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Are we being led up the aisles?

Dear Rocio,

Why is pricing in supermarkets so difficult to work out?

Name and address supplied

Rocio says: Many foods have gone up in price in the last two years, but worryingly Which? research has found that staples have seen some very sharp increases. Four pints of British semi-skimmed milk and an 800g own-brand wholemeal loaf have both risen by a third on average since 2021.

As if the highest food price inflation in nearly 50 years weren’t enough to contend with, the way the prices are presented is also a cause for concern.

While some of us may enjoy popping into our local store to plan that night’s dinner or get food for the week ahead, others want the process to be over and done with as soon as possible.

But whether you’re a dweller or a dasher, the way supermarkets set out unit pricing on items can leave us all scratching our heads as we try to work out which offers the best value for money.

Our researchers have found that unit pricing – where the label tells you the price per 100g or 100ml, for example – can be vague or even absent entirely. When we asked shoppers to pick out the best value item from a selection that had unclear unit pricing, seven in 10 couldn’t identify the cheapest. Make the wrong decision, and shoppers could end up paying over 340 per cent more per gram or millilitre just by choosing a different size of the same item.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the regulator in charge of promoting competitive markets in the UK, agrees with Which? on the need for stores to be clearer. The CMA recognised our concerns and recently conducted an official review into the way stores present their prices.

Analysing 11 supermarkets and seven “variety retailers” (those that sell homewares and household goods with a more limited range of groceries), the CMA found issues with unit pricing with all of them. It said the unit pricing rules are too “open to interpretation”, the end result of which can be shoppers finding it hard to spot and compare the best deals.

Walk into any Tesco in the land and you will be bombarded by the yellow and blue of its Clubcard pricing. Yet none of those stickers feature unit pricing, so shoppers are left in the dark about how good a deal actually is compared with other products on offer. Which? reported Tesco to the CMA as we believed the country’s largest supermarket could be breaking the law. The store has since said it will fix this.

Yet while Tesco has been the most noticeable perpetrator, it’s certainly not the only retailer being unclear: the CMA has called on all supermarkets to also include unit pricing on promotions including multi-buy discounts (e.g. “buy one get one free”). Which? believes that the law needs updating to make it clear that unit pricing should also be provided at small stores of national supermarket chains – it doesn’t have to be at the moment.

Another issue compounding some shoppers’ sorrow is that not all of us live nearby a large discount supermarket. Some have to make do with smaller convenience stores, which are more expensive and, we’ve found, lacking budget range essential items. We think supermarkets should stock these stores with budget-line products that support healthy diets. The Labour Party has now backed this call and encouragingly Morrisons has already committed to stocking 40 budget-range healthy items in its “Daily” branches. More stores should follow their lead.

Supermarkets can’t magic the cost of living crisis away, but they can take measures to mitigate its impact on their customers – and they must do so without delay.

Rocio Concha is Which? director of policy and advocacy. To have your question featured on this page, email [email protected]

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