Laura Sandys is the MP for Thanet South

An investigation by Which?, published today, shines an important spotlight on the dodgy promotions and misleading ‘deals’ that supermarkets have been employing for years.  I very much welcome this independent evidence-based approach from such a respectable organisation, and I hope that it will lead to some strong action from the Government.

To be clear: these misleading practices are not one-offs.  Which? has highlighted misleading “was/now” pricing, and uncovered evidence of products being increased in price when they go on a multi-buy offer.  A previous investigation by ‘The Grocer’ also found that a third of products on promotion in supermarkets had recently been priced artificially high (see here and here).  With an average of 60 per cent of products on ‘promotion’ how can the consumer possibly know what the difference is between real and promotional prices?

Nor are dodgy ‘promo prices’ the only misleading practice in use.  In recent years, product ‘shrinkage’ has become increasingly common – the package looks the same and the price is identical, but the content, or the quality of the ingredients, has been severely reduced.  When food prices have risen by almost 30 per cent in the past five years, this leads to some very concerning questions about what is actually in some of the pre-packaged food that we all buy.

The Which? report adds further weight to the findings of the Smarter Consumer Commission, that I chaired, that called for Government to tighten legislation on promotions.  As Conservatives, we need to show that every decision we take is on the side of the consumer.  For families in my constituency on a tight budget, it is totally unacceptable that these companies are running false promotions – with the market power that supermarkets have they must be held to account.

I proposed in my policy paper Consumers at the heart of markets, that companies should be put into the equivalent of the ‘village stocks’ if they were caught with their hands in the consumer’s pocket.  For every scam revealed, the company should have a one minute shut down at their busiest time of the week – lights out, tills closed, doors shut – trade totally stopped.   The ‘Sixty Second Shutdown’ would not damage businesses, or endanger jobs, but it would be a signal to everyone in the store that their supermarket is being punished for attempting to mislead them.

By penalising companies in a way that directly links their misdemeanour with the public, we would get away from bureaucratic or financial sanctions, and provide a basis for the consumer to question trust and the supermarket’s brand. Until we ensure that all consumers are in a position to stand up to the ‘Big Four’, these rip-offs will continue to happen and thousands of other examples will go unnoticed.

We need to see some action from Government that will really make the supermarkets pay greater respect to the role of consumers.  We need to implement sanctions that have a real impact – ‘Village Stocks’ and a ‘Sixty Second Shutdown’ would really help empower the consumer and curb bad practices.  Consumers as market makers and market shapers must be the most important element of a vibrant, healthy and innovative market.  It is now our role to remind the market that the consumer must be king.