Which planet is Which on? To be fair some of its gripes regarding supermarket price promotions - which this week prompted it to lodge a ‘Super Complaint’ to the Competition and Markets Authority - are valid. In particular, the lack of unit pricing, which means it’s often difficult to differentiate between two similar items, particularly in areas like fresh produce.
“The Which? move comes across not so much as a Super Complaint but as a Silly Whinge”
The supermarkets also regularly flout OFT guidelines. You only need to look at the number of weeks that items are on promotion (in our online grocer33 widget) over the course of a year to know something funny is going on. Take last week’s 33. Cadbury Flake Twinpots (90g) have been on offer in Waitrose for 52 consecutive weeks. (And for 51 in Tesco and Morrisons.) Asda and Sainsbury’s have similarly had Organic Whole Milk (4 pints) on deal for the entire year. Asda has also been promoting Malibu Caribbean Rum with Coconut and Cola (250m) for 52 weeks. Maybe EDLP stands for every day low promotions.
It also doesn’t help that interpretations of the government’s guidelines differ. And some retailers (notably Asda) refuse to even sign up to them.
So it’s a mess.
But the Which? move comes across not so much as a Super Complaint but as a Silly Whinge. Some of the apparently heinous examples it cites are quite clearly mistakes. (In some cases they even benefit the consumer!)
In other cases their expectations are completely unreasonable. If a four-pack of canned tuna is on promotion, does that mean the base price of a six-pack needs to go on promotion in order to justify the ‘special value’ tag it has?
But the important point here is that the consumer has already figured all this out. She’s sussed the supermarkets.
It’s why the discounters are growing like billy-o. It’s why the big four are in the mother of all pickles. It’s why Tesco has just recorded the largest loss in retailing history. And why its new CEO, Dave Lewis, has pledged to simplify its offers: to come up with deals that pass what he called the ‘my mum’ test.
Which? complains it’s been campaigning to no avail on this issue for seven years. The consumer has proved not only more fleet of foot - skipping on down to their local discounter, and shopping around more, empowered by the internet - but a lot more effective. And that’s the ultimate proof that the market is working.
As I’ve said before, the irony is that the discounters achieved what three Competition Commission enquiries failed to prove: that the big four supermarkets - following each other’s every move like hawks - were not competitive.
Not only are the lessons being learned. The plunging profits of the big four should tell you everything you need to know about where the consumer stands right now in the grocery sector.
And you have to ask yourself, doesn’t Which? have bigger (or rather more stinky) fish to fry? How about banks, trains, ISPs, mobile phone operators, energy giants, cold-calling brokers, boiler houses, pension services companies, car parking hawks, airports? Tackling some of those would be, well, Super.