CNN Portugal claims that consumers need to be careful when shopping as “the price of the products you see displayed on the shelf is often different from what you will have to pay at the till”.

The large super and hypermarkets “repeatedly” change the price from one moment to the next and always in the same direction: it is several times more expensive when the time comes to pay, according to Pedro Portugal Gaspar, inspector general of the Food and Economic Security Authority (ASAE), who underlines to CNN Portugal that the products are almost 70% more expensive.

In recent months, ASAE has inspected 562 economic operators and opened 26 criminal cases for the practice of price speculation that affects almost exclusively food goods, such as pasta, cereals, milk, eggs, meat, and tuna. “This deserves some reflection, mainly because the situations occur in large economic groups, which means that this deviation should not be seen as a singular act, but rather multiplied by the daily cash flow of the product”, says Pedro Paulo Gaspar.

Worrying exponential

When ASAE identifies that a product has a higher price when paid at the checkout than the amount it was shown as the reality has to be multiplied by the daily purchase volume of that product. “If we multiply it by the volume of sales, we have a relatively worrying exponential”, he said.

The biggest price variation (65.5%) was detected in the sale of pasta in super and hypermarkets and this increase, although exponential, can be difficult to detect when you go shopping. First, because you may have a full cart and not identify that your account is a few cents more expensive than it should be, secondly, because this increase may be masked by inflation, which has made everything more expensive.

Is it deliberate or just a lack of attention on the part of large economic groups? “I cannot say that it was intentional, but, I mean, it is a relatively objective situation, so you have to find some kind of justification here and draw some conclusions about this because it is reiterated on top of that”, says the inspector- general ASAE.

Radical fight

For Pedro Paulo Gaspar, the analysis of these practices has to take into account that these crimes are being committed by large players in the distribution sector, with more "robustness" to deal with computer equipment problems or lack of follow-up, as opposed to a smaller scale trader. “It could be negligence, but then the mistakes should have been corrected so they didn't happen again, or else it's a type of practice that has to be fought radically”, he adds.

The irregularities detected by ASAE happen at the same time that distribution companies have seen their revenues and profits increase. Looking at the results of the two largest Portuguese supermarket chains, Modelo/Continente and Pingo Doce, for example, it appears that, with the pandemic and in a year of historic inflation, they recorded much higher profits than in 2019. From January to September the revenues of the two distribution chains exceeded 8,400 million euros and Jerónimo Martins, owner of Pingo Doce, recorded 120 million euros more in profits than before the pandemic. Sonae, which controls the Continente stores, made 39 million more than in 2019.

To detect infringements, ASAE relies on verification sources on the ground which it then cross-references with open sources and exhaustive reports on a broad food basket with around 30 products, ranging from fresh produce to meat and fish. During inspections at super and hypermarkets, inspectors check the price at which the product is posted in relation to the price at which it is registered on the till.

Upon detecting that the price of the product has been the subject of speculation, those responsible for the food chain that sells it is subject to penalties ranging from six months to three years and a fine that, in case of negligence, will be lower.

Assuming that no one will be deprived of their liberty because of this type of crime, the fine depends on “how long the price was fixed, versus the box price, how many units of the same product were sold, the size of the company and whether or not there were illegitimate gains”, explains the person in charge of ASAE.

Over the past few months, ASAE has also opened 51 administrative offense proceedings against operators in the retail area. The infractions found are related to the lack of price display, disrespect for the rules for advertising sales with price reductions, unfair commercial practices, non-compliance with fair information practices, and the practice of misleading actions.