Monday, 12 December 2011

This is insane. Or just plain dishonest.

I was in Sainsburys the other day and saw this:

Yes that’s a bottle of wine, a red from Cahors.  Buy one of them, it’ll cost you £11.99.  Buy two and that’ll be a round tenner.  As in two quid cheaper for two than one on it’s own would be.  Who’s going to be fooled by that?  Who will really believe they are getting wine genuinely worth twenty four quid in return for just ten?  Surely even in a world in which people have become blandly accustomed to supermarket BOGOF promotions, the notion that Sainsburys are going to not just give you one item free when you buy one at full price, but will actually charge you less for the one you do pay for, presumably, for doing them the favour of taking another one off their hands, is absurd.  I mean, come on Mr Sainsbury, what’s wrong with this wine that you want rid of it so badly?

Clearly the stated full price is, at best, notional.  At worst it’s flat out dishonest.  And I’m afraid I have to go with worst in this case.  And it is indeed the worst kind of dishonesty – in the sense of ‘worst’ being the most rubbish.  Dishonesty so cack handedly blatant that the only people who could possibly be fooled are those not paying attention.  It’s the people doing their shopping distractedly – maybe people yakking on their mobile phones, but also perhaps young mothers with kids in tow - whose eyes take in the fact that this wine is on special offer without actually reading the details and pick up a single bottle, not noticing the extortionate price they’ve been charged for it until they get home that I feel sorry for.   The mothers at least, the mobile phone yakkers not so much…

Them and, indeed, the wine producers, who are almost certainly getting thoroughly screwed over by Sainsburys on cost to allow them the margin to dick about so comprehensively with the retail price.  Obviously I don’t know the details of the specific bit of business behind this particular deal, but have no doubt that it will be based on them producing twice the wine at half the price, which is bad for the wine makers, and ultimately bad for us – assuming we actually like and appreciate wine - because the wine simply will not, can not, be the best that they could make it in those circumstances.   I may not know much about making wine, but I do know that doubling volume, while cutting production costs is not the way to improve your product.  And, if we like and appreciate wine, why should we want the people who make it to gain neither profit nor satisfaction from doing so?  It seems to me we should want to encourage wine makers to make the best wine they can, not discourage them from making wine at all.

The one bunch of people you can be sure that this apparent largesse on Sainsburys part will turn out not to be bad for, will be Sainsburys themselves.  They, after all, choose the price.  Nobody is forcing them to give away a second bottle of wine at a negative price.  Which of course they’re not anyway.  The ‘real’ price of this wine will undoubtedly be closer to the £5 a bottle that two bottles works out at than that plainly spurious £11.99.  My guess would be that at £5 a pop it will probably turn out to be excellent value, indeed I’d think it most likely that this would turn out to be something you’d think was pretty good for six quid, OK but unremarkable at seven.  That is, as I say, just a guess, but I’d be amazed if it proved far wrong.  So you might well argue that two for a tenner is a bargain, and that’s good for us, the wine buying public. 

Well, yes, but also no.  Why not just price the wine honestly, Mr Sainsbury?  Don’t try and fool us into believing we’re getting a better deal than we are, and let us decide how many bottles we wish to buy.   And do you always have to push the wine makers into producing the volume to allow you to sell twice as many bottles at a lower price, rather than allowing them to produce a lower volume of a better, more interesting wine that we’d be happy to buy less of but at a higher price?*

I should of course, at this point, declare an interest.  My day job is in the wine trade, working for, if not strictly speaking a small, local independent wine shop, then an independent chain of shops that is much smaller and altogether more localized than it was at this time last year – circumstances for which I do not, incidentally, hold the supermarkets solely and entirely to blame.  I normally refrain from writing about wine on this blog, partly because of the obvious potential conflict of interests, and for the sake of my own independence, but also, and mainly, because it’s hard enough finding time and space to get down all that I have to say about the food, without getting started on the wine.  But this post really isn’t about wine, it’s about supermarket pricing policies – and the example here is Sainsburys, but this is not just about them, either - and what this example of a bottle (or two) of wine reveals about them.  Because if we recognize the inherent dishonesty in the pricing of this one item, why should we presume that everything else in the store is honestly and fairly priced?  Maybe (and that’s a heavily ironic ‘maybe’) we shouldn’t.

* Actually, to be fair to Mr Sainsbury, the answer to that second question is basically ‘yes’.  That’s just the way supermarket scale economics works, and why you’ll always be able to find more interesting wines in small independent wine merchants.  The more interesting and unusual wines, almost by definition  come from small producers with limited production, and they simply cannot supply in the kinds of volume that the supermarkets require to stock their many thousands of miles of collective shelf space.


  1. I have now, purely in the interests of research, of course, tried the wine in question. It's called "La Patrie" Cahors, 2009, and it is, without in any way trying to sound smug or told you so, exactly as I predicted.

    It's a perfectly good, basic country wine from SW France, reasonably full bodied and full flavoured, but unremarkable. At two for a tenner it represents good value, but nothing like the bargain the claimed "full" price would suggest. If it's full price were £6, I'd think it pretty good and it might get on to my regular shopping list, although not very close to the top of that list. If it were £7 I'd think it was OK, and not feel in any way ripped off, but probably not bother buying it again, at least not until next time it was on special offer. If I'd paid £11.99, I'd be feeling distinctly ripped off, it simply doesn't have the complexity, richness or depth to justify anything remotely like that price.

    It's OK, it just ain't that interesting. Perfectly good cooking wine* at a fiver a bottle.

    *Bearing in mind that for me the term "cooking wine" is not as dismissive or derisive as it may be for some. You add wine to food to enhance the flavour, so obviously you wouldn't want to cook with wine that didn't taste good enough to drink. A good cooking wine is simply something cheap enough to not worry about how much you need to pour into the cooking pot, but good enough for you to be quite happy to drink while you're doing it.

  2. I was in Sainsburys again yesterday and I see that the offer on La Patrie has now changed from 2 for £10, to a single bottle "half price" deal - reduced from £11.99 to £5.99. Which, as I said in my earlier comment, would be a fair, and good value, price for it - if they weren't still pretending that it's "real" value was twice that.

    Incidentally, if this article - or the offer itself - has piqued an interest supermarkets and their pricing policies (as it has, for instance for the good people on the Canal World chat forum, of all places: 

    then here's an interesting piece from the LRB by the thoroughly estimable John Lanchester.
    Not that I'm suggesting that a single questionable wine deal puts Sainsburys quite in the Walmart league...

  3. Just drinking one now - £6 'half price' at Dalston Sainsbury's. I've been to the region and have fond memories of Cahors, and this is a fairly good example, and well worth £6. I'd say I wouldn't feel robbed at £7.50 but would at £12...

    It was the only bottle left and one of the better half price deals. There are some real shockers, particularly at Tesco.