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Unclear supermarket 'specials' are confusing shoppers

New CHOICE survey says shoppers find it hard to identify a true discount.

person checking specials in supermarket aisle
Last updated: 22 April 2024


Checked for accuracy by our qualified fact-checkers and verifiers. Find out more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

From 'down, down' to 'low price', to 'super savers' to 'prices dropped' – the range of language used to describe what appears to be a sale can make it tough to work out if a discount is actually on offer. 

New survey data by CHOICE shows that shoppers around Australia are confused. Experts say it's either sloppy marketing or a case of deliberately confusing consumers.

The consensus is that there needs to be more clarity, but the major supermarkets deny there is an issue. 

What our survey found 

In February 2024, we conducted a nationally representative survey of over 1000 people to gather insights into their understanding of the supermarket labels, tags and terminology used by Woolworths, Coles and Aldi. 

We showed each respondent nine images taken of supermarket labels using different phrases or terminology and asked them if they thought the price represented a discount on the usual price. We also asked whether this was quick and easy to identify. 

What we found was widespread confusion among customers. Many customers incorrectly thought that certain items were on discount when they weren't, while many simply said they weren't sure whether it was a discount or not. 

Woolworths specials 

In one recent example from Woolworths, respondents were shown a bottle of coconut water with a label reading 'prices dropped'. 19% thought it was a discount, 58% said it wasn't and 23% said they weren't sure. 

The price had actually dropped, but way back in 2019. So the current promotion was for a discount that was applied about five years earlier.

The current promotion was for a discount that was applied about five years earlier

In another instance, apricot bars were shown with the label 'low price'. 16% of shoppers thought it was a discount but 24% said they weren't sure. Woolworths told us these 'low price' tags were shown to represent a good deal and not a discount on a previous price. 

Another example displayed a 'member's price' tag but lacked information about how it differed from the regular price. Woolworths told us this was an instore human error and that the members price tag should have been removed the day before. 

Woolworths responds

Woolworths say they have definitions for each of the terms they use and they communicate their prices "clearly and accurately" with customers.

"We strive to clearly and simply signpost the ways that our customers can find value and spend less every time they shop with us – we offer everyday low prices, member offers, as well as specials and longer-term stable price drops," a Woolworths spokesperson says. 

But definitions of the terminology are not easily located on Woolies' website to make matters clearer for shoppers. 

Coles specials

Some of the labels at Coles were the most confusing for customers in our survey. The label 'down down' divided shoppers as to whether it meant a discount, with almost half saying it didn't, around a quarter saying it did and just over a quarter saying they weren't sure. 

The 'while stocks last' label was equally confusing, with around one third of respondents either saying they thought, didn't think or weren't sure about whether it was a discount. 

Coles responds

A Coles spokesperson says, "We take clear and accurate pricing information very seriously and always aim to ensure that our specials represent value for our customers." 

Similarly to Woolworths, Coles does not have an easily findable section of their website telling customers what their sales terminology means.

Aldi specials

Australia's third-largest supermarket Aldi fared no better when it came to ensuring customer certainty about what is or isn't a discount. 

A label saying 'Aldi super savers' on fresh produce items such as cucumbers caused confusion among survey respondents. 14% thought it was a special, 56% didn't, while 30% said they weren't sure.  

Aldi responds

Similar to Woolworths' explanation, Aldi told us they had definitions for four different terms relating to specials and each of them meant something different. Unlike Woolworths and Coles, a section of their website goes some way in explaining to shoppers what each of these terms mean.

"Our model of everyday low prices means we have permanently low prices across our range creating savings for customers across a whole basket, not just on a select range of products," an Aldi spokesperson says. 

"We do not offer price markups and discounts across our grocery range, otherwise known as high low pricing, providing certainty and reliability to our customers." 

'All sorts of tactics'

Louise Grimmer, a retail marketing academic from the University of Tasmania, says supermarkets rely on the use of colour – mostly red and yellow – to create the impression and urgency of a 'special' as much as they rely on words. 

"It is all designed to get people purchasing products and it's all about that scarcity effect. People think I better get in quickly and I better buy this because usually a special or a discount is only for a specified period of time," she says. 

"There's all sorts of tactics that supermarkets are using and this is just one of them." 

Graeme Samuel, a professor at Monash University's business school and a former chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), says the widespread confusion caused by supermarket labeling is either "sloppy marketing" or something more nefarious. 

We've got laws around misleading and deceptive conduct, [and] supermarkets or retailers ought to know exactly what it means

Graeme Samuel, Monash University

"We've got laws around misleading and deceptive conduct, [and] supermarkets or retailers ought to know exactly what it means, which is that you don't advertise something as a special when it's not really a special at all," he says. 

"You don't mark up the prices a week or so earlier and then flip them down and so, there you go, there's a 20% reduction or it's a special," he says, adding that supermarket pricing is something the ACCC is watching closely. 

We asked all three supermarkets whether the many different terms they had for a discount and the confusion it was causing customers was a deliberate business strategy. None of them responded directly. 

CHOICE calls for change 

CHOICE senior campaigns and policy adviser Bea Sherwood says people are sick of feeling tricked by the specials offered by the big supermarkets. CHOICE is calling for stronger rules around how prices are displayed, including which terms and colours can be used. 

"It is disappointing that none of the supermarkets we spoke to for this story acknowledged the harm that these confusing labels are causing. It is clear we can't rely on the supermarkets to do right by consumers," she says. 

It is disappointing that none of the supermarkets we spoke to for this story acknowledged the harm that these confusing labels are causing

CHOICE campaigns and policy adviser Bea Sherwood

"We have had hundreds of people share examples with us of potentially misleading pricing practices at the major supermarkets. It is particularly difficult for people who are time poor, perhaps raising a young family, they don't have the time to keep track of supermarket prices and are not being provided with the resources they need to make informed purchasing decisions," Sherwood adds. 

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.