Taking advantage of supermarket mistakes is legal looting

Felicity Hannah
Retail Operations Inside A Tesco Extra Supermarket
Retail Operations Inside A Tesco Extra Supermarket

We've all seen the headlines: Chocolate Oranges being sold for 1p each, four tubs of butter accidentally offered for the price of one; £20 cases of beer selling for just £4 (and actually causing a stampede).

Thanks to computerised pricing, fast-changing discounts and deals, and rapid product turnover, these price glitches happen all the time. The internet allows people to share their price glitch tips almost instantly, meaning that one customer can notice an error and half an hour later the shelves are bare.

When big pricing errors happen there's usually some chirpy press coverage complete with photos of proud-looking customers. In the pictures, they're shown wheeling out 124 chocolate oranges or an entire trolley filled with butter – seriously, one man bought 50 tubs of butter, why?

The tone of these articles is always about the plucky shoppers getting one over on the supermarkets but I don't see it that way. In fact, I think that taking advantage of this kind of glitch is tantamount to theft. The supermarkets have clearly made a pricing error, not offered an intended discount, so why is it okay to fill your boots?

Perhaps you're wondering why I care about the supermarkets. After all, nearly 60% of all retail spending in the UK goes to the supermarkets, according to the Payments Council. Supermarket giant Tesco made £3.3 billion in profit in the last financial year, and that was reported as a crisis because it was 6% down on the previous year. These are hardly struggling start-ups.

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But I would argue that this misses the point. Let's picture another sort of supermarket mistake; Imagine for a moment that your local supermarket mistakenly left a loaded lorry open in a dark alley behind the store. Would it be okay to reach in and help yourself on the way home? What if everyone else was?

The law would call that theft and most of us would see it as looting. But the principle doesn't seem that different to filling your trolley with 1p chocolates, even if that is totally legal.

Here's another example that might blur the boundaries for you; back in 2012, ASDA was offering to refund the difference plus 10% if customers found their shopping cheaper in other supermarkets. However, a glitch in its systems meant that it was mistakenly undervaluing products elsewhere, allowing customers to claim back as much as £40 in vouchers per shop.

By using more than one computer to print the vouchers, they were able to exceed the £100 a month limit. One customer told the papers he had bought £8,670-worth of groceries using vouchers gained this way, and was stockpiling goods in his attic. That doesn't sound honest to me.

If you agree that it isn't entirely honest then ask yourself how it is any different to filling a trolley with mis-priced butter. And really, how are different are both of those examples to looting an unlocked lorry?

And even if you don't think it's theft, don't you think 124 chocolate oranges is a bit... greedy? Unnecessary? Don't you think supermarkets will respond by reducing discounts elsewhere or raising prices, so that other shoppers suffer?

These glitch hounds aren't canny customers or savvy shoppers. They are legal looters and in the long run it's the rest of us who pay the price.

What do you think? Savvy shoppers or sneaky thieves? Have your say using the comments below.

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