Are supermarket specials ‘shoddy marketing’, or something worse?

Do you feel a bit ‘down down’ when you look at supermarket tickets and special prices? You are not alone.

Supermarket pricing tactics are under the spotlight as submissions to the Senate inquiry into supermarket pricing continue.

Consumer advocacy group CHOICE’s submission to the inquiry recommended several measures to make pricing more transparent and develop a mechanism so consumers could compare historic pricing for comparison.

In a survey of consumers, the group found one in four people didn’t know if price labels represented a discount or not.

“This Coles ‘while stocks last’ tag caused the most confusion,” said CHOICE director of campaigns, Rosie Thomas. “When we asked our respondents if this price was a discount on the usual price, approximately one-third believed the product was discounted, roughly another third believed it wasn’t and the remaining third were not sure.

“Less than half of respondents said they could quickly and easily identify if the ‘while stocks last’ label was a discount or not, reinforcing just how confusing this tag is. To make things worse, even after asking Coles, CHOICE still doesn’t know if this is a discount or not.” 

Calling time on ‘members only’

CHOICE also wants to see an end to ‘members only’ pricing and multi-buy purchasing – otherwise known as two-for-one deals in plain English – and specials that aren’t really specials.

In the past, CHOICE has caught supermarkets out for putting a product on ‘special’ that had previously had the price hiked.

And a retail expert has weighed in on Australian supermarket pricing tactics.

Graeme Samuel, a professor at Monash University’s business school and a former chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) said, at the very least, it was “sloppy marketing”. 

“We’ve got laws around misleading and deceptive conduct, [and] supermarkets or retailers ought to know exactly what it means, which is that you don’t advertise something as a special when it’s not really a special at all,” he said.

“You don’t mark up the prices a week or so earlier and then flip them down and say, ‘There you go, there’s a 20 per cent reduction or it’s a special’,” he said, adding that supermarket pricing was something the ACCC was watching closely. 

In CHOICE’s submission to the senate inquiry, it claimed “confusing” promotions made it hard for consumers to make an informed choice. 

“Constantly fluctuating prices have potentially allowed supermarkets to increase prices beyond what they would have been able to, had they simply increased prices transparently over time,” the report stated.

Specials that are not special

CHOICE is calling for the ACCC to be given more power to track and publish price changes to help consumers assess if the ‘special’ represents true value.  

“Currently, consumers are left to rely only on the ‘was’ prices provided by the supermarket, which may be chosen at points in time when the price was artificially inflated,” the submission stated.

“CHOICE has observed a number of products claiming to be on ‘special’ at major supermarkets, but the price labelling doesn’t include the ‘was’ price, or even the amount of the discount. 

“Claims made by supermarkets are often confusing and difficult for consumers to verify, making it incredibly hard for people to know if they’re getting a genuine discount or value for money.”

Do you think there should be more transparency about price rises? Why not share your opinion in the comments section below?

Also read: What’s the bargain frying pan winning over the experts?

Jan Fisher
Jan Fisher
Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.


    • Yes, take an interest in the prices. I know family members who shop without a thought to the price, they have no idea, so if they see the supposedly discount price they get it. Plenty of people out there who the marketing people just LOVE.

  1. Agree with Tood and Greg. Essential to watch prices from week to week. We have a grocery triopoly in Oz and they will seize every opportunity to exercise the power this gives them. So check the $/100g and watch out for manufacturers indulging in “shrinkflation”

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