Simon Read: The hidden costs of snapping up a bargain

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The Independent Online

It's easy to be tempted by a Bogof (buy one, get one free) deal. But you need to look very closely at the cost as sneaky shops simply up their prices to make things seem like a bargain, when they're not. This is especially true online, where the headline deals often hide extra costs and expenses, which mean you end up paying more than you need to.

That particular trick is called "drip pricing" where the cost of an item rises as you are taken through the buying process. The worst offenders are the online ticket retailers and holiday sites where the website's various delivery charges or credit card fees can add 25 per cent to the cost of a music, theatre or sport ticket or flights. It's an infuriating practice, especially as you often don't find out about the additional costs until you reach the checkout point.

By the time you've negotiated several pages of questions and put in your address and payment details, it's often easier to sigh and just accept the extra charges. But I'm glad to see that the practice could be outlawed. The Office of Fair Trading is finally acting against the online price tricks and is likely to crack down on the misleading tactics. As far as I'm concerned, it should be an open-and-shut case for the OFT. The online-pricing ploys either force us to pay too much, or encourage us to buy extra stuff in the hope of getting a bargain.

Other questionable tactics set to be investigated by the OFT include "baiting sales" and "reference pricing". With the former, only a handful of the items advertised are available, which means the retailer can say that it offered the product at the low price (I reckon sometimes only one product is actually sold at the discount). The online shop then relies on people buying the item anyway at the higher price or spending money elsewhere on the site. In other words, it's a way to boost visitor hits.

Reference pricing is when retailers use higher prices to artificially inflate the price of a product. For example, creating an attractive 50 per cent off deal when the product hasn't actually dropped that far in price. It's easy to be hoodwinked by the offer unless you actually compare prices elsewhere, which as shoppers we don't do often enough.

It's not just online that these tactics are used, so it's good that the OFT will also look at high-street selling practices. The tricks are aimed at bargain hunters. I'm particularly guilty of snapping up what seems like a good deal, only to discover that I've overpaid. It's the same kind of fever that encourages people on eBay to bid higher than the retail price for items, in the fear that they will miss on what seems like a bargain. And that's another trick the OFT is investigating: "time-limited periods", where sales run for 24 hours or a set space of time, causing people to panic buy before the sale ends.

The OFT investigation is set to be completed by the spring, which is a shame since it gives retailers the lucrative Christmas period to carry on with their tricks. They won't be catching me out so easily now.

s.read@independent.co.uk

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