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A countdown receipt showing the price change
(Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyJuly 4, 2023

Two items in Countdown’s winter price promotion ‘frozen’ at higher price

A countdown receipt showing the price change
(Image: Tina Tiller)

The supermarket’s cost of living campaign intends to keep essential food prices low over the colder months. But as Stewart Sowman-Lund reports, not all items were actually locked down.

Countdown incorrectly froze the prices of two items at a higher rate during its “Great Price for Winter” promotion, the supermarket has admitted.

Announced at the end of May, the promotion saw the prices of 300 “essential” products at Countdown supermarkets locked down across the winter months. It was intended to be a measure against the cost of living crisis, with food prices soaring more than 12% year-on-year. At the time, Countdown said food inflation was out of its control, but hoped keeping prices low would help customers.

But one eagle-eyed shopper got in touch with The Spinoff after discovering their dog food of choice had gone up in price despite being part of the winter promotion. When the prize freeze campaign launched, Baxter’s dog food was listed as being $4.20 a can. But, on their last grocery trip, the shopper said they had been pinged an additional 30 cents for each can.

The new price vs the old price (Image: Supplied)

A receipt provided to The Spinoff showed the shopper had been charged the right price on June 16, but the elevated price just a week later on June 27. Both dates were within the period of Countdown’s promotion.

The Spinoff then checked Countdown’s website and found the same item was indeed listed at the inflated price of $4.50, signalling this wasn’t a shop-specific issue. Regardless, it was described by the supermarket online as a “great price”.

‘Great price’ (Image: Countdown)

After being asked for comment about the issue, a Countdown spokesperson confirmed the item had been mistakenly priced higher. “We always aim to ensure that our prices are clear, accurate and unambiguous for our customers,” a spokesperson told The Spinoff. “However, in this instance, we have identified that an error was made last week and a price change was mistakenly processed on Baxter’s Dog Food 1.2kg.”

It turned out not to be the only item priced incorrectly. Asked whether the supermarket chain was confident there were no other issues with the promotion, the spokesperson later confirmed it had carried out further checks and identified one more item. “We’ve done a check of every item on [the] Great Price for Winter and found… Countdown branded whole potatoes 410g (canned) also mistakenly had a price increase from $1.50 to $1.90 applied this week.” This price has now also been lowered, confirmed Countdown.

Customers who had purchased either of these mispriced items could contact the supermarket’s customer care team and request a refund. The supermarket would also be carrying out “further checks on our pricing change processes to ensure this doesn’t happen again”. The Spinoff asked for detail on what exactly these “further checks” would involve, but has yet to receive a response.

The fact two price errors had been found in Countdown’s promotion came as no surprise to Consumer NZ. The watchdog has been collating examples of “dodgy” supermarket specials and pricing errors, which it will be submitting to the Commerce Commission. Gemma Rasmussen, head of research and advocacy at Consumer NZ, told The Spinoff nearly 600 pricing discrepancies had already been found. “At a minimum, shoppers should be able to trust the prices they see at the supermarket,” she said.

Price freeze promotions were a “savvy” move by supermarkets during the cost of living crisis, Rasmussen said, but weren’t actually helping households struggling to get through the winter. “There’s very few fruits and vegetables on the list, and notable basics like bread, eggs and rice are missing,” she said. “You can purchase non-essential and luxury food items like smoked fish, camembert cheese and topside grass-fed, and there’s a large number of private brand items, which the supermarket wants shoppers to choose. In these instances, the supermarket is both the supplier and the retailer, so they can retain higher profit, and it also means that increases their market power over other suppliers.”

Figures from May showed fruit and vegetables were 18% more expensive than the same time in 2022, while meat, poultry and fish prices had increased by 11.7%.

Rasmussen said Consumer had found examples of “price-frozen” items being cheaper elsewhere. “The supermarkets are masters of confusing pricing and promotional strategies, and you only have to walk down the aisles of your local supermarket to assume that there are ‘bargains’ to be had, everywhere,” she said.

This is the second year Countdown has run its Great Price for Winter promotion. Last year there were about 500 items on the list. While the overall number was reduced for 2023, more essential items – like vegetables and meat – were included on the list.

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