Supermarkets' online bills under scrutiny

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Supermarkets are being investigated by the Government's consumer watchdog over accusations that they are overcharging online shoppers.

Among the allegations are that internet shoppers are charged higher prices than those advertised, and that they are charged for premium products when cheaper products are delivered instead. Online customers have also complained of being charged more for internet goods than those in-store and that they are sold produce near its sell-by date.

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) said yesterday that it was examining the prices advertised by supermarkets on their internet sites. A spokesman for the OFT said: "We have held confidential discussions with the supermarkets. This is an ongoing investigation."

Concerns have been raised over "guide" prices on websites, which do not always tally with what is charged when the goods arrive.

Tesco, Britain's largest supermarket chain, which takes 120,000 online orders a week, defended its internet shopping service. Lucy Neville-Rolfe, the corporate affairs director at Tesco, said: "We do not overcharge customers."

She said that online customers are charged the same prices as those in-store on the day their order is delivered. "For a small delivery charge customers have the opportunity to secure goods at the same prices as is available if they shopped in their local Tesco," she said. "Your food is picked off the shelves of your local store so whether it is a book or a carton of milk, you will be paying the same prices as you would in-store."

One of the biggest complaints from online shoppers is that supermarket websites do not tell customers when the goods that they have ordered are not available. The supermarkets instead choose "substitutes" for out-of-stock items. Customers only discover they have not received what they ordered when their shopping is delivered. One customer was delivered yellow peppers as an alternative to bananas.

Customers pay the delivery fees but it is reported that some customers were not refunded the difference if the substitute offered cost less.

A survey by Which?, the new name for the Consumers' Association, found that nearly three-quarters of orders had substituted items. Nearly nine out of 10 Sainsbury's customers had had an item substituted and more than three-quarters of Tesco customers experienced similar levels. Forty per cent of Sainsbury's customers said they thought that the choice of replacement was poor.

Tim Young, a senior researcher at Which?, said stock availability was the biggest gripe of the online shopper. "You only find out when the delivery turns up on your door that you haven't got what you ordered," he said. "You have to cross your fingers that what you want will turn up."

Tesco said that its customers could choose not to have any substituted items if their order was not in stock.

A spokeswoman for Sainsbury's said: "We are committed to ensuring the very best service for our online customers and look to better it every day."

The quality of stock has also been criticised by online shoppers. Whereas shoppers visiting stores can hand-pick the best fruit and vegetables, virtual shoppers receive what supermarket staff select on their behalf.

"The fruit you get is often the bruised stuff, and they pick up whatever is at the front of the shelf, which usually has the shortest sell-by date," one internet grocery shopper said.

Online grocery shopping has become popular withthe cash-rich, time-poor generation, who want to avoid weekly scrums in the aisles and lugging heavy shopping bags home.

Hayley Brooksbank, 35, from Stoke Newington in north London, began shopping online when she returned to work after having her first child. She chose Ocado, which delivers goods for Waitrose.

"With a nine-month-old baby, I wanted to get my shopping delivered so that when I went back to work, shopping wouldn't be a struggle," she said.

"The delivery guys carry it in to your kitchen for you. The downside is you have to spend a minimum of £75 to get free delivery, which was more than we spent on our weekly shop. Only once have they delivered an alternative item."

THE ACCUSATIONS

  • Charging prices higher than those advertised on sites
  • Charging for a premium product and supplying a cheaper, lower quality item
  • Charging more for online products than those in store
  • Offloading produce close to sell-by dates to online customers
  • Substituting items for ones that are not related to those ordered
  • Picking fruit and vegetables that are bruised

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