A milk scam? On Twitter, a consumer is surprised that one-litre bottles of Lactel milk, sold for €9 in a pack of 10 bottles (i.e. 90 cents per bottle) in fact only cost 73 cents when purchased at unit, in the same Carrefour hypermarket. In his video, the twittos removes a bottle from the pack and passes it to a terminal where the price of 0.73 euro is actually displayed.
On Twitter, the sign pleaded the error: “The bottle alone is sold at €1.03 on average (and not €0.73 as indicated).” Although it is difficult to verify that this is indeed an error, this advertised price slightly higher than €1 seems consistent with the price of the same bottle sold individually in other Carrefour hypermarkets or competing brands. Carrefour also ensures that a “correction has been made”.
“It happens, it’s a mistake”
However, this type of practice is documented, even relatively common. A survey carried out in 2020 by the Foodwatch association during confinement had thus found examples in all the brands tested. With a price difference (to the disadvantage of “family” formats) which can be very significant: “At Carrefour, giant hamburger buns from the Jacquet brand cost 29% more per kilo between the classic format (330 g) and the maxi format (495 g)quoted for example the NGO. At Cora, the five-minute long grain rice from the Lustucru brand with a 22.8% increase in the price per kilo between the classic format (450 g) and the family format (750 g).
In January 2022, the magazine 60 million consumers also noted that a “produced in batches of two is sometimes more expensive per kilo than the same unit”. The newspaper, however, highlighted that on certain consumer products, errors were possible. The phenomenon could thus be linked to fierce competition on these references: “A lot more expensive per kilo, it happens, it’s a mistake, explained a large brand to the magazine. The competition between supermarkets in the same area for products from major brands in the standard format is such that the brand lowers its price, but sometimes forgets to adjust the other formats, including the lots.
Beyond these errors, distributors assume half-word to cut prices by removing their margin on certain products but only sold in small format, which they consider as loss leaders (likely to bring in consumers). While maintaining their margin on larger packaging, because the latter are not considered by the brand as loss leaders. This therefore leads to a higher price per unit or per kilo.
But is the practice, in the event of a supermarket intentionally setting a lower batch price, legal? The video, shared hundreds of times on Twitter, inspired a question from Antoine Léaument addressed to the Minister of the Economy. According to MP LFI, “this practice, if proven, would very directly contravene the European Omnibus Directive, which toughens the penalties applicable to misleading promotions”.
This, which came into force in France in May, effectively intends to prohibit false promotions. But only by forcing sellers to include “the price of the product before the application of a reduction” and fixing this “price prior to the lowest price charged by the seller during the last thirty days preceding the reduction”. This makes it possible, for example, to prevent brands from briefly increasing the price before a promotion, to display a larger discount.
A text that does not really answer the question posed here. Because in the case of batch sales, there is not necessarily a mention of a price reduction. Or at least not openly. The packaging of the batch of milk bottles sold by Carrefour indicates, for example, only “XL size 10 x 1 litre” and the poster on the shelf only mentions the price of 9€ and the packaging. Ditto in the Carrefour catalog, where the pack is highlighted.
Still, the highlighting of certain products (mention of a “family size” whose price would be indicated in bulk and in a bright color for example) can suggest to a consumer that lots are offered at a particularly attractive price. A technique that consumer associations, cited by the UMP deputy from Gard Etienne Mourrut, already pointed out in 2009. They noted the existence of sales techniques consisting “to sell products in batches of three or four by affixing them with a large, clearly visible label such as ‘shock price’, ‘economy size’ or ‘family size’ so that the customer is led to believe that these cans and these packets of biscuits sold in bulk are cheaper than individually»without this necessarily being the case.
“Prices are free”
Contacted by CheckNewsthe General Directorate for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Prevention explains that “syears to decide on the characterization of the practices” of Carrefour, it is “the presentation of the product and the information of the consumer which are decisive”. Thereby, “the prices are free and nothing prevents a professional from selling the products combined in a pack at a higher price than when they are sold individually”. To get an idea of the most interesting offer, the consumer must therefore refer “at the price per unit of measurement of a product (litre, kilogram)” which is mandatory for many prepackaged products (including milk).
The repression of fraud recalls, however, that “the practice aiming to make people believe in the existence of an unproven promotion is likely to be qualified as a misleading commercial practice”, and can therefore be punished by imprisonment for two years and a fine of 300,000 euros. In summary, a brand has the right to sell a product more expensively in batches than individually… but on the condition of not giving the impression of a promotion.
For the Foodwatch association, the heart of the problem therefore lies in the interpretation of the law and its application: “Clearly, today, it is felt that the law is not applied strictly enough, advance their campaign manager, Camille Dorioz. Among the consumer, the idea is very anchored that if we buy in larger quantities, we will pay less. So if brands put forward large formats, such as “family sizes”, while making the consumer pay more, we believe that there is already a misleading commercial practice.