Woolworths, Coles and Aldi accused of using promotional labels that confuse and may mislead supermarket shoppers

Woolworths, Coles and Aldi accused of using promotional labels that confuse and may mislead supermarket shoppers
  • PublishedApril 23, 2024

Major supermarkets are accused of confusing and potentially misleading consumers with promotional labels which do not always reflect genuine discounts as Australians continue to struggle with the rising cost of groceries.

New research by consumer advocacy group Choice shows one-in-four Australians find it difficult to tell whether certain promotional price tags at major supermarkets represent a genuine discount on the usual price.

A variety of price tags from Woolworths, Coles and Aldi — including “While Stocks Last”, “Super Savers”, “Down Down”, “Prices Dropped” and “Member Price” — were examined in the research and more than 1,000 consumers across the country were surveyed.

“Our research shows that there is widespread confusion, and the supermarkets are arguably using the various labels to manipulate and impede informed purchasing decisions,” Rosie Thomas, director of campaigns and communications at Choice, told the ABC.

“It’s very possible that some of the promotional tags crossed the line into being potentially misleading.

“This is particularly concerning considering many people are trying to make their grocery shop as affordable as possible in a cost-of-living crisis.”

A coconut water product on the supermarket shelf at Woolworth with a "prices dropped" tag, priced at $4.
A coconut water product at Woolworths with a “Prices Dropped” tag.(Supplied: Choice)

One example, which confused half of the respondents, was a coconut water product at Woolworths.

It was priced at $4 with a “Price Dropped” tag, however, the price has consistently been $4 for almost 5 years since being reduced from $6 in July 2019.

Woolworths told the ABC that its “Prices Dropped” program “typically includes 300-400 seasonally relevant products that remain at a ‘dropped’ price throughout the season” and some products “have stayed at the lower dropped shelf price to provide price certainty”.

“We think this comes very close to the kind of potentially misleading pricing practice that the ACCC has already called out,” Ms Thomas said.

According to the consumer watchdog, where an item is offered at a sale or special price for an extended period of time, it may be misleading to call it a sale or special price, as the price has effectively become the new selling price.

A soft drink product on a supermarket shelf at Coles with a "While Stocks Last" tag.
A soft drink product at Coles with a “While Stocks Last” tag.(Supplied: Choice)

The research found that the most confusing label was “While Stocks Last” at Coles.

Opinions were split over this soft drink product where about a third (31%) of the respondents said the product was discounted, roughly another third (36%) believed it wasn’t and the remaining third (33%) were not sure.

Coles didn’t confirm whether it was a discounted price, but said “While Stocks Last” tickets “offer customers the chance to buy items which are only available at Coles for a short time, and which are unlikely to be restocked once the products are sold through.”

Cucumbers on a supermarket shelf at Aldi with a "super savers" tag.
Cucumbers at Aldi with a “Super Savers” tag.(Supplied: Choice)

The “Super Savers” label at Aldi also confused shoppers, with around a third of respondents unsure if it was a discount, according to the research.

Aldi did not confirm whether these cucumbers were discounted but said the “Super Savers” offers across fresh produce, meat, fresh seafood and bakery provide “even better value on our already low-priced products” and prices “do fluctuate as they are more readily susceptible to market conditions, favourable or otherwise”.

The ACCC did not comment on individual cases but said that it “is conscious that ‘was/now’ and other pricing ‘specials’ significantly influence consumers’ purchasing decisions”.

“Under the Australian Consumer Law, businesses must not make false or misleading statements about prices, including about price savings and discounts,” a spokesperson told the ABC.

A lack of pricing transparency and a call for stronger rules

Choice acknowledged that it is impossible for the group to independently verify whether they are genuine promotions without contextual information or historical pricing data.

“It’s currently very hard for any consumer or an organisation like Choice to track how prices have changed over time for a particular item,” Ms Thomas said.

“It is very disappointing, and this is really where the harm from confusing specials manifests.

“We’d welcome the government looking at ways to expand transparency in this area, including by potentially empowering the ACCC to collect and publish a database of supermarket prices to enable people to track how prices move over time.”

Last week, a Senate inquiry into supermarket pricing threatened Woolworths boss Brad Banducci with contempt for failing to answer questions about the supermarket giant’s financial returns.

In February, a report by the former chair of the ACCC Allan Fels, commissioned by the peak trade union body the ACTU, found supermarkets were exploiting their market power in ways that drive up inflation and hurt Australian households.

The ACCC has launched an inquiry to examine the pricing practices of the supermarkets and the relationship between wholesale, including farmgate, and retail prices.

This allows the ACCC to use its compulsory information-gathering powers to collect information from the relevant parties subject to the inquiry.

“We have been considering the reports received from consumers alleged false or misleading ‘was/now’ or other pricing ‘specials’ advertising by supermarkets, and whether they may raise concerns under the ACL,” a spokesperson said.

“These assessments are ongoing, so we are unable to comment further.”

Choice has made a submission to the ACCC, including this research regarding promotional labels, calling for strong enforcement action from the ACCC to “send a clear message to the supermarkets that misleading pricing is unacceptable”.

“We’re calling for more prescriptive rules to make it easier for consumers to compare and decide what to buy at the supermarket,” Ms Thomas said.

“And we also strongly support new fairness laws, what’s known as an unfair trading practice that would ban unfair practices designed to manipulate consumer choices.

“The best thing consumers can do when shopping is always to compare the unit price rather than comparing specials tags.

“Try not to fall for the coloured tags and look for the best unit price that’s available.”


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