To buy, or not to buy, that is the question: Which? highlights the banned pricing tactics used by retailers

An analysis by Which? of ASA rulings has found that some retailers have used misleading sales tactics to persuade people to make a purchase.

As sales season approaches, Which? looked into the ASA’s published rulings from the beginning of 2017 to the start of September 2018 and found a total of 170 formally investigated pricing-based complaints, 147 of which were upheld.

There are rules and guidelines retailers must follow when it comes to advertising. Ultimately, they can’t use tactics that mislead the average consumer.

Which? found that common complaints upheld by ASA rulings included hurry deals, reference pricing, ‘free’ extras, unavailable promotions and unclear delivery charges.

  • Hurry deals: Using a time-limited promotion or sale is a common tactic. But if the details of the time-sensitivity are confusing, the ASA may uphold a complaint. A vague timeline can also mislead. The ASA upheld a complaint about an Oak Furniture Land TV advert on 9 February 2018 that didn’t include an end date for its winter sale.

  • Reference pricing: Use of unsubstantiated higher or out-of-date retail prices is a common way retailers find themselves in breach of the ASA’s codes of practice. If you spot a ‘was £x, now £y’ deal, then do some research into whether the original price is really based on recent prices. Groupon was challenged over an ad for men’s shoes after it was found that its £140 ‘was’ price wasn’t what they were usually sold for by the retailer. Groupon claimed that they had used an out of date RRP, that was later fixed. For a reference pricing claim to be viewed as fair by the ASA, the price must be the usual selling price of the product, and must be a genuine RRP. The product must have been sold at that price for a reasonable time period and should generally be the most recent selling price.

  • ‘Free’ extras: Offering a bundle that includes a free item is a popular way to draw in customers. But retailers must ensure the offer represents a real saving and the terms are clearly explained. In January 2018, Argos advertised a camera for £179.99 with a ‘free’ SD card and case. But the same camera was for sale alone for £159.99. The ASA concluded that it was misleading to describe the extra items as free and upheld the complaint. Argos blamed the price difference on the single camera going into clearance lines dealt with by a different team, but acknowledged it could have been confusing for customers.

  • Unavailable promotions: Another trick is to advertise a product on a promotion that customers can’t access. Sometimes, an out-of-stock discounted product will reappear once the price has gone back up. Argos, Currys PC World, John Lewis and Millet Sports have all been reprimanded for unavailable promotions. All claimed that this was due to unprecedented demand and stock shortage.

  • Unclear or hidden delivery charges: Unclear delivery charges are another tool that some retailers use to make their prices look cheaper than they really are. If delivery price varies depending on factors such as location, a phrase like ‘delivery charges apply and vary according to destination’ should be used.

Alex Neill, Which? Managing Director of Home Products and Services, said:

“Ahead of Black Friday and the winter sales, we are urging people to be on their guard when shopping online or on the high street. Don’t be duped into buying by special offers that aren’t so special.

“Retailers must respect the rules and guidelines set out by the ASA or face the consequences of ignoring them.”


Advice for seeing through misleading promotions

  • If you see a ‘was’ and ‘now’ price, check the original price with other retailers or use online price trackers.

  • Make sure that bundles offering items for ‘free’ are really saving you money.

  • Look up the price of delivery before getting too far through the buying process, to avoid any nasty surprises at the checkout.


For advice on how to complain if you’ve been misled by a special offer, visit:

Notes to editors:

  • Which? looked into the ASA’s published rulings from the beginning of 2017 to the start of September 2018 and found a total of 170 formally investigated pricing-based complaints, 147 of which were upheld.

  • Using insight from academics, the ASA and the Institute of Promotional Marketing (IPM), Which? categorised the most common pricing tactics.

  • Last year, 88% of the ads the ASA ruled should be amended or pulled were online.


Press Release