By Alex Renton
Dozens of the savings offered by Tesco in its “Big Price Drop” — the £500 million campaign that started a supermarket price war three weeks ago — are on foods that were only briefly sold at the higher price, research by The Times has shown.
Huge advertising promotions this month have promised “never-ending” discounts. But Tesco appears to have raised the price of hundreds of items in the weeks before the promotion, perhaps to make the subsequent offers look more attractive.
On September 27, Britain’s biggest retailer promised savings of up to 35 per cent on 3,000 items. Some, however, are actually more expensive after the start of the promotion than they were in August and early September.
Tesco Fruit and Nut Muesli, which cost £1.28 for 750g on August 16, went up abruptly to £1.89 on August 23, and was then advertised as a Big Price Drop bargain at £1.75 on September 26. Carrots, billed as reduced from 80p a kilo to 56p, were actually on sale at 80p for only one week.
In one four-page advert in early October, 12 items were advertised. Four of them — a four-pack of orange juice, loose carrots, Oxo beef stock cubes, and unsmoked bacon (in a different packet size) — had been on sale in the six weeks before the Big Price Drop at the same “discounted” price.
A Tesco spokesman said it was inevitable that some products in the Big Price Drop had been on promotion in previous weeks. “We are reducing prices on thousands of products customers need to buy every week. It is real, sustained investment of £500 million and what customers have told us they need in these tough times.” He denied that Tesco had a policy of manipulating prices to enhance promotions.
The data collected by The Times looked at discounts on more than 350 items. Many of them are at the same price as they were six weeks before the promotion began. Others are cheaper — sometimes by only 1 per cent — but were only very briefly sold at the higher price claimed.
Last week The Grocer magazine found that its random weekly sample of 30 items, purchased from all supermarkets, had become 34p more expensive at Tesco since the start of the promotion. Inflating prices to enhance a subsequent promotion is common practice in retailing, and does not appear to fall foul of advertising standards rules. But Tesco’s huge promotion, with over £10 million spent on advertising, has attracted criticism from all quarters, including beleaguered high street shops.
Stuart Mackinnon, of the Federation of Small Businesses, said yesterday: “Confusing the customer doesn’t seem like a fair way to compete.”
Andrew George, MP for West Cornwall, who leads a campaign for legislation to force a code of conduct on supermarkets, said: “We’re being asked to believe that big supermarkets can defy gravity and centuries of rational corporate motive, ‘putting aside’ their pursuit of profit in the public interest. This is as implausible as their claim that they treat their suppliers properly.”