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Nickel-and-Diming Us

September 08, 2003

Retailers across Los Angeles County have been fighting the county's stepped-up enforcement against overcharging. The most dreaded punishment is a recent requirement that a store convicted of the practice must post a sign telling customers about it -- for 60 days.

Overcharging, insists the California Grocers' Assn., is just an occasional and small human-error problem. That explanation is hard to swallow when it comes to the Albertsons grocery chain. It agreed last week to pay $1.85 million to 15 California counties to settle accusations of continuous overcharges on scanned items.

When markets introduced scanners three decades ago, doing away with price tags on items, retailers assured the public that this sort of stuff wouldn't happen. Clerks would call out the price, they promised, and screens would display it. Overcharged items would be free to the customer.

It didn't take long for clerks to stop calling prices, and the items flash by on screens so rapidly that it takes fierce concentration and lightning reflexes to catch mistakes. The free-item policies quickly disappeared at most stores. Finally, errors became so common that L.A. County inspectors found last year that they were charged more than the posted price on at least one item at more than half the stores they visited.

Retailers should worry more about their accuracy and less about having to post signs telling consumers they were caught overcharging.

Most stores don't cheat customers intentionally. But neither do they work hard enough at making sure that shelf and scanner prices match. Vons successfully fought having to post a we-were-guilty sign after numerous cases in which a sale price was still attached to the shelf after the sale was over. Tiny wording on the sale tag, stating an expiration date, gave the chain its out in court. AB 1721 by Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) would close that loophole and deserves passage.

Any consumer protection law requires vigilant consumers. Look for newer scanning systems that keep a running list of items and prices on a screen in front of the customer. Review the receipt -- errors are most common on sale items -- and ask about anything you don't understand, even if it means holding up the line. Make a fuss about overcharges. Loudly.

To Take Action: In Los Angeles County, consumers can complain to the Department of Weights and Measures at (800) 665-2900 or e-mail In any part of the state, residents can complain to their local district attorney's office.

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