It was a case of David versus Goliath nearly two years in the making, but Daphne Smallman struck a mighty blow for consumers for consumers yesterday as supermarket giant Tesco was fined £300,000 after admitting it mislead customers over a half-price offer on punnets of strawberries.
The action was brought by Birmingham City Council's trading standards department after the issue was brought to their attention by Ms Smallman after shopping in the city’s Sheldon branch, although it was then extended across Tesco’s 2,300 stores in England and Wales.
The case at Birmingham Crown Court, found that at various points in the summer of 2011 Tesco sold 400g punnets of strawberries for £1.99 with prices of £2.99 and £3.99 crossed out. The offer lasted for 14 weeks, with the higher price of £3.99 available for a shorter length of time, breaching guidelines set out the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations Act 2008, which prohibits such a practice.
Judge Michael Chambers called the offer “patently wrong, with the supermarket also being told it had to pay £65,000 in costs.
However, Ms Smallman, who was described as “tenacious” in court, did not see the end of her fight against the supermarket, having died earlier this year.
Sajeela Naseer, head of trading standards for Birmingham City Council, said “This is not only a victory for Birmingham customers, it also has wider benefits for all consumers across the country.
”It was the council's case, confirmed by Tesco's guilty pleas, that this was a misleading offer which deceived the purchasers of strawberries over many weeks during the summer of 2011.”
In a statement Tesco said: “We apologise sincerely for this mistake, which was made in the summer of 2011. We sell over 40,000 products in our stores, with thousands on promotion at any one time, but even one mistake is one too many.
“Since then, to make sure this doesn’t happen again we’ve given colleagues additional training and reminded them of their responsibilities to ensure we always adhere to the guidelines on pricing.”
Richard Lloyd, the executive director of consumer watchdog Witch?, which said it had supplied evidence to Birmingham trading standards after its own investigation into supermarket special offers said: “It's unacceptable that shoppers are misled into thinking they're getting a good deal with a special offer when that might not be the case.
”Tesco's hefty fine sends a clear signal to supermarkets to play fair and make sure that their special offers really are special.“