How can we put an end to dodgy supermarket deals?

An MP is putting forward a bill to force all supermarkets to publish their prices online. But would it make a difference?

Guardian readers have helped draw attention to misleading pricing and promotions offered by the UK’s supermarkets as part of our regular “daft deals” expose. But behind the headlines there’s a very serious message about the extent to which consumers are being confused and bamboozled by the plethora of confusing and constantly-changing offers from our biggest retailers.

Now a former Cabinet minister is trying to do something about it. Labour’s John Denham thinks supermarkets should be forced by law to publish all their prices online so that consumers can use smartphone apps to shop around and spot the genuine deals, and those that are not what they claim to be.

Armed with a bulky “misleading deals” dossier highlighting some of the worst examples of the promotional practices used by supermarkets, the former skills secretary has introduced a Supermarket Pricing Information Bill in the Commons. The proposals are designed to “drive sharp practice and misleading pricing out of the marketplace”, he said.

Denham told MPs: “My aim is simple: to enable supermarket shoppers, that’s most people in the country, to be able to compare the prices of goods, product by product, store by store, company by company through an app on their smartphone, laptop or personal computer. None of the information I want shoppers to have is secret, it’s all publicly available. The problem is that to get our hands on it we would need an army of volunteers to go into every store, every day, to check on the prices of products. That’s quite impossible in practice.”

Denham says – rightly – that supermarkets systematically collect data on shopping habits to shape their own pricing and promotion policies, “yet many consumers are still left shopping around from store to store to get the best deal in much the same way they did decades ago”.

Price transparency could also reduce the need for costly investigations by the Office of Fair Trading, Denham believes: “The OFT’s role is important, but it would be much better if dodgy pricing was driven out of the system by consumer power,” he said.

The bill received an unopposed first reading and receives its second reading on Friday 1 February. But although the bill has support from MPs on all sides of the Commons and campaign groups including Which?, it is doomed to fail without government backing.

Nevertheless, Denham is buoyed by what he claims is a growing public appetite for accurate, universally available data to help consumers make informed financial choices, and insists that even if the bill did not become law, its introduction “is the start of the movement for transparent pricing that will grow and grow”.

Supermarkets have defended these practices. Retailers generally (represented by the British Retail Consortium) are twitchy about scrutiny of their pricing and wary of such a move which they warn – rightly or wrongly – could be costly and complicated and disadvantage smaller retailers. There is also the risk that older shoppers and others without access to technology could lose out.

But at least the subject is finally getting a public airing. Do you think Denham’s proposals deserve to become law, or he is on a hiding to nothing?

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