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2014 Massachusetts Supermarket Survey

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RETAILERS FOUND SKIRTING NEW PRICING/SCANNER LAW

(BOSTON – June 25) -- A survey released today by Consumer World reveals that while retailers have widely opted to remove price stickers from individual grocery items pursuant to a 2012 revision of the state item-pricing law, many are shortchanging shoppers by substituting aisle scanners that don’t always work, skirting other rules, and in some cases, shortchanging state coffers as well.

aisle scanners “In return for no longer having to item-price groceries, retailers are now required to provide a host of new consumer protections for shoppers,” explained Consumer World founder Edgar Dworsky. “Stores lobbied hard and got what they wanted – no more price stickers – and they quickly removed them. But they are not living up to the other end of the bargain to the detriment of shoppers, and that is patently unfair.”

Despite opposition from consumer groups and surveys showing strong shopper support for continuing item- pricing, the new law passed and went into effect on January 1, 2013.

The revised item-pricing law allows retailers to opt out of the individual price marking of groceries if they install price check scanners in store aisles (one every 5,000 square feet) so shoppers can verify prices, test them daily, post signs identifying the location of the scanners and where to report broken ones, and offer a price accuracy guarantee to customers posted at each checkout. This guarantee gives shoppers one item free (up to $10) if a product scans at a higher price than represented. Stores also are required to pay the state Division of Standards a “waiver” fee of up to $1,000 annually per location before they can remove price stickers.

To judge how well the new law is working, Consumer World went undercover and checked 140 aisle scanners and the required signage at nearly three dozen Massachusetts supermarkets and other retailers with grocery sections between June 1 and 5. [Note: This survey did not test the accuracy of aisle and checkout scanners.]

Nearly half of all the scanners tested failed to scan, print price tags, or have all required signage, etc., and over 85% of stores had some or all price accuracy guarantee signs that were missing, obscured, or not “clearly and conspicuously” displayed. And in some cases, big name chains were found to have largely eliminated item pricing without first obtaining permission to do so, without paying the state the required “waiver” fee, and without providing all the new consumer protections.

==> Full report, store charts, and photographs at: http://consumerworld.org/pubs/item2014surveyreport.pdf

Stores that removed prices from groceries had a poor record when it came to displaying the required price accuracy guarantee at each cash register. Almost two-thirds of chains failed to have them at every register, and an equal number of stores posted notices subjectively judged not to be “clear and conspicuous” as required.

One chain placed the price guarantee signs seven feet off the ground and another had them below waist level. One store had them obstructed by notebooks at every register, another hidden behind shopping bags, and a third store tucked them between the cash register and other merchandise. Many stores used tiny type (the signs at one Stop & Shop were a mere 3.5" by 3.5") or used a format that made reading hard. Two stores had no price guarantee signs at all at any of their staffed cash registers. (See photographs in full report.)

Consumer World also checked scanners at two locations of Target, Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, Costco, and BJ’s Wholesale Club -- stores that have not obtained waivers, but which are required to have printing aisle scanners for non-groceries under a separate attorney general’s regulation since those stores don’t item price those goods.

Over 75% of scanner stations failed in these stores for various reasons.

Worse, BJ’s Wholesale Club had neither prices on items nor any scanners in the aisles at their Revere and Malden locations. While BJ’s successfully lobbied to exclude warehouse clubs from the new state item pricing law for groceries, they appear to be defying the attorney general’s item-pricing requirements at least with respect to all the non-grocery items they carry.

Since some stores must still item-price groceries because they have not obtained waivers, Consumer World tested their compliance with that aspect of the law. Ten product displays were checked at two locations of each chain to determine if each package was properly price stickered. In all, just over 1,000 packages were examined.

At Walgreens, none of the over 200 grocery packages checked had an individual price on them. It appears that Walgreens has made a decision to remove prices from groceries, but has not received permission to do so from the state, nor has it paid the appropriate fee to obtain that waiver. It is also shortchanging consumers by failing to adopt a price guarantee, placing signs on scanners to alert consumers how to complain about brokers machines, and is not providing other consumer protections built into the new law.

According to the Division of Standards, as of May 15, 2014, 630 individual stores have paid the required fee based on the self-reported square footage of their stores and have been granted waivers from the item pricing requirement. The state took in a total of $414,600 in waiver fees during the first full year of the program. All current waivers expire on June 30.

A few stores may have underreported their square footage, perhaps unintentionally, and thus in some circumstances may have paid a lower fee and/or were able to reduce the number of scanners they had to install.

Fines for violations of the law range from $100 to $300 each.

RECOMMENDATIONS:

  • In light of the widespread problems uncovered in the survey, Consumer World recommends that the state not renew any store’s waiver until it has been inspected and determined to be in full compliance with the law.

  • With respect to the stores that have removed price stickers either without permission of the Division of Standards, or that have stopped item-pricing and are not providing any or enough scanners for customers, Consumer World recommends that they be referred to the attorney general for further investigation.

  • Stores should be required to only use the state's model price accuracy guarantee disclosure sign.

  • Consumer World advises shoppers to report malfunctioning scanners to store management and the state Division of Standards.



  • Aisle Scanner/Price Guarantee/Item Pricing Survey 2014

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