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Supermarkets have been accused of exacerbating the cost of living crisis amid a decline in discounts and budget product ranges on offer to customers.
It comes as the prices of 265 separate groceries have shot up by more than 20% over the last two years at eight major supermarkets, Which? research found.
Which?, the self-styled consumer champion, said the reduction in promotional offers and cheaper own-brand products is adding to the “huge pressure” on household shopping bills, amid a 40-year high inflation rate and spiralling energy and fuel costs.
Its research found the number of promotions or discounts has reduced across each of the 20 categories of best-selling groceries over the past two years. For example, the number of discounts on bottled water was down 14.7%, with vegetables 11% down and energy drinks 10.7%.
The investigation also found own-label budget ranges - which had the lowest level of inflation at 0.2% compared to 3.2% in own-brand premium ranges - were unavailable on three times as many days between December and February, compared to between December 2019 and February 2020.
Own-brand budget cheese was the most out of stock of the 20 popular categories: 17 days in this three-month period compared to six days of unavailability two years before.
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Which? also rounded on so-called “shrinkflation”: manufacturers reducing the size of packaging without the retailer cutting the price. For example, a 24-bag variety multipack of Walkers crisps two years ago has become 22 bags - at the same price - two years later in Tesco, Asda and Morrisons. Which? pointed out this is an effective price hike.
Sue Davies, head of food policy and consumer rights at Which?, said “price rises are being exacerbated by practices like shrinkflation and limited availability of all-important budget ranges - and these factors are combining to put huge pressure on household shopping budgets”.
Calling for clearer unit pricing, for example by showing cost per 100g, she added: “During an unrelenting cost of living crisis, consumers should be able to easily choose the best value product for them without worrying about shrinkflation or whether their local store stocks budget ranges.”
Of its analysis of 21,000 groceries, Which? found everyday products which have increased by more than 20% include Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut (21.4% increase at Tesco), Asda own-brand closed cup mushrooms (21.4%) and Cathedral City extra mature cheddar cheese (21.1% at Ocado).
Meanwhile, groceries with the lowest inflation rates were chocolate (1.4%), fresh fruit (1.6%), biscuits (1.8%) and vegetables (1.9%).
Food prices - along with other bills - will continue soaring this year, with chancellor Rishi Sunak facing mounting pressure to help ease the cost of living crisis with new measures of support.
Sunak appeared to acknowledge the need for further support for struggling households in a speech on Wednesday night, saying “right now, we have a collective responsibility to help the most vulnerable in our society”.
But he wants to avoid inflicting further damage on the public finances, which have already been battered by the billions pumped in to the COVID pandemic response, or introducing any stimulus measures which could further increase inflation.