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Source: Sainsbury’s

Overall compliance with pricing law across the industry was found to be sound

Retailers have been urged to tighten up their approach to pricing, after the latest report from the CMA identified potential inconsistencies in the way prices are displayed in stores.

On 8 May, the CMA published the findings from its review into price marking within the groceries sector, the latest stage of its ongoing investigation launched in response to the cost of living crisis in January last year.

While the report found some evidence of non-compliance, however, like previous investigations into both unit pricing, and into ’profiteering’ by supermarkets, it found little evidence of intentional malpractice by retailers.

The regulator carried out 139 separate inspections at supermarkets, variety stores, convenience symbols and independent chains, between November 2023 and February 2024.

Investigations focused on a retailer’s compliance when it came to both price marking – the consistency of how prices are displayed across stores – and the accuracy with which the selling price matched the price displayed. The study focused on items that had been on promotion recently or at the time of the visit, as well as frequently purchased staples like fruit, veg and milk. It covered 2,164 products in total.

While compliance was largely found to be sound across the sector, in cases where issues were found, significantly more were at symbol or independent food stores, with at least one error found at 69% of those inspected.

At least one pricing error was found at 55% of all stores inspected. Supermarkets were found to be the most compliant, with errors at just 4.2% of all stores checked.

A missing price was the most common issue found and was a “significant problem” at several of the convenience stores visited, the regulator concluded. Missing prices were found at 11 of the 15 convenience stores, and five of the 15 independents visited.

Conflicting prices, whereby the product packaging displayed a different price to the one listed on the shelf, was another more common issue found. Pricing accuracy was found to be an issue on 7.7% of the items checked at the till. 

However, standards and levels of compliance were found to vary significantly between retailers. Of the 18 shops from five variety store chains investigated, 14 of the 16 errors found came from the same chain.

Difficulty keeping up with regular price changes and staff shortages were among the explanations given by retailers for any pricing errors.

Retailers urged to ’prioritise’ accuracy

The CMA concluded that the results showed that some retailers were unclear of their legal obligations or regarded them as “optional”. The body reiterated that “failing to provide clear and accurate pricing information for products on sale is a breach of consumer law”.

The findings were in line with those identified by Scottish Trading Standards in an investigation which concluded in March, as well as a separate investigation by Trading Standards in England and Wales, the CMA said. It called on retailers to ensure that accurate pricing was a “priority” in order to enable consumers more clearly identify prices.

“We know how frustrating it can be when you get to the till only to find the price doesn’t match what was advertised,” said George Lusty, interim director for consumer protection and markets.

“While lots of grocery retailers – particularly supermarkets – are complying with pricing rules, this needs to consistently be the case across all types of stores,” he added.

“It’s important that shoppers can make well-informed choices based on accurate information, especially at a time when lots of people are looking to save money. That’s why we are reminding businesses of the importance of complying with consumer law.” 

To better support retailers, the CMA has published a guide aimed at helping them navigate and remain compliant with pricing law. It will also write to industry associations calling for them to ensure that members understand the law.

“We welcome the findings of the CMA review of price marking, which clearly evidences the high levels of compliance by supermarkets with the law,” said Tom Ironside, BRC director of business & regulation.

“Supermarkets were found not only to be consistently displaying clear prices, but doing so accurately – with the lowest level of pricing errors of any store type.

“Retailers will continue to work closely with the CMA and Trading Standards to further reduce any non-compliance,” Ironside added. “However, this report provides yet more evidence of supermarkets supporting their customers and offering the best shopping experience they can.” 

It comes as the CMA gears up to publish it’s initial findings from its probe into supermarket loyalty schemes in July.