Until September Sainsbury's charged 21p for a tin of 'Basics' chopped tomatoes. I know it was 21p becuause in October the Richmond store still displayed a shelf label showing 21p but scanned them at 30p. I kept my receipt because the store manager refunded the mis-price after checking himself. In fact the computer was right, the shelf was wrong - the price had dramatically increased to 30p - a staggering 43% increase.
October 2008 was the month The Telegraph ran a report in which Sainsbury's boasted Basics Chopped Tomatoes was now their best selling line - shifting 2 million tins a month as shoppers turned to store cupboard staples to cook their own credit crunch chilli. No wonder Sainsbury's was full of glee - A 9p price hike on a tin of tomatoes multiplied by 2m units equals an extra £180,000 a month profit.
This week, in the teeth of recession, Sainsbury's reported a rise in first half year profits. Sales of the Basics range have increased by 30%. This week the price of chopped tomatoes has increased another 10% to 33p. Or to put it another way, if monthly sales are still 2m cans the extra profit (over the old 21p price) is £240,000. Yes £240,000 That's just short of quarter a million pounds extra profit - on a single item. Just one item in over 40,000 lines of inventory.
Sainsbury's aren't the only Supermarket who've comforted the cash strapped customer but are now taking them for a ride. Tesco has rebranded as Britain's Biggest Discounter. In the summer I discovered Tesco Value Roasted Salted Peanuts were very good value at 20p (200g). Recently the price jumped to 30p and by this week the price has climbed to 32p - a 60% increase over the price in June.
Tonight I checked the price of budget brand chopped tomatoes on the price checking site
MySupermarket . Suddenly, for the first time the big 3 (Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda) are all charging 33p a can for a tin of chopped tomatoes.
What's going on? Do all the supermarkets share the same chopped tomatoes supplier? Has the supplier upped the price? Or, as the Competition Commission has failed to prove despite several inquiries (3 in the last 8 years) are the supermarkets mirroring each other's prices in a cartel? Earlier this year The Office of Fair Trading raided supermarkets for evidence of collusion on prices. In September the OFT said they believed prices are being shared between supermarkets via their suppliers. If the case is proven (as it was in 2002 with sportswear retailers and England shirts) the supermarkets face fines running into millions - which will quickly consume the chopped tomatoes profits. Watch this space.
Sainsbury's shouts about helping stricken shoppers feed their families for a fiver. Meanwhile it lines its own pockets to the tune of a quarter of a million pounds every month, on chopped tomatoes alone.