Mary Dejevsky: The truth about supermarket bargains

The 'one' pack of pears in a 'two-for-one' deal is scandalously overpriced
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The Independent Online

Well, well. Someone has been out and about inspecting our supermarkets for us and discovered what those of us who actually shop there could have told them long ago. Their flashiest bargains are mostly on "unhealthy" items, not on the things we really should be eating, such as fresh fruit and vegetables.

Maybe I am a uniquely ungrateful customer. But my problem is not with the selection of goods on "two for one" or "£1 off when you buy two or more" packets of sausages, biscuits or fizzy drinks, but with the whole concept of deals that encourage you to buy more than you want or need.

Let us give the supermarkets the benefit of the doubt and take fruit and vegetables as an example. Scarcely a week goes by when I do not go into my local supermarket and face garish price boards over the apples, oranges and pears that tell me I can have "two for one", or a bag that contains "50 per cent extra" for the price of one "standard" pack. At the till, there is invariably a well-meaning cashier who suggests that I really should have taken two, because it doesn't cost me any more.

I thank them kindly and try to explain, without holding the queue up for longer than it takes to punch in my Pin number, that - like many customers who live and work in cities - I am on foot or on public transport, fruit and veg are heavy, and I have deliberately taken only one of each because I don't want to trudge home with more. But there is a longer version of this argument, which deserves an airing without the pressure of an impatient queue.

The "two-for-one" deal, and others like it, proceed from the assumption, often wrong in London and other cities, that most people shop by car. It is, in fact, tacit encouragement to do so and irresponsible for that reason alone.

But inducing people to buy food or drink because it looks like a bargain not only encourages people to take more of something than they really want or need. It also helps the supermarket to offload products they have in surplus and thus sell goods they would otherwise have to give away or destroy. These pseudo-bargains transfer their problem - overcrowded shelves, goods nearing their sell-by date - first to our overloaded fridges and then, regrettably, to our waste-bins. This is First-World profligacy to be ashamed of.

And what price these "bargains" anyway? Turn the advertising slogans around, and you expose the truth that "one" pack of pears in a "two-for-one" deal is scandalously overpriced. "Buy one get one free" could be rephrased: "Buy one - pay double". If the supermarket can afford to sell "two for one", how about selling "one" for half that? But, of course, they want us to buy more, not less. It is about spending, not saving, and certainly not about conserving anything.

Which leads on to the wider point. "Two-for-one" arrangements and others like them generate an expectation among customers that they should look for "deals" and that anything sold without a discount is a "rip-off". This fosters a hustling mentality in which everything is considered overpriced until it is advertised as a "special offer". Bargaining may be fun at bazaars and markets, but it is also a hassle if you have neither the time nor the chutzpah to engage in it properly. This is how we got to having shops with fixed prices and labels.

But traders depend for their custom on selling goods at prices we customers judge to be fair. And the more "specials" they offer, the more inclined we will be to believe they are swindling us the rest of the time. You have only to look at US department stores, with their perpetual "20 per cent", "30 per cent", "50 per cent off", to realise where this leads. As the ubiquity of pre-Christmas sales shows, our high streets are rapidly following.

Nor is it the high streets alone. Double measures of drinks are peddled at "happy hour". Two or more T-shirts can be bought at one department store for just £1 more than one. Flights to destinations across Europe can be bought for between a penny and a pound (plus taxes) on certain dates and at certain times. The result is resentment when we have to pay more than this for anything - for travel during school holidays, for instance, for a train ticket we have not planned for - and a growing disconnect between the actual cost of something and the price at which it is sold.

The longer-term effect is mutual suspicion between seller and buyer that can only discourage civilised trade. So next time you go to the supermarket, leave that "free" bag of apples on the shelf. "Something for nothing" is a deceit, and it is poisoning our commerce.