Jayne Dowle: Check out the worst way to be duped at the tills

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I HAVE been known to whinge about supermarkets from time to time. Indeed, some of you might think that venting my spleen about bogus offers, confusing price comparisons and all the rest has become a slight obsession.

Well, now my cynical stance has been vindicated. The consumer campaign group Which? has launched a “super-complaint” against the big supermarkets, accusing them of bamboozling customers and demanding that they be held to account by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). Which? accuses these retailers of duping customers out of millions of pounds.

This goes much further than hard-pressed shoppers having a whinge. The main concerns include confusing and misleading special offers, a lack of easily comparable prices due to the way unit pricing is done, and shrinking pack sizes without any corresponding price reduction. Their concerns are legitimate. They are set out in painstaking detail. And they translate to one thing which we all understand – supermarkets are ripping us off and it’s time they were brought to justice.

The report cites examples such as Asda raising the individual price of a product when it was part of a multi-buy in order to make buying in bulk more attractive. It lists a plethora of similar dodgy tactics in detail. And in doing so it underlines what many of us have thought for some time: we are being held to ransom every time we unlock a trolley.

Beneath this clear evidence of value distortion lies a great irony. We customers are being treated like idiots whilst the retailers apparently go all out to woo us. The big four – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Asda – are locked both in a self-perpetuating price war and engaged in a rearguard action against the aggressive encroachments of discount outlets such as Aldi and Lidl.

Yet, their so-called attempts to offer us value for money are greeted not with celebration but with a deep sigh of resignation. And it is doing them no good. Every major supermarket has witnessed management fiascos and slumping profits in recent years. Tesco has just announced a £6.4bn annual loss. Profits have fallen by a whopping 68 per cent amid an accounting scandal, a series of profit warnings and that ferocious price war with its rivals. It should be noted that these figures reflect a serious readjustment of Tesco’s property portfolio, as well as falling sales. It looks dire, but profits overall still stand at £961m in the year to February. Clearly, they are not giving anything away.

It’s just what this particular retailer needs on top of a “super-complaint”. The CMA has 90 days to respond to the concerns raised. After this, it could request a market study, demanding further information from the supermarkets themselves. If Which? isn’t satisfied, this could escalate to a full-blown investigation. If you want a comparison of the seriousness of the situation, a decade ago Citizens Advice launched a similar action against the providers of payment protection insurance. And just look at the compensation that has been handed out as a result.

Can you just imagine supermarket managers standing outside their stores offering us a cashback to beat all cashbacks? When you think of how much we’ve been duped out of over the years, we’d need a trolley each to wheel it all home. It’s not going to happen, is it?

However, I hope that this action is the serious wake-up call that food retailing needs. For too long now the industry has had us over a barrel every time we pick up a basket. It has failed to move with the times and makes assumptions about customers which are entirely wrong.

As Lord Haskins, former chairman of Northern Foods, pointed out on the Today programme yesterday, stores have to innovate if they wish to prosper. With the possible exception of internet shopping and home delivery, the industry has been banging the same old drum for too long.

We customers appreciate cheap prices, for sure, but this and this alone fails to take into account major shifts in consumer behaviour over the past five years or so. The credit crunch forced us all to consider different ways of shopping; no longer was it acceptable to pitch up at the supermarket once a week and bang it all on a credit card. The supermarkets seemed to assume that we don’t track prices, or compare between stores. And they took our loyalty for granted.

Until the day of reckoning dawns, I suggest we take our own action. How many times have you come home from a supermarket shop and justified the bulging content of your bags with the words “but it was on special offer”? It demands a nerve of steel not to succumb, not to mention a very organised shopping list. Yet, if we are to fight our own corner, we must make a vow to buy only what we need and when we need it. It is time for us to take back control of our baskets, and let justice take its toll.