Supermarkets sign up to fairer special offers

Tesco, Sainsbury's, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer among those agreeing to Office of Fair Trading principles

In pictures: some of our readers' daft deals

Eight of the UK's biggest supermarkets have signed up to a set of principles following concerns that they were "failing to operate within the spirit of the law" over special offers and promotions for food and drink, the Office of Fair Trading has said.

Tesco, Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Morrisons, Marks & Spencer, Aldi, the Co-operative and Lidl have agreed to incorporate the principles into their policies, to ensure promotions are "fair and meaningful".

They cover popular claims involving discounts such as "was £3, now £2" or "half price", which must now only be offered for the same or less time than the product was initially sold at the higher price. The supermarkets have also agreed not to artificially inflate prices to make a later "discount" look more attractive.

In addition, pre-printed claims on packs – such as "bigger pack, better value" must be true, and there should not be a cheaper way of buying the same volume of the product elsewhere in the same store, even if there is a promotion on smaller packs of the same item.

The OFT launched an investigation into the sector amid concerns that shoppers were confused by the way prices are displayed, advertised and promoted. It did not find that the supermarkets had breached the law or were deliberately and systematically engaging in misleading promotional practices but did find "what appeared to be inconsistency in the way the law was being interpreted and applied." A spokeswoman added: "We were concerned they weren't operating within the spirit of the law." Trading standards officers will take enforcement action if the new voluntary agreement is flouted.

The Guardian's Money section has in recent months featured dozens of "daft deals" that reveal confusing and misleading pricing on special offers and discounts – with multibuys, for example, pricier than buying the items individually.

OFT chief executive Clive Maxwell said: "Household budgets across the country are under pressure and shoppers should be able to trust that special offers and promotions really are bargains. Prices and promotions need to be fair and meaningful so shoppers can make the right decisions."

He said a huge amount was at stake as regular shopping for groceries accounted for 44% of household spending, and went on: "Our principles taken together with previous guidance provide supermarkets with a clear benchmark for how they should be operating so that their food and drink promotions reflect the spirit as well as the letter of the law."

Asda – also involved in the discussions – said it did not sign up to the agreement because it felt unable to support one of the recommended approaches which says that retailers can only run a promotion for as long as they have established the price for. An Asda spokeswoman said: "While this is meant to discourage high/low pricing promotions, our concern is that it could actually encourage it – ie, you could technically now have a price established for a couple of days to drop it for the weekend. On this basis we're taking some time to consider the recommendations in detail. We are committed to giving our customers clear and accurate pricing information that fully complies with the law."

Consumer groups welcomed the move but said it did not go fair enough. Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: "It should be good for hard-pressed consumers that the OFT has now made clear to supermarkets what is off limits when they promote products with special offers or discounts. We now want the retailers to go further and make a stronger commitment to fair treatment of their customers, so that as well as scrapping misleading promotions they ensure busy shoppers see clear, consistent unit pricing with real bargains that are easy to spot at a glance."

Sign up for our Money Talks email, which each week features a daft deal and some real offers


Rebecca Smithers, Consumer affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
UK supermarkets 'not transparent enough' about pesticide use
Information not routinely displayed on labels of food and gardening items, report finds

Rebecca Smithers Consumer affairs correspondent

28, Nov, 2019 @6:30 AM

Article image
Supermarket deliveries: how UK services stack up for price and choice
The Covid crisis has made many people rethink how they shop – we test the rival options

Patrick Collinson

05, Sep, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
UK supermarket loyalty schemes: which offer the best deals?
As cost of living crisis pushes more households to cut shopping budgets, we assess stores’ offers

Jess Clark

29, Oct, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Supermarkets face tough Christmas as pressure from discounters mounts
With profits tumbling at Sainsbury’s and Asda scaling back its Black Friday discounts, we examine which retailer is in the best shape for the festive season

Graham Ruddick

11, Nov, 2015 @2:17 PM

Article image
Don't buy milk from Morrisons, Aldi, Lidl or Londis, say dairy farmers

Milk farmers say supermarkets are driving them to bankruptcy after cut to 'farm gate' price from 30p to 25p a litre

Patrick Collinson

27, Jul, 2012 @10:01 PM

Article image
Supermarket shoppers can get their Christmas dinner for £20 – survey
Cost of buying 11 festive ingredients comes to £19.82 if consumers shop around across Aldi, Lidl, Asda, Morrisons and Iceland

Rebecca Smithers

30, Nov, 2016 @1:00 AM

Article image
Supermarkets under pressure to reveal amount of plastic they create
Leading UK retailers say information is too ‘commercially sensitive’ to reveal, following Guardian report they make almost 1m tonnes a year

Matthew Taylor and Sandra Laville

18, Jan, 2018 @1:12 PM

Article image
Which? reveals its pick of the best supermarket luxury mince pies
Panel blind-tests 11 premium mince pies – and picks M&S as the favourites

Patrick Collinson

21, Nov, 2019 @12:01 AM

Article image
UK supermarkets move to cut antibiotic use in farming
Iceland, Asda and Aldi lag behind but other major retailers make good progress

Fiona Harvey Environment correspondent

29, Jan, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Waitrose voted UK's best supermarket
Upmarket grocer tops Which? customer satisfaction survey for third successive year while Asda languishes at bottom of table

Rebecca Smithers Consumer affairs correspondent

16, Feb, 2017 @12:01 AM