hour before the case was due to be heard. But their action still made a difference as the council stated that the amount of packaging on the product had been considerably reduced.

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