Substitutions and short shelf lives: consumer supermarket experiences

5 min read
May 28, 2021

Online food shopping has become hugely convenient or a lifeline for those who don’t want to face crowded supermarkets or can’t – particularly over the past year. But there’s one thing almost certain to occur when you buy your food online – and it’s been a bugbear of shoppers for years.

The age-old substitution issue remains at the forefront of the online food shopping experience. Our survey of supermarket shoppers found that of the 682 that mainly used online supermarkets, nine in 10 had at least occasionally had substitutions delivered, with almost a third (29%) telling us this happened ‘regularly’ in the past year.

While many reported that the substitutions had been ‘acceptable’ or easily rejected if not quite right, there were many examples of those that seemed illogical, including:

  • Items that were swapped for inappropriate alternatives considering dietary requirements or lifestyle choices
  • Smaller quantities delivered instead of the larger ones ordered
  • Some frankly bizarre substitution choices.

Supermarket substitution choices

Resolver received many examples of odd substitutions from our survey respondents, with some not remotely corresponding to what had actually been ordered. These included odd substitutions of fruit and vegetables, sugar cubes instead of icing sugar, and perhaps the all-too familiar replacements of red wine for white wine. But occasionally products did not remotely resemble what was actually ordered.

One customer had ordered bagels, and received bagel scented soap instead, while another was sent a tube of chocolate squares as a replacement for beef stock cubes. There were examples of whole meals being substituted for ridiculous alternatives, such as the shopper who received a curry instead of a fish pie. 

While many of us can recall a particularly odd substitution in our online grocery shop, and maybe laugh about it, it does of course mean that plans have to be altered, or in the case of a rejection, a follow-up to customer services if a refund hasn’t been issued. At the start of lockdown, to cope with social distancing measures, some supermarkets were also not allowing substitutions to be rejected, meaning that customers were left with items they couldn’t use.

After Eights [chocolate] in place of Ritzy crackers”

Past the shelf life 

Meanwhile a number of customers in our survey explicitly detailed deliveries of items with short shelf lives (often expiring on the day of delivery or very soon after) and even out of date items, meaning that dinner plans were thrown out of the window so items could be used immediately or that customers were having to reject them. 

Complaints largely revolved around fresh produce, such as fruit and vegetables, and meat, and there were even incidences of the food clearly having gone-off or looking mouldy despite being in date. Some had also received out of date items. While this again mostly related to fresh produce, there were other examples, including a birthday cake that was out of date on arrival.

Supermarkets do often notify you on your delivery day if you’re going to receive short-life items, but this can easily be missed, particularly on non-perishable food. If you are caught out then contact the supermarket as soon as you discover the problem, and include pictures where you can. Most of our respondents who had contacted customer services to complain about short shelf lives and out of date food did find the response to be positive, being offered refunds or vouchers to compensate for the poor quality delivery. So it is worth complaining. 

Quantity matters

Shoppers were reporting some illogical swaps when the quantity of the items they wanted was apparently unavailable. There were issues of ‘super-sizing’, with a handful of shoppers receiving large versions of items they’d ordered, or a significantly larger substitution for a different type of item, such as the shopper who received a 1.6kg duck instead of the poussion they’d selected because it was on offer.

However, there were examples from shoppers who’d received less of something when a logical alternative was to top up the required amount with more of the smaller variety. One customer received three single potatoes instead of the bag they’d ordered, while another was puzzled as to why they were sent half the blueberries they’d ordered instead of getting two small packs for the same price.  

Ordered a standard sized freshly baked loaf which was substituted with a single bread roll”

Useless alternatives

We also saw customers receiving items that were simply useless to them owing to dietary conditions or lifestyle choices. Incidences included products containing gluten being delivered when gluten-free varieties had been ordered, meaning that the customer simply couldn’t use them. 

There were also examples of vegetarian or vegan customers being delivered meat alternatives within their order – and vice versa. Meanwhile a handful of customers reported pet food being sent that was the wrong age category for their furry friends.

Barbecue sauce chicken sent instead of vegan bean casserole”

What can you do if you receive substitutions you don’t want?

Substitutions have long been an issue for online supermarket shoppers and some of us here at Resolver have had experience of highlighting the oddities, the inappropriate ones and the completely useless alternatives for more than a decade. It should not be an issue to think through what would be suitable when picking and packing grocery orders – and certainly for staff to take a moment or two to check those use-by-dates.

Supermarket sent the wrong item due to availability issues

While it is inconvenient and frustrating to not get the items you ordered, you are able to reject substitutions on arrival, or when you have got your click and collect order home and checked it. It can be tempting to get your goods in the door as soon as they turn up to avoid the driver awkwardly standing at your door, but it’s definitely worth checking your order when it arrives in case you’re caught out.

Most supermarkets will also give you the option to not be offered substitutions, both on whole orders or specific items – so it’s worth looking out for this as you’re filling your online ‘trolley’. It may mean that if the items are out of stock, then no replacement is coming, but if you’re clear that no alternative will do, it may reduce the back-and-forth of sending back unwanted items and waiting for the refund to come through.

If you are stuck with gone-off goods, out-of-date food or produce with an almost immediate shelf-life, then complain as soon as you can, particularly if you weren’t notified by email or on your delivery receipt. Most customers that complained to their supermarkets found quick responses and either almost immediate refunds or vouchers to cover the cost that could be spent on the next shop. It’s worth taking pictures if you can, as some will ask for evidence.

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