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The Boston Globe

Business

Consumer Alert

Know the prices and costs before you buy

It might have taken more than 60 years, but the price of cannoli at Mike’s Pastry is a mystery no more.

Mike’s, an institution in Boston’s North End, has been attracting tourists and locals alike for decades. But the cash-only bakery had held fast to a policy of not posting any prices. But now, a few pieces of plain paper visible over the counter list various cannoli prices — not all cannoli are created equal — and the prices of other items.

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Angelo Papa, Mike’s general manager, says posting the prices has benefited customers and the shop. Now, he says, “My customers, when they’re waiting in line, have their money ready.”

Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to know how much something costs before you buy it. And, thankfully, the number of places engaging in this sort of surprise-the-consumer game appears to be dwindling.

Readers are irked about types of establishments that still keep you guessing — most notably restaurants. Why is it that they can get away with a drink menu devoid of prices? Or list “market price” for fish or shellfish, and leave you wondering whether you’re going to be dropping $20 or $50 for your meal?

You could just ask. But that puts the burden on the consumer. Some people like to quietly contemplate what they want to spend.

“Market prices are listed as such due to the continual fluctuation in prices of certain species and the cost involved in printing menus,” Massachusetts Restaurant Association president Peter Christie noted. “Drink prices are often not listed due to the huge variables involving brands, costs, and preferences.”

Barbara Anthony, who heads the state’s Consumer Affairs Office, said there is no specific law that addresses restaurant pricing. She acknowledges that can lead to frustration for consumers, but suggested using your buying power to express your displeasure.

“There are some restaurants where there are no prices on the menu,” she said. “I don’t go to those restaurants.”

Anthony said that informing customers of costs before they buy is the right way to do business. “The idea,” she said, “that you buy something and you don’t know the price is a totally alien concept to me as a consumer and as someone in consumer protection.”

Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers out of jams for the past two decades. He lives in Worcester and also writes the Consumer Alert blog on Boston.com. Mitch can be reached at ConsumerNews@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchlipka.
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