The booking page of the website www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk stated, "£12 to £94 - single" and "Std Class Adv Single £12 to £94" when the complainant had searched for tickets for travel on 21 December 2012 from Exeter to London.
The complainant, who had not been able to find a ticket for £12, challenged whether the price claim was misleading and could be substantiated.
First Greater Western Ltd, trading as First Great Western (FGW), said they did not dispute that the £12 fare was not available for the date and journey selected and accepted that that could be misleading. They explained that they had only been using the current website format since November 2012 and, before having received notification of the complaint from the ASA, had already identified a potential problem with the way in which the fare information was displayed. They stated that they had taken steps to remedy the issue.
FGW noted that, because of the way the rail industry operated, they did not control all of the ticketing data which was displayed through the ticket booking system on their website. They explained that operators within the national rail sector were not restricted to offering for sale only their own tickets, but were actively required, by the UK railway operating system, to offer all operators' tickets for relevant trains, although they consequently would not have control over their pricing or availability. They stated that the fare information was contained within a centrally managed fare database, as well as, in the case of advance fares, in the National Reservation System (NRS), which was managed by the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC). The central fare database was updated three times per year with pricing information for every route in the national rail network, and the NRS was updated more frequently with information regarding the availability of advance fares and seats. Because they did not set rail fares and advance fare availability for all train journeys, FGW stressed that they could not amend or change the data made available to it. They said the fares and availability data provided on their website in the online booking engine was a genuine reflection of the full range of fares and their associated availability for the particular journey specified by the customer. They acknowledged, however, that for the cheaper advance fares, that availability might be zero, depending on the particular service and time of day requested, and how far in advance the search was conducted.
FGW set out a number of points about how their website worked and what information it was intended to provide. They explained that when a user entered their search criteria for a journey on the FGW website, the search engine would look for and display both the fares that were established for that route and the availability of those fares on services matching the specific date/time of travel requested. The fare information was displayed in boxes at the top of the search results page, and was an indication of the full range of fares available in the fares database for that route, from all relevant operators. Where there were more than five different possible price points for the route, because of space restrictions on that part of the web page the fares might be consolidated into a grouping. In the case of this complaint, the website had displayed the "range" of advance fares "£12 to £94". The bottom of the web page was then designed to show the specific fares with remaining availability for the journey and date specified by the user. Initially only ten results would be retrieved from the database, but the user could then scroll up and down the page to view further results. As they did so, more available fares would be retrieved by the search engine from the database.
The information provided at the top and the bottom of the booking page was therefore different and not intended for exactly the same purpose. FGW explained that the full fare range, including ticket prices that might not be available for the specific journey searched for, was displayed at the top of the page in order to show the customer the full range of possible fares if, for example, they were flexible as to the date of travel. They said input from Passenger Focus, the passenger watchdog, had previously indicated that that approach was preferable. However, they acknowledged that the situation experienced by the complainant, whereby it had not been possible to buy a ticket at the lowest price shown at the top of the page, could occur. FGW said in those cases they would like to be able to offer the user an alternative set of dates/times when that specific fare would be available to purchase, but they were unable to do so because of the practical limitations of the NRS.
FGW accepted that the current format of their website might be confusing, and noted that they had already submitted a request to their website provider for a change to be made before receiving notification of the complaint from the ASA. They said as a result of that request the next software release would mean that the fare "range" at the top of the page would only reflect the actual, available, fares listed at the bottom of the page for the specific date and journey searched for by the user. They hoped that that amendment would prevent similar complaints from occurring in the future.
They noted that, under the CAP Code, price claims such as "from" claims must not exaggerate the availability or amount of benefits likely to be obtained by the consumer. They understood that that typically meant that at least 10% of reservable seats should be available at that fare, and that availability should be spread reasonably evenly across the travel period. They considered, however, that their claim "£12 to £94" should not be subject to such a requirement. They pointed out that the claim was presented as a result of a specific user request relating to a specific journey, as such, it differed fundamentally from, for example, a promotional advert on a poster or an e-mail. They also stressed that, because legally they were required to offer for sale all tickets for a route, from all operators, and because they were unable to monitor or control availability of fares from other operators, it would not be possible for them to maintain 10% availability of the lowest price stated in the "range" at the top of the page (in this case, £12). They therefore considered that, if a fare was available to the website user but not in quantities of 10% of the total reservable seats on the journey, they should not be restricted in including that price as part of the results shown at the top of the booking page of their website.
The ASA understood that the booking page which contained the claims "£12 to £94 - single" and "Std Class Adv Single £12 to £94" was intended to display two different types of data: at the top of the page, the full range of fares for the route in question; and at the bottom of the page, the fares for the actual tickets which were available for the consumer to purchase at that time. Although the complainant had not been able to buy any tickets at £12 for the date and time of travel requested, that was the lowest applicable advance fare for the journey. However, we noted that the web page in question was displayed after the user had entered specific search criteria regarding their desired journey, and that before it loaded the user was shown a message stating "We are checking for available trains and fares ...". There was no explanation accompanying the claim "£12 to £94" at the top of the page to state that it did not reflect the available tickets but rather the full range of fares for the journey in question. Furthermore, the second iteration of the price claim was included in a box together with the origin and departure points of the journey, the date of the journey searched for and the statements "Valid on chosen train only. Non refundable. Changeable for a fee before departure" and "Please choose from Services below". In that context, we considered that it was not clear to the website user that the lowest price quoted would not necessarily be available for their specified date and time of travel.
We acknowledged that FGW had taken action to have the mechanics of their website altered so that in future the price claims at the top of the page would reflect only the actual fares listed and available to buy below. We welcomed that change, which we considered would resolve the issue experienced by the complainant.
In relation to the quantity of available fares at the lower end of the range quoted, we considered the significance of the context in which the price claim was made. Although the claim "£12 to £94" did not include the word "from", in our view that was implicit in the fact that a fare range was quoted and, therefore, the CAP Code required that the price claim did not exaggerate the availability of the benefits likely to be obtained. We noted that the claim appeared only after the user had entered specific search criteria, which would include not only the desired departure point and destination but also the date of travel and, most likely, an approximate time of day and the number of passengers in the group. We also noted that the web page formed part of a live booking process through which consumers could immediately buy the tickets advertised. In that context, we considered that most consumers would expect the search results returned to relate specifically to the data they had entered and, therefore, would not anticipate a level of availability greater than their needs (i.e. the size of the group travelling). On that basis, we were satisfied that FGW would not need to ensure that at least 10% of reservable seats were available at the lowest price quoted in the range in order to comply with the CAP Code.
Although we were satisfied that future changes to the FGW website would resolve the issue experienced by the complainant, we considered that at the time of the complaint to the ASA the claims "£12 to £94 - single" and "Std Class Adv Single £12 to £94" implied that £12 tickets could be bought for the journey searched for, when that was not the case. We therefore concluded that the price claim "£12 to £94" was misleading.
The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 3.1 Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so. (Misleading advertising), 3.7 3.7 Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation. (Substantiation) and 3.17 3.17 Price statements must not mislead by omission, undue emphasis or distortion. They must relate to the product featured in the marketing communication. and 3.22 3.22 Price claims such as "up to" and "from" must not exaggerate the availability or amount of benefits likely to be obtained by the consumer. (Prices).
The ad must not appear again in its current form. We welcomed the action taken by First Greater Western to ensure that the price claims at the top of the page would reflect fares available to buy at the time of the search.