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Public Postings Sting Stores

Overcharge conviction postings are part of an L.A. County program to ensure accurate pricing.

August 15, 2003|Daren Briscoe | Times Staff Writer

A new kind of advertisement is drawing the eyes of shoppers and the ire of shopkeepers by publicizing Los Angeles County businesses that have overcharged customers.

With county inspectors being overcharged at about 25% of the stores they visit, 8 1/2-by-11-inch signs known as overcharge conviction notices have begun cropping up in the front windows of offending stores from San Dimas to Marina del Rey. By county decree, they must hang there for 60 days.

The notices are the newest component of an ongoing effort by the county to ensure pricing accuracy at retail stores, said Jeff Humphreys, deputy director of the Agricultural Commissioner/Weights and Measures Department.

The department is counting on the deterrent value of the notices to encourage accurate pricing without unleashing an army of undercover inspectors across the county's 4,081 square miles.

"The intent is to make an impression on stores and make them not want to have the signs in their windows," Humphreys said.

Some business owners and their representatives say the public notices are an unduly harsh penalty for what are usually minor overcharges, and that consumers are misled by the long delays between violations and the appearance of the signs reporting the transgressions.

"It's just another bureaucratic program," said Gilbert Canizales, director of local government relations for the California Grocers' Assn., whose members include the Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons supermarket chains. "The procedure they're using is not only not fair but not indicative of how accurate prices are."

Although the ordinance requiring the notices applies to any business with a cash register, Humphreys said enforcement efforts have focused on the 8,300 businesses in the county that use electronic price scanners because the devices make it more difficult for consumers to keep track of prices.

"Checkers used to call out prices, but now everything just flies over the scanner," Humphreys said. "There's no way" for the consumer to quickly spot a mistake.

Modeled after the county's popular system of publicly grading restaurants, the overcharge notice program was introduced in 2001 by Supervisor Gloria Molina after she said she had been overcharged at a Macy's and a Kmart.

In a study Molina subsequently ordered, county inspectors were overcharged at 67 of 108 stores they visited, according to Humphreys, and on more than 10% of the items purchased.

The county, which had one full-time inspector at the time, imposed annual scanner registration fees of $160 to $300, depending on the size of a business, with the revenue supporting the hiring of 11 more inspectors.

Those inspectors have had little problem documenting overcharges, racking up more than 900 violations in less than a year, with the 25% rate less than half of the rate during the initial inspection period, but still much higher than anticipated.

In fact, the program may in some ways become a victim of its own success. Although the Board of Supervisors has ordered that every store be inspected at least once a year, Humphreys said the glut of new cases would make achieving that goal difficult.

About 150 of the violations involved overcharges of less than $1, but the rest were referred to district or city attorneys for prosecution as misdemeanors.

Since April, 34 businesses found guilty of overcharges of any amount have been required to hang the conviction notices prominently.

With the posting of the notices, Humphreys said, the process has gotten "more contentious," as some business owners who grudgingly accepted the scanner fees grow more vocal in their criticism of the program.

"I think this thing is a farce," said Ken Meany, president of Am-Pat Corp., a western-wear retailer that does business as Boot Barn at 23 stores in California and Nevada.

Meany said his Sam Dimas store was cited in June 2002 after a clerk failed to manually override the scanner price of a shirt that was on sale, resulting in an overcharge of $5.01.

Ten months later, "out of the clear blue sky," Meany said, he was notified that he had one week to respond to the charges. After meeting with a district attorney, Meany pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor violation of the Business and Professions Code.

His company was placed on probation for three years and forced to pay $480 in investigative costs, but Meany said it was the public notice he was forced to hang out that has tarnished his company's image.

Although he spent $1 million to advertise his business last year, Meany said, Boot Barn has gotten more negative publicity out of the sign noting the conviction, which has been covered in local news media.

"What they got us on was a clerical error," Meany said. "It makes me, as a businessperson, have no respect for the county. It's us against them and their petty bureaucracy."

Another retailer, the Vons grocery store chain, has successfully challenged 12 overcharge violation cases in Los Angeles County courts.

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