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Grocery Prices Can Be Hard to Check Out

November 20, 1987|S. J. DIAMOND

The government has long been interested not just in food quality at grocery stores but in quantity control--the assurance that consumers get the amount and weight they're paying for, and not an ounce less. There's even some concern that they get it at the price advertised, and not a quarter more--a concern ironically compounded by the advent of electronic scanners, supposedly a guarantee of accuracy.

In either case, the cost to an individual customer may be small, but the total losses can be high. State and local ordinances on short-weighting and mispricing are therefore common, enforced by special gumshoes who case the local markets for a city or county. In New York City's five boroughs, Consumer Affairs department inspectors have the job; in Los Angeles, inspectors for the county Department of Weights and Measures, who also check the accuracy of gas pumps and taxi meters, monitor the area.

These troops usually check on-site scales, and the stated size--in pounds, ounces or other measures--of everything "from a steak to a short-filled can of beans," says Nahan Gluck, deputy director of weights and measures in Los Angeles. In most cases, they look at both products packaged on-site and at prepackaged goods--containers of Comet cleanser, for example, that New York inspectors found lacking up to 2 1/2 ounces of their promised 14 oz. weight.

Certain "tolerances" are usually allowed for general handling problems or shrinkage or, more specifically, moisture loss in meat. These aren't always revealed, Gluck says, because people would treat the allowance as the legal limit.

Inspectors may also check that customers get the right price at checkout--a particular problem with sale goods because of the price change: The checkout price may not reflect a current sale, or the shelf price may not have been raised after a sale. Such mistakes may be "95% unintentional--just carelessness and lack of supervision," Gluck says, "but that doesn't justify them, and they usually go against the customer."

Many Exemptions

The situation has been complicated by electronic scanners, now in some 45% of supermarkets across the country. They're most likely to be in large chain stores, of course. According to Progressive Grocer magazine, more than 90% of markets with annual sales volumes of $12 million or more had scanning systems.

Scanners "keep prices down because they're not labor-intensive," says T. J. James, state issues coordinator at the industry-supported Food Marketing Institute in Washington. The system computer takes over keeping track of both inventories and prices. But one effect is fewer items marked, and "the consumer is really in the dark and at the mercy of the computer-scanning system," says Los Angeles Deputy Dist. Atty. Martin Herscovitz.

One response has been item-pricing laws, which could give the food market gumshoes another thing to check. (This is not to be confused with unit pricing, which involves information tags, sometimes required by law, about price per ounce or inch or whatever unit, so consumers can better compare products.) Such laws, enacted now in eight states, according to the Food Marketing Institute, require that prices be marked on individual items, but allow a variety of exemptions--either particular products, or the store's own choice of a percentage of its wares, or both.

Massachusetts, for example, exempts some 400 items, including eggs, milk in gallons and half-gallons, and certain small items sold individually (checkout counter snacks, greeting cards) or in multi-unit packs. California exempts some checkout snacks, items in multi-unit packs, and unpackaged produce, plus the store's choice of 15% of its "packaged consumer commodities."

Whether prescribed or free choice, these exemptions usually end up including whatever sells best--the "top-moving stock codes," says Jan Charles Gray, general counsel of Los Angeles-based Ralphs Grocery Co. In the case of one Ralphs store, the list of exemptions--that 15% of items carried--included some 2,200 items.

Choosing the most popular items naturally saves the store the most labor. The effect on the consumer, says California Deputy Atty. Gen. Herschel Elkins, is that "you could have 60% or 70% of things coming through in your market basket not marked." No matter, counters Gray: "Those are the ones customers are most familiar with" and most likely to know the price.

The laws may be loosened further, until "the exceptions are so great they swallow the rule," says Minnesota Assistant Atty. Gen. Doug Blanke. California exempts anything "offered as a sale item or as a special," meaning anything sold at less than normal price for 14 days or less. Minnesota has the same rule, but for seven-day terms. California also forgives any violation "due to unintentional error," intent being proved by failure to mark the price on at least 12 units.

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