Tag Archives | price comparison surveys

The National Consumer Agency Price Comparison Website – RIP – and just as well

It’s some time ago that the NCA admitted that they had to give up on trying to build a grocery price comparison website in order to replace their fairly pointless half years shopping exercise around the country.

In a very weak moment, I did express support in this exercise from an organisation that I have mostly very little faith in, and unfortunately, I guess I should have know that my faith was misplaced.

I’m quite keen on the potential that there exists in Ireland for a grocery price comparison website – I’ve even gone as far as developing what I suppose is effectively a “business requirements document” for what could be achieved with such a site given current web 2.0 type available functions and application.

However, as was indicated by the NCA when they announced their ending of their efforts, any grocery price comparison website needs to get the full co-operation of all of the grocery players in Ireland – a level of co-operation that effectively means them handing over a computer data file of all of their prices countrywide every morning.

There’s no point in having a price comparison website if the prices aren’t as bang up to date as possible.

I had thought that the NCA may have been in a better position to get this co-operation than me so I sent them my ideas in case anything could be made of them.

And very kindly, the NCA did give me a couple of hours towards the end of last year to discuss my thinking on the kind of site and functionality required.

We had some relatively indepth conversations regarding how price information could be gathered and classified – particularly to classify products to allow comparison between branded and non-branded items (e.g. 1l of branded milk compared to 1l of non-branded milk).

In my own professional line of work, I work with applications where daily pricing updates are received every day from multiple external data sources where products are categorised to up to 5 or 6 levels to allow cross-comparisons.

Those that I spoke to were particularly interested in that line of conversation. At the end, while promising to keep in touch and keep me updated on their work, they – at the time – gave me a very positive update on where they were in their own efforts.

Three weeks later, they cancelled the project.

I’m writing about this now because I came across a presentation given by the Chief Executive of the NCA, Ms. Ann Fitzgerald, to something called the Eurostat Conference back in October 2009. At this conference, Ms. Fitzgerald gave some inkling as to how the NCA’s thinking was actually progressing with regards to their price comparison website efforts:

The Agency is currently engaged with retailers in an initiative designed to increase the level and frequency of the information provided to consumers.

The Agency is working to develop a system of frequent surveys, covering each of the main retail groups, which will track the prices of commonly purchased basic food and household products.

This would be delivered through each retail group providing us with the prices that they charge for a pre-agreed list of goods at regular intervals. The prices would be compiled and placed on the Agency’s website so that consumers could compare prices and make informed shopping choices on an ongoing basis. In addition, in order to facilitate consumers who may not have Internet access, versions for newspaper and other media outlets would be made available, so that they could also benefit from the information.

If “frequent surveys” was the way they were intending on developing a price comparison website, then it’s probably just as well they didn’t proceed.

“Frequent surveys” would have been about as useful as their 6 monthly surveys – the data would be out of date almost as soon as it was collected, never mind when the information is eventually published.


Who really is the cheapest supermarket? Don’t expect the NCA to tell you!

Splashed across the Aldi website at the moment is the headline “Ireland’s Best Value Discounter”, while available on many of the Lidl special offer pages is a banner that advertises that discounter as “Ireland’s Cheapest Supermarket”.

And both are basing their claims on the July 2009 National Consumer Agency grocery survey.

One could initially say that this further highlights the uselessness of the NCA grocery surveys in that both chains are able to make broadly similar claims (on the face of it) based on the outcome of the same survey.

It also highlights how ridiculous the NCA were to not include these chains in their grocery surveys from the very beginning – it wasn’t until ValueIreland.com carried out the NCA survey in both Aldi and Lidl that both stores were included back in 2008/2007.

But who is cheapest?

Well, the title of “Ireland’s Best Value Discounter” does actually go to Aldi, when comparing Aldi and Lidl only, and only when comparing “own brand results” rather than “branded results”.
But that’s when comparing a basket of 52 items “own brand” items purchased in both stores – all other stores (Tesco, Dunnes, Superquinn etc) are not part of this particular survey (table 2).

The title claimed by Lidl as “Ireland’s Cheapest Supermarket” is sort of incorrect as it only refers to that the part of the survey where “own brand” items are purchased rather than any “branded”. It should really read “Ireland’s Cheapest Supermarket for Own Brand Items”

Technically, it should really read, “Ireland’s Cheapest Supermarket for Own Brand Items in a basked of 19 items, rather than 52”.

With me still?

If you buy 20 listed “own brand” items in Lidl, they are cheaper than all other stores. However, if you buy a basket of 52 “own brand” items in Aldi, they’re cheaper than all other stores – including Lidl.

So that probably means that the “Ireland’s Best Value Discounter” claim made by Aldi is also incorrect – since if you bought 20 items instead of 52, then Lidl would be cheaper.

Confused – you should be, and that’s exactly what supermarkets want – confused consumers. This is why the National Consumer Agency also had to give up on their plans for their “grocery price comparison” website (which I’ll be coming back to soon).

Its unfortunate then that in a grocery market where the chains depend on consumer confusion, the organisation that is supposed to help consumers by reducing that confusion are only serving to increase it with their useless grocery surveys.

Edit 22/03 – Since I originally drafted this article, Conor Popes Pricewatch column in The Irish Times has touched on this topic, Lack of price information costing consumers a packet. In his article, he refers to the NCA grocery price surveys, and the fact that it seems like we thankfully won’t see any more of them:

Speaking at a recent media briefing to promote the amalgamation of the Financial Regulator’s information and education functions within the NCA, the agency’s chief executive Ann Fitzgerald confirmed that the general surveys had been knocked on the head. She expressed disappointment that they were being abandoned but said that obstacles being put in the way of the agency by retailers had made them next to impossible to carry out.

Edit 23/03 – Following on from the Pricewatch article above, CheapEats.ie have followed up also with their article, Pricewatch: The cheapest supermarket?.

Check out their discussion in answer to the question – In the absence of in-depth price comparisons, which supermarkets do you find the cheapest?


Price Comparison (comparative advertising) is in the interests of consumers

This interesting e-mail came through recently to ValueIreland.com from a business person who is investigating providing price comparison in their particular market to try to show consumers that they actually do provide better value for money than their competitors.

I read, with interest, your article regarding a possible grocery price comparison site. It started me thinking about the legality of doing something similar in my own industry, on my own site.

I checked recently my pricing in comparison with my competitors and the so called discounters to discover that when all is said and done my prices are as good or better than the vast majority out there.

With every consumer now almost solely interested in price I think this would be worth shouting about.

My company enjoyed a reputation of having top quality products and service over the past couple of years but unfortunately, in a recession, people now associate this with being expensive which is simply not the case.

Obviously I will take legal advice about how I could show that my pricing is better than named competitors but I was wondering if you had any off hand info on the legality of showing price comparisons of similar or the same products on my website.

I would appreciate any assistance you may be able to provide me with, with the aim of offering savings to consumers.

I don’t have the legal specific expertise on this kind of thing, but I don’t believe there can be any problem if you were to report the prices of your competitors on your website.

I believe in advertising terminology this would be known as “comparative advertising”.

As far as I know, there was some recent EC regulations enacted in Ireland to cover “comparative advertising” – the EUROPEAN COMMUNITIES (MISLEADING AND COMPARATIVE MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS) REGULATIONS 2007 – details here.

This regulation is intended to prevent any comparative marketing communications which is misleading or confusing.

For this reason, I believe, if you were to gather your comparative pricing information and ensure that you present it accurately on your website, you shouldn’t have any problem. It might be a good idea to provide the time and date of the prices you’re using from your competitors as well – just in case they try to question where you got your information from. Even better, if you have photographs of the prices you’re using, there can be no misunderstandings (even if you just keep the photos in case any problems arise).

As you’ll probably have read in my comments regarding grocery price comparisons, the problem is to always make sure that the price information displayed is accurate and as up to date as possible.

I’m personally in favour of this kind of advertising but this isn’t something that’s been all that popular historically in Ireland, but is a whole lot more common in the United States. Maybe, if business people are starting to think like this one, we hopefully might see a bit more of it.


Survey shocker – groceries still more expensive down south!

The shocker is that people are still spending time and money on this kind of survey. This newspaper report on a report in the most recent edition of the Consumers Association of Ireland magazine, Consumer Choice, completely passed me my last week.

I mean, come one, with a headline of “Tesco groceries still cost 18% more in South despite cuts”, it’s not really news, is it? It’d be like seeing the headline “Brian Lenihan denies Nama is a developer bail-out”.

Only a couple of observations. I don’t believe a sampling of 25 items from a supermarket that sells thousands of items is a valid statistical analysis. It’s not even a decent sampling of the items that a normal consumer would buy every week.

Okay, you may say, it’s because they’re the bog standard grocery items that we all buy every week that makes them relevant. I’d give you that, but only if the 25 items didn’t include a “Walls Cornetto Strawberry six pack”.

The clincher of the complete pointlessness of this story at all is in this quote from whomever wrote the article in Consumer Choice:

… major retailers should disclose the profit margins in their Irish divisions to introduce transparency into the debate.

This, coming from an Association where some of the board members, and some staff, steadfastly refused over the course of a year to reveal any details about which other organisations they “represented” the Association itself. And an organisation where it took freedom of information requests from some board members to discover the expenses received by other board members when carrying out those “representative” duties.

Transparency indeed!


Positive steps towards a national grocery price comparison website?

According to this article in this mornings Irish Times, the National Consumer Agency are in the process of trying to put together “a grocery database containing real-time price information which consumers could use to make accurate comparisons on the cost of a basket of goods”.

According to Conor Pope, the NCA have contacted Tesco, Spar, Dunnes Stores, Superquinn, Supervalu, Aldi and Lidl with a view to getting access to their prices on a more realtime basis rather than the current 6 monthly grocery price survey. The article mentions that Tesco are apparently in favour of such an independent grocery price comparison site.

I referred last week to the issues in Australia with their plans for a grocery price comparison site. At the moment, it seems that a “social media” campaign is being started to get consumers to submit prices of grocery items in order to build up an independent database of prices.

Such a campaign is, unfortunately (in my opinion), doomed to failure as the quality of the data is dependent on consumers submitting the pricing information – we can see this difficulty with the petrol price comparison sites in Ireland (despite the excellent work of Pumps.ie). Sometimes, there’ll be good information, but at other times, information will be incomplete, out of date, or not available in a particular area. This will only be compounded hundreds if not thousands of times across the many many grocery items available across all the Irish grocery retailers.

The government sponsored Australian price comparison site was pulled, allegedly, because of a reluctance on the part of the Australian grocers to make their pricing inforamtion available for comparison purposes.

It’ll be interesting to see how successful the National Consumer Agency are in getting pricing information from all of the Irish grocery chains.

However, this plan from the NCA is the only way to go when it comes to a grocery price comparison site. From a technical perspective, a grocery price comparison site is quite simple to set up and maintain – provided it gets a consistent and accurate daily feed of prices from the respective grocery chains.

And it’s not like they don’t have the necessary information easily to hand – a simple extract of their grocery products stocked and the price charged could in theory be achieved in minutes every morning.

There are a couple of potential sticking points though. One mentioned in the article is how to compare across “own brand” items – a growing part of all grocery retailers stock portfolio these days.

Other potential issues would be:

  • How would one determine what stores should be taking part in the website comparison – do you include only multiples and thereby give them de-facto free advertising at the expense of independent grocery stores?
  • How do you manage price differences across the country – we’re told Dublin is 4.4% more expensive than Dublin. Do you therefore need a set of “Dublin prices” and a “country price” as well – doubling up on the data requirements for the project?
  • What about Northern Ireland stores? These grocery chains have growing chunk of the Irish grocery market, so to get a valid comparison, they would also need to be included.
  • What value would there be in the price comparison site if, for example, Dunnes Stores decided not to allow their pricing data be used? The exclusion of such a big player in the market would negate the value of the project as a whole.
  • The ComReg CallCosts.ie website is referred to in the article as an example of a similar popular service. While CallCosts.ie provides a certain amount of useful information, it is open to manipulation by the telecoms companies who always want their offerings showing at the top of any listing. This will need to be avoided for any grocery comparison site.
  • Also, with regards to CallCosts.ie, it hasn’t developed with the market which has moved on since it was originally set up – it doesn’t provide a mobile broadband comparison yet. Any grocery price comparison site will need to be developed in such a way that it can quickly adapt to grocery market changes.

For what has to be the first time ever, I’m positive about something being done by the National Consumer Agency. If this is properly investigated, analysed and planned, a grocery price comparison website could be an excellent addition for Irish consumers.

And just think – once all the information is stored centrally, who know’s where this could end? Online shopping lists? I-Phone or mobile phone applications? Links with cooking and recipe websites to automatically create your shopping list?

Think Amazon.com, but for grocery shopping.


Grocery Prices – the Australian situation and current controversy

There is an interesting controversy breaking in the consumer affairs / grocery prices area in Australia at the moment.

There, the government had set up and funded a grocery price comparison website called Grocery Choice. The site was originally set up in 2008 with the aim of helping “consumers compare the general price levels of supermarket chains in their area”.

The Australian equivalent of the Irish Consumers Association of Ireland, Consumer Choice, was contracted by the government to take on the running of the site once it was set up. Consumer Choice was tasked with improving the relevance and performance of the site and its contents.

The Grocery Choice website is available here and details of their methodology is available here.

Essentially, the Grocery Choice website is the Australian equivalent of the Irish National Consumer Agency grocery price comparison surveys but with key differences.

The Australian survey is carried out monthly instead of twice a year here in Ireland. The Australian survey provides a regional breakdown of prices as well as a breakdown by supermarket chain.

The reason for the controversy – the Australian government has cancelled its support and funding for this Grocery Choice initiative.

And the reason for the closure of the site? It’s not up to date enough – despite being monthly and surveying more than 600 stores. So, while our government and the National Consumer Agency are proud of their 6-monthly grocery price comparison surveys carried out in 13 stores out of which they take significant meaning and importance, yet according to this article, the Grocery Choice website was closed because:

The website immediately attracted criticism last year. Information was updated only once a month and price comparisons were broad and generic.
Mr Emerson (Australian Consumer Affairs Minister) had said from the outset that it was not feasible to publish reliable, timely information on grocery prices for consumers, a view held by many critics.
“The fact is that in Australia, there are thousands of supermarkets and even more thousands of grocery items,” he said.
“The information requirements would have been enormous and they’re just not feasible, in my view.”

The last NCA grocery survey was published last February, for prices in December 2008/January 2009. I guess, therefore, we can expect another survey soon enough.

There is a growing campaign in Australia calling for the government decision to be reversed with certain quarters questioning the motivations behind the closure of the site. The site was actually due for relaunch within 5 days of its closure and it was believed that the enhancements to the site for that relaunch would have made it more useful and would counteract some of the criticism mentioned above.
The closure is a roll-back on a government election campaign promise, but some are saying that it’s the undue influence of the larger grocery chains and their requirement for less price transparency that’s behind the decision.
I’m going to come back to this topic in the near future as I believe neither of these methods of grocery price comparison are sufficient, but also because I know that (in the face of certain potentially large difficulties) there is an eminently more effective, up to date, and accurate grocery price comparison methodology possible at relatively little cost to set up and with very little ongoing maintenance costs.


NCA Grocery Price Survey – Nothing New

The NCA have launched their new grocery price survey today – their press release is here. The headline of the release is as follows:

The National Consumer Agency (NCA) has published the findings of its survey comparing grocery prices between Ireland’s multiples, symbol groups, discounters and independents shops. Among its main findings, the survey found:

  • Only 35 cent difference between Tesco and Dunnes Stores for basket of 61 branded goods
  • Supervalu providing competition to multiples
  • Real competition between Aldi and Lidl, providing an alternative in value to multiples and Supervalu for own brand products
  • Independent butchers, fruit and vegetable shops can provide real value
Sound familiar? It’s exactly the same as they announced in July 2007 – only this time enhanced by the research done by Value Ireland when we included Lidl and Aldi in the mix.

So, 6 months later, they’re coming out telling us nothing new whatsoever. You can give me their budget of whatever number of million euro per year, and I’ll tell you nothing new either – damn it, I’ll take half their budget and I’ll tell you nothing new every month.


The good and the bad of shopping in Lidl and Aldi

Thanks to Primal Sneeze for the link in the “Serious Rant” section of the links on the site. Some very interesting comments on Primal Sneeze and worth keeping track of. His current post A Shopping Un-list is interesting in the light of some of the coverage following our Lidl and Aldi addition to the NCA Grocery Survey.

While we did point out the fact that these two could be cheaper than the big 4, we also said that you may have to compromise on brands. Pricewatch coverage in the Irish Times mentioned the issue with the dodgy cornflakes – but as pointed out on Primal Sneeze, there are some fantastic products you can also get in both shops.


Last post on the NCA Grocery Comparison survey

I was checking the National Consumer Agency website today to see if they had any response to our enhancement of their grocery price comparison survey last month. Probably not surpisingly, there was no comment at all.

What I did notice was a comment that seems to even contradict the NCAs own reasons for not including Aldi and Lidl in their price comparison survey.

In their original publicity about the survey, and in subsequent media commentary, the NCA said that they didn’t go to Aldi and Lidl because they didn’t stock as many branded items as the “big 3”.

Yet, further on in their own coverage (same link above) commenting that Centra, Spar and Eurospar were included in the survey “while not all products were common” and that the survey was carried out “for a decreasing number of goods being common” in these three shops.

What’s the real reason for not going to Aldi and Lidl then? Why go to other shops that don’t have matching branded items yet exclude our German friends? As has been suggested of PriceWatch in the Irish Times in comments here, is there some sort of general bias against Aldi and Lidl?


New Fans of Value Ireland

It seems that our blog has become popular with a certain supermarket chain following our work to update the National Consumer Agency grocery comparison survey (link temporarily missing, apologies).

During the month of August, the 3rd heaviest users of the Value Ireland website were people from Tesco. Presumably they were visiting the updated grocery comparison survey, but hopefully for the rest of us, they were visiting other sections as well and maybe seeing what it’s like to be a consumer in Ireland.


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