Representatives of the UK's four largest supermarket operators staunchly defended their price discounting policies on alcoholic drinks at a meeting organised yesterday (18 April) by the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group in the House of Commons.
 
The meeting had been arranged by the parliamentary group to give the retailers the opportunity to respond to criticism that their pricing policies are exacerbating the problem of binge-drinking as well as undermining the on-premise alcohol market.
 
John Grogan MP, chairman of the group, filed an Early Day Motion (EDM) in December calling for supermarkets to end "irresponsible drinks promotions", while in January, the UK Competition Commission's  'Emerging Thinking' document said that supermarkets were using alcohol as a loss leader to increase footfall.

While the supermarket operators stressed their commitment to responsible marketing, they were united in their opposition to ending price discounting on alcohol. Bernard Hughes, head of government affairs at Asda, said that price was "hugely important" to its customers and "in its DNA" as a retailer, and it had no intention of taking a course of action which would effectively raise its prices.

Nick Grant, legal affairs director at Sainsbury's, said that any attempt to restrict price promotions on alcohol would be anti-competitive and against the interests of its customers. He added that the way to counter the problems of excessive consumption was through education rather than controlling prices.

The retailers also suggested that direct comparisons between the on-premise market, which had been made subject to strict controls regarding irresponsible marketing and price promotion, and the off-premise sector were problematic because the purchase motivations in the two channels were different. Grant pointed out that in the on-premise market, purchases were by definition being made for immediate consumption whereas in the off-premise channel consumers may take advantage of a price promotion or multibuy offer in order to stock up or to cater for a special occasion.

In conclusion, Chris Blundell, corporate affairs director at Morrisons, articulated the view, shared by the other retailers, that alcohol was just one of many product categories, and that Morrisons aimed to be competitive on price across all the products it sells. However, Grogan said this went to the root of the debate, because alcohol had to be seen as "different from baked beans".