Executives from the country’s biggest supermarket chains have defended their grocery prices but backed the idea of greater fuel transparency over claims customers are paying over the odds for both.
The business and trade committee of MPs heard representatives of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons deny any suggestion of food profiteering on their part as shoppers continue to face high prices amid the evolving cost of living crisis.
The sector has scrambled this month to pass on some reductions in wholesale costs for essentials as the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) investigates whether customers are paying over the odds.
The regulator is due to report back next month.
The CMA has also been taking a look at the fuel sector.
Each of the supermarket representatives told the committee they supported the prospect of a UK-wide ‘pump watch’ transparency scheme, as currently used in Northern Ireland, to better inform drivers on wholesale versus pump prices.
Such a move has long been demanded by fair fuel campaigners and motoring groups amid accusations chains do not play fair on prices.
The bosses widely pointed to unprecedented “volatility” in the fuel market since the war in Ukraine pushed up oil costs.
However, Morrisons chief executive David Potts, unlike his counterparts, admitted the CMA was probably right to suggest that there was more profit in fuel than had been historically seen.
Petrol and diesel used to be a loss leader for chains but that has shifted since the COVID pandemic, with supermarket retailers concentrating more on investment in prices for staple goods since commodity costs shot up.
Asda’s chief commercial officer, Kris Comerford, denied suggestions the industry had become a “cartel”, insisting the UK grocery market was the most competitive in the world and he had worked across Europe and Asia.
While food inflation has eased slightly, the official measure remains above 18% and has been among price elements placing upwards pressure on the overall inflation rate.
That remained at 8.7% last month.
The evidence to the committee built on remarks by the chief executive of Tesco, the UK’s largest retailer, earlier this month that food inflation had peaked but that energy and other costs remained punitive.
Tesco’s commercial director, Gordon Gafa, told MPs “We are the most competitive we have ever been”.
But he explained that rising wages to retain staff and help with living costs, of 15% over the past year, were hitting its bottom line and it was making 4p in the pound in profit.
Sainsbury’s Rhian Bartlett, the company’s food commercial director, said while prices for some staples were coming down at a wholesale level, there remained commodity pressures as well.
She pointed to prices coming down for milk, bread and butter.
“We’ve spent £560m on keeping prices low, battling inflation and are doing absolutely everything we can to keep prices as low as possible for customers.
“In the most recent year we made lower profits, at £690m – input costs are not being fully passed through to our shelf prices.
“We’ve submitted lots of detail on that to the CMA and have had good discussions with the CMA.
“We are inflating behind our input costs and inflating wherever possible behind the market,” she insisted.