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article imageOp-Ed: Do supermarkets really rip us off?

By Alexander Baron     Dec 6, 2011 in Food
A BBC documentary on the ongoing supermarket price wars reveals that some of the bargains and price cuts are not all they appear, but do shoppers protest too much?
The BBC's Panorama programme investigated the big four UK supermarkets; presented by newsreader Sophie Raworth, it uncovered a plethora of misleading offers including - deals that save you nothing; offers that cost you more - as it was put succinctly. Some of the offers and misleading deals were hilarious, like the so-called special offer of a product at £1 each, or any 2 for £2. A psychologist consulted by the Office of Fair Trading said there is a tendency for people to see only the offer and not do the arithmetic.
The Advertising Standards Authority has banned many advertisements by the big supermarkets over the past few years because they were clearly misleading.
Raworth herself asked the rhetorical question is truth the first casualty of the price war? One woman said that supermarkets give with one hand and take back with the other.
The big four supermarkets, in alphabetical order Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury and Tesco, wield enormous power, and they have all four also fallen foul of consumer trading legislation, which is based on a European Union directive. (So the EU does have some benefits after all).
Having said all that, and conceding there is plenty more that could be said, are not the BBC and the great British shopping public over-reacting a mite? Supermarket psychology is not exactly a new phenomenon; every savvy shopper is or should be aware of the tricks of the trade that are used to entice us to part wiith our money. There is or can be especially in some of the bigger stores, muzak playing softly in the background; sweets kept near the check out at a child's eye level so that while Mum is in the queue, she will have her charges tugging gently at her coat pestering her for a chocolate bar or lollipop.
At the opening of a new Sheffield store featured in the programme, it was mentioned casually that it stocked 40,000 product lines. Supermarkets are in fact one of the great marvels of our age. Although basically distributors, they also create real wealth and serve communities. Another point that should be made is that the economic power alluded to above is not unconditional, rather it is contingent on the Big Four and indeed all retail outfits giving customers what they want, because at the end of the day, the consumer is sovereign. There is no great supermarket conspiracy - as some make out - anymore than there is a great cheese conspiracy.
While the supermarkets have only illusory power, the banks have real economic power through their monopoly of credit. As if this were not enough, they still can't manage to keep their hands out of the till, and only yesterday the Financial Services Authority issued yet another damning indictment of them, and announced its largest ever retail fine, for ripping off the elderly.
Of course, in principle a supermarket conning hapless shoppers out of a few pennies is no better than banks ripping off the elderly for thousands, but the bottom line is that even in these hard times, British shoppers have never had it so good as far as food and life's other necessities are concerned, and that is due in no small measure to our supermarkets, especially the Big Four.
The Truth About Supermarket Price Wars is currently on BBC iplayer, but for those who can't receive it, watch out for it on YouTube or check out the BBC's Panorama page.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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