Blog: Dean BestSainsbury's continues to press importance of "values" after ASA defeat

Dean Best | 1 August 2013

It has been one of the most high-profile disagreements in the UK grocery sector for years. But Sainsbury's, which has seen its complaint over Tesco's price comparison scheme thrown out, insists this is not just another spat. UK consumers, it says, care about more than simply price.

As just-food reported on Monday (29 July), the Advertising Standards Authority confirmed it had dismissed Sainsbury's complaints over Tesco's Price Promise initiative, which compares its prices with its three main rivals - including on own-label goods.

Sainsbury's had argued it was unfair for Tesco to compare prices with its private-label lines. In March, when the Price Promise scheme was fully rolled out, Justin King, Sainsbury's chief executive, insisted to claim comparing prices of its own-label lines with "products that are not as good and not as greater provenance is not a fair comparison".

However, in its ruling, the detail of which was issued yesterday, the ASA said the "basis" of Tesco's comparisons was "clear" and did not breach regulations.

The ASA said Tesco had sought to identify if "non-price elements" would affect a consumer's purchase and excluded products from the comparison if the factor was "significant and likely to affect a customer's decision". The regulator also said Tesco had excluded products from the comparison on grounds of quality.

In response, Sainsbury's yesterday ran adverts to emphasise what it sees as the difference between the two retailers' own-label lines. The ads carried the tagline "same price, different values" and compared the grocers' private-label ham and bananas.

Understandably, as it tries to revitalise lacklustre UK sales, Tesco was cock-a-hoop at the ASA's decision. "Price Promise is very simple, but it is very powerful. It tells customers they don't need to worry about price because we've got it covered," David Wood, Tesco's marketing director in the UK, said.

However, Sainsbury's took to the UK press this morning to again state its case. In an op-ed in The Daily Telegraph, which has also been posted on the retailer's corporate website, commercial director Mike Coupe claimed the ASA's ruling would make it harder for consumers to make "informed choices".

"If anything, the downturn has led to strengthening of values, irrespective of income group, and in fact Sainsbury’s customers are buying more sustainably sourced food than ever before," Coupe wrote. 

"So it is unfortunate that the ASA ruling on Tesco's Price Promise has inadvertently provided a cloak of institutional validity to the idea it is somehow acceptable to apply a pick-and-mix approach to values, depending on product price."

He added: "Tellingly, in a blog responding to the ASA ruling, Tesco fails to discuss the absolutely fundamental issue of values in any way, choosing instead to focus on price and pleading that 'a massive amount of work goes into making comparisons'.

"Well, yes, it does – and that applies to customers as well as supermarkets. Unfortunately, the ASA ruling means that shoppers are being asked to accept that Tesco should be trusted impartially and accurately to compare its own brand products with those of Sainsbury’s and other rivals."

Sainsbury's anger no doubt partly lies in fact Price Promise could provide Tesco with a boost after quarters of losing share - and stymie the impact of its own Brand Match price comparison scheme, widely credited as a factor in the retailer's strong performance in recent years.

However, if you are a believer that consumers, across the income spectrum, do consider factors other than price when putting stuff in their trollies, Sainsbury's does have a point, as it looks to emphasise in its ads comparing its Fairtrade bananas to Tesco's non-Fairtrade lines.

It is a point of debate. The ASA says Tesco did exclude products on the grounds of provenance and quality. What is certain is this is a discussion - and PR battle - that will run and run and run.

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