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Not Buying It: There's Something Rather Unspecial About These Supermarket 'Specials'

The grocery business is a $90 billion industry that's "fiercely competitive", but some consumers have had enough of dubious 'specials' that can be confusing, misleading, or both.

Countless studies in behavioural economics have shown that most discounts work on the principle of urgency, with the assumption discounts are only available for a specific period of time.

But what if a sense of urgency is created with no price benefit to the consumer?

And shoppers who notice, get angry.

A video recently posted to Coles's Facebook page shows a cheese product 'on sale' and when the label is lifted, the original price is cheaper.

"Thanks for the 'special' Coles, 10 cents more than the original price," shopper ‎Mezcla Del Rey‎ complained.

"It's shameful and embarrassing to treat shoppers like this, taking a few cheeky cents here and there without us noticing," he posted.

This week Harris Farm has marked passion fruit on special with the deal appearing as '2 for $8 or $4 ea'.

Image: Supplied.

Woolworths also has its fair share of seemingly not-so-special specials. For example, a large packet of chips marked special for $5 when the original price was $5.

READ MORE: The Surprising Winner From Australia’s Best Supermarket Survey

One retail expert says Coles and Woolworths no longer have a comfortable dominance over the industry.

"It's less a duopoly now with Aldi on the scene. Supermarkets are currently doing everything they can to compete for the hearts and minds of shoppers," Retail Doctor Group CEO Brian Walker told 10 daily.

Walker said grocery retailers also know how closely their customers monitor, and are lead by, price.

"The competition is fierce and they are doing everything they can amid rising utility prices and other cost rises, to come out on top," he said.

While Walker stopped short of accusing the supermarket chains of misleading advertising -- instead saying it's a matter for regulators -- he did say using a yellow price tag sends a sale item message.

"With yellow labels, when done well, you expect to see what the price was, what it is now and the percentage discount," he said.

A complaint about dubious specials labeling (where there was no price reduced) posted to Twitter in May, received a quick response from Woolworths, which said: "We'll never mislead our customers as such practice will negatively impact the trust with our customers. It was a genuine oversight."

In a statement to 10 daily Woolworths said:  "Our teams print and distribute thousands of specials tickets each and every week. While we always strive for accuracy and clarity, we do unfortunately see human errors from time to time. Our teams act quickly to fix these whenever it’s brought to their attention.

Coles' line was much the same, assuring consumers "Our Promise on Price Scanning goes above and beyond the requirements of the Australian Consumer Law which requires businesses to refund the difference between any overcharged amount and the correct price of the item.”

And despite a customer's video showing the special price for spreadable cheese was $3.50 while the original white price tag is $3.40, a spokesperson from Coles told 10 daily: "There are no instances where the price is higher than the original product, we monitor this very closely."

READ MORE: Woolworths Customers Slam 'Selfish' Shopper For Taking Entire Trolley Of Lion King Collectables

Harris Farm told 10 daily items marked as special "are absolutely on special", and fruit shops have advertised "like this forever".

Its co-CEO Angus Harris said the business does not believe in penalising customers who do not want to buy in bulk.

"It's a special because it's a much lower price and so we mark both the individual price as well as if you buy two," he said.

Harris says the reason they don't show the non-sale price is because fruit and vegetable prices fluctuate on a daily basis.

"It's not the multi-buy that is the special as we don't think it's fair to punish customers who don't want to buy multiples."

READ MORE: Coles Stores Shut Due To Technical Issues

IMAGE: supplied

According the the consumer watchdog, the ACCC businesses mislead consumers about prices if they: "promote a ‘sale’ or ‘special’ price which is not in fact a temporary sale price, thus creating an unwarranted sense of urgency to make an immediate purchase".

The watchdog suggests contacting the business in the first instance. After that if is not resolved and you still think you have been misled, you can make a consumer complaint. 

Contact the author alattouf@networkten.com.au