UK supermarkets accused of ‘unclear pricing’ amidst cost-of-living crisis

Confusing pricing practices at the UK’s leading supermarkets are making it difficult for struggling consumers to find the cheapest items amidst the cost-of-living crisis, Which? has claimed.

The consumer organisation says that because some versions of the same product can cost up to three and a half times more per unit at the same supermarket, there needs to be clear and consistent unit pricing to help customers find the cheapest option.

A Which? survey found that 72 per cent of respondents could not identify the cheapest item in a range of real-life examples from supermarkets.

“At a time when food prices are a huge concern, unit pricing can be a useful tool for shoppers to compare and choose the cheapest groceries but unclear supermarket pricing means the vast majority of people are left struggling to find the best deal,” said Sue Davies, Which? head of food policy. “Small savings can add up and make a big difference but unless supermarkets make unit pricing much more prominent, legible and consistent – as well as displaying it on their promotional offers – people will continue to risk missing out on getting the best value.”

As part of its investigation, the organisation tracked the prices of 10 popular groceries including Coca-Cola, own-label semi-skimmed milk, Dairy Milk chocolate, Nescafe instant coffee, and Weetabix at the ‘Big Four’ supermarkets - Asda, Morrisons, Sainsburys and Tesco - for three months.

In one example, up to 17 different-sized versions of Coca-Cola were available with prices varying between 11p and 50p per 100ml at Tesco. That equates to 346 per cent more for a shopper who buys four 250ml glass bottles - £5 - than one who picks up a 1.5 litre bottle instead - £1.68.

Which? says that its researchers, who visited Asda, Iceland, Lidl, M&S, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose to see how unit pricing is working in practice, found a “multitude of problems”.

These included fruit and vegetables being given a price each, per pack, or per 1 Kg, depending on the pack size or variety, which the organisation claims makes it difficult to compare prices.

It also identified confusing terminology, such as for peppers at Lidl, which were priced both per ‘piece’ and ‘each’.

“We always endeavour to ensure that pricing information is as clear as possible for our customers so that they can make informed purchasing decisions,” said a Lidl spokesperson.

The investigation reportedly found that there were many times the price per unit was clearly displayed but did not apply to a special offer, promotion, or other reduction on price.

Other issues raised by the probe included examples of pricing that was hard to read or missing entirely – such as for a pack of tomatoes in Tesco, Penguin bars in Waitrose, some soft fruit in Morrisons and vine tomatoes in M&S.

Which? also said it found that there are also big differences with how supermarkets present and use unit pricing online, particularly for promotions.

When it looked at a number of major supermarket websites - Amazon Fresh, Asda, Iceland, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose - it found all displayed unit pricing for standard-priced items and for discounted items. But researchers were unable to find unit pricing for multibuys at any of the supermarkets, although not all the discounters sell them.

A Waitrose spokesperson said: “We regularly review all our products to ensure our unit pricing is clear and consistent, so that customers can compare prices and save money. Our Partners are always on hand to assist customers with any pricing queries.”

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