In the run-up to Christmas the supermarket aisles are dominated by special offers. However, a new Which? report has found, once again, that these offers are not always what they seem. Despite new OFT guidance supposed to have sorted out misleading practices, our research has found some dodgy deals across the aisles.

With food prices hitting shoppers’ budgets hard, we think supermarkets are not playing fair. We analysed more than 70,000 grocery prices over six months across six supermarkets from the independent shopping website and found there are still a number of dodgy discounts and misleading multibuys.

This at a time when eight in 10 people tell us they are worried about the price of food and four in 10 say they are likely to cut back spending on food in the next few months.

“We found many products being discounted for weeks”

Half of shoppers (51%) say they are using special offers more than a year ago, and 72% think special offers allow them to make the most of their food budget. But 66% feel they have sometimes been misled by an offer that wasn’t as good as it first appeared.

This concern is clearly justified. We found many products that were sold at a higher price for a short time before being discounted for weeks - so hardly special. Overall around 10% of items we looked at had been in an offer where the discount lasted longer than the previous higher price.

We also uncovered misleading multibuys, where the offer didn’t save you any money, or even worse, the products actually cost more on a multibuy offer than when they were not.

If anything, the new guidance seems to have caused more ambiguity. It is now much vaguer about how long a product has to be sold at a higher price prior to going on offer, and little is said about multibuys.

However, at a very basic level, products shouldn’t be on special offer for longer than they are sold at their usual price.

The Trading Standards Institute is reviewing the guidance - so there is an opportunity to try to clarify many of these areas. However, it would be all too easy to see this issue as being about more enforcement and guidance.

Apart from the pressure on Trading Standards resources, consumers should be able to expect that supermarkets will price products without having to be constantly policed.

Which? can use its own legal powers to help ensure improvements on behalf of consumers, but, ultimately, it is time that supermarket pricing practices focused on complying with the spirit as well as the letter of the law.

Sue Davies is a chief policy adviser at Which?