The advertising watchdog has cleared Argos over claims it hiked a number of prices just before its popular 3for2 sale last September. But its investigation has revealed the store failed to include 'Was' and 'Now' labelling on more than 100 items in the run-up to the promotion.
MoneySavingExpert asked the Advertising Standards Authority to investigate after seeing claims from some shoppers that Argos' prices had risen before its annual toy sale.
In a judgement released this week, the ASA said it had not upheld our complaint. It concluded that prices charged during the 3for2 promotion were "genuine prices at which the products had previously been sold" and said the sale was not misleading.
But its investigation has shone a light on how major stores' prices can fluctuate ahead of a big sale - and shown why shoppers taking advantage of a promotion should always double-check they're really getting a bargain.
Argos said it did not deliberately manipulate prices but has admitted 108 items were not clearly marked as being sold at a promotional price prior to the start of the sale due to "technical reasons".
For how to make sure you always get the best deal, see our 40+ Cheap Online Shopping Tips.
On 27 September 2017 Argos launched its 3for2 sale, which included 3,157 products.
After the sale launched we saw claims on social media, that prices had changed before the 3for2 sale. MoneySavingExpert.com decided to report Argos to the ASA after seeing examples of the price changes, such as the ones below. Two members of the public also reported the store to the ASA.
For example, at its 'lowest price ever' on the day before the sale the Movi robot toy was £31.99, but it was £23 more during the 3for2 promotion.
And another shopper spotted the chair below for £13 cheaper before the 3for2 promotion - again, there was no apparent explanation for the price having been cheaper prior to the sale.
The ASA launched a detailed investigation in the wake of our complaint. It found that some 268 out of the 3,157 products were offered at a cheaper-than-usual, promotional price in the run-up to the sale, then returned to their normal price - the price stated in the Argos catalogue - when the sale launched.
The ASA concluded that this level of price fluctuation was "fairly similar" to the price fluctuation it found when checking previous dates at random. It also said most of the 268 items were marked with prominent 'Was'/'Now' labelling, which "meant customers who had seen those lower prices were fully aware that the price at which those products were available prior to the 3for2 promotion was a promotional, non-standard price".
However Argos admitted that 108 of the 268 items were not marked with 'Was'/'Now' pricing due to "technical reasons" - and this resulted in customers seeing apparently unexplained price changes when the 3for2 sale started.
What does the ASA say?
The ASA did not uphold the complaint - it's published its findings in full.
It reviewed the data to check how Argos' prices fluctuated at other times, compared to the week before the promotion, by selecting three random dates in the three previous months.
It said: "Taking account of the evidence as a whole we considered the prices charged during the 3for2 were genuine prices at which the products had previously been sold and that consumers therefore had had the opportunity to achieve genuine savings. We concluded the advertised 3for2 promotion was therefore not misleading."
What does Argos say?
Argos told the ASA that the fact a very limited number of products increased in price when included in the 3for2 promotion did not mean the promotion was materially misleading.
A spokesperson said: "We're pleased the ASA did not uphold MoneySavingExpert’s claim that our '3for2' deal was misleading.
"As we repeatedly explained to MoneySavingExpert at the time, our 3for2 deal offers customers great value across thousands of our bestselling toys."
Shopping in a sale? Always check it's REALLY a good deal
Prices can always fluctuate, so without having a crystal ball it can be difficult to know the best time to buy. But if you're buying in a sale, always do what research you can to check you're getting the best price compared to other stores AND other sale periods. See our Online Shopping guide for more tips.
With Argos, one tool which may help is the Argos Price Tracker. It allows you to enter an Argos item number to see how the price has changed since January 2016. If, for example, you type in the code for the Teach 'n' Tag Movi toy above it shows you the highest price since August 2017 was £54.99 on 28 September last year and the lowest price was £31.99 on 16 September last year - compared to the current price of £44.99.