By Leia Clifton, Policy Officer, Obesity Health Alliance

In the UK, multi-buy promotional offers, such as buy-one-get-one-free and 3-for-2 deals flood our supermarket shelves. This has led us to spend more buying food products on promotion than any other country in Europe[1]. These offers aren’t saving us money as evidence has shown these types of promotions lead us to spend more than originally intended[2]. As these promotions are mostly on unhealthy foods, this buying more can contribute to the increase in excess weight and the resulting ill health seen in the UK. A 2019 survey found that the majority (57%) of promotional purchases made in store were an unplanned impulse buy and higher in categories associated with unhealthy foods, such as puddings and desserts (83%), confectionery (77%) and crisps (67%)[3]. Some supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s[4] have committed to move away from multi-buy promotions in stores, however, this is nowhere near the level that is needed to have a meaningful impact on health. This is why the Government’s ‘Tackling Obesity’ strategy has committed to bring in legislation to end multi-buy offers on unhealthy food and drinks[5].

In store is not the only place we shop. Consumer trends have shown that over the last decade a growing number of households have been turning to the internet for their weekly shop. In 2020, this has been massively accelerated with popularity of online shopping surging by a huge 129%[6]. This switch is here to stay, with 17.2 million people reporting they intend to keep shopping online going forward[7].

What do multi-buy promotions look like online?

With over a quarter of UK households now shopping online, understanding how unhealthy food is promoted to online shoppers and the need to end multi-buys online is crucial. The OHA undertook a survey looking into how retailers use multi-buy promotions online to encourage the purchase of products high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS), particularly confectionery[8]. This survey was carried out over the course of one day and is reflective of the promotions seen over that day.  The survey looked at a selection of popular online retailer sites, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrison’s and Ocado[9].

  • 4 out of 5 of these supermarkets are heavily using multi-buys to promote HFSS products to online shoppers.
  • On the Asda website, just under a quarter of all confectionery was part of a multi-buy promotion. This represents 240 of 990 products on a 3-for-2 or BOGOF style of promotion.
  • Ocado’s website had just under 15% of all confectionery included in a multi-buy offer (192 out of 1286 products). Tesco had 11% (90 out of 819 products) with Morrison’s also having 11% of products (74 out of 646 products) on a multi-buy offer.
  • The survey found that Sainsbury’s had no multi-buy promotions on confectionery, opting instead for price reduction offers.
  • Overall, this represents a huge number of products on promotion particularly considering this survey only looked at volume-based multi-buy promotions and did not include the multitude of other types of enticing offers faced by shoppers, such as price drops and roll backs.

What additional tactics do online shoppers have to contend with?

The experience of shopping online differs in many ways from in store and promotional tactics can be more pervasive. Our survey found that every that supermarket that utilised multi-buys in confectionary (all apart from Sainsbury’s), placed these offers at the top of the page so that they are viewed first. This could result in shoppers who are proactively looking for sweets or chocolate being tempted by multi-buy promotions and resulting in unplanned additional purchases of unhealthy items.

Due to digital techniques used on retail websites, once a product is bought once or interest is shown, it is more likely for that product to be suggested to the customer again in the form of ‘Recommended for You’ or ‘Usually bought Next’, as seen in Fig 2 below. Multi-buys normalise the purchase of unhealthy products and may result in these purchases not just being a ‘one off’, as pop-up suggestions can be hard to ignore.

Fig 1: Multi-buy offers on top of Ocado confectionery page. September 2020.

Fig 2: ‘Usually bought next’ offered on Tesco website. September 2020. 

What is the government doing to take action?  

In July 2020, the Government’s ‘Tackling Obesity’ strategy announced plans to end multi-buy promotions on foods high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS)[10]. This will mean customers will no longer see offers such as ‘buy one get one free’ and ‘3 for 2’ on unhealthy products when walking around a supermarket. Websites selling food and drink products, such as online supermarkets, must also be restricted from applying multi-buy price promotions to HFSS products. This would reflect growing consumer preference for online shopping and protect health. What is more, these measures will even be good for our pockets as although promotions appear to help save money, data shows that they in fact increase consumer spending by encouraging people to buy more than they need or intended to in the first place[11].

The OHA and our members fully support this measure and we encourage the government to publish detailed plans on restricting retail promotions as soon as possible. This measure will promote shifting the balance of promotions towards healthier options, maximising the availability of healthier products that are offered, making it easier for us all to live healthier lives.




[1]Sugar Reduction: The evidence for action – Annexe 4: An analysis of the role of price promotions on the household purchases of food and drinks high in sugar. Available at:

[2] Sugar Reduction: The evidence for action – Annexe 4: An analysis of the role of price promotions on the household purchases of food and drinks high in sugar.

[3] Food Active (2019). Purchases of Price Promotions on Less Healthy Food and Drinks in the North West.


[5] 2020. Department of Health and Social Care. Tackling Obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives. Accessible at:


[7] 2020. Retail Gazette Online. Accessible at:

[8] Confectionery defined as ‘sweets and chocolate considered collectively’.


[10] 2020. Department of Health and Social Care. Tackling Obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives. Accessible at:

[11]British Dietetic Association and Children’s Food Campaign, 2013. Available at: