NEW JERSEY and Oregon won’t let motorists fill up their own gas tanks. They’re the only two states with that prohibition, and regular TV viewers can guess why. The folks depicted on “Jersey Shore” don’t seem to have the intellectual oomph to be able to manage the task, while the Oregonians in “Portlandia” are just too flaky.
Massachusetts, thank goodness, thinks better of its drivers, but when it comes to us as shoppers we are, apparently, idiots. Walk into most grocery stores and you’ll find that each item is labeled with the price. For good reason — the law is both expensive and useless — no other state in the union requires this. But here in the Bay State, even as the original rationale for the rule has disappeared, self-styled consumer advocates have fought to keep the item pricing requirement. Legislation repealing it is now before the governor. Like blue laws, Sunday closings, and excessive licensure requirements for trades like hairdressing, this one deserves to go.
Item pricing has been around for decades and originally made much sense. Back then, cashiers had to rely on memory and lengthy lists. Labeling items helped ensure all consumers were charged the same amount. But then scanners came along, with the now familiar bar codes that recorded prices far more accurately than cashiers ever could. At that point, item pricing should have disappeared. Instead, Massachusetts in 1986 actually made it a requirement, pushing it as a way for consumers to be sure that scanners (a new and scary piece of technology, apparently) were working.
But the law is in tatters. For the most part, item pricing now applies only to grocery stores. Other retailers are exempt as long as they have scanners that let consumers check prices while shopping. And even in supermarkets, it’s a crazy-quilt mess. Some items, such as milk, eggs, frozen foods, and greeting cards(!), are exempt. Other provisions of the law allow more exemptions depending on the number of cash registers in a store (and no, this doesn’t make sense to me either). At the same time, the state’s retailer association cites studies showing that, when required, item pricing boosts prices by as much as 10 percent.
So why is an outmoded, inconsistent regulation that increases consumers’ costs still around? Almost every rule government writes creates a constituency. That’s why it’s proven so hard to let supermarkets sell beer and wine: Package stores benefit from their quasi-monopoly and don’t want the competition. So too with item pricing. Those who spend their days applying labels to canned goods would be out of a job and thus have a strong interest in the status quo. And there is, to boot, a very strong whiff of paternalism. In the world view of consumer advocates, retailers are rapacious villains, while Bay State consumers are witless patsies.
Even if that stereotype was true in the past, the tables have turned: Consumers rule, and retailers are back on their heels. Where once competition was genteel and discounting rare, shoppers now have a wealth of choices and stores compete fiercely on price. Retailers also face competition from other sources, including Internet-based outlets such as Amazon and home delivery services such as Peapod.
Consumers, too, are in a stronger position. Far from ignorant, shoppers now have vast amounts of information at their fingertips. Prices can be compared online or instantly in stores by scanning bar codes from a smartphone. Customers post their experiences on websites such as bizrate.com or planetfeedback.com. A retailer who dares to try to cheat someone — even one who inadvertently offends — will find its name quickly trashed. A popular store one day might well find itself empty the next.
Perhaps recognizing the inevitable, some advocates of item pricing — such as MassPIRG and activist Edgar Dworsky (who claims credit for Massachusetts’s original rule) — belatedly offer up alternatives: heavier regulation, stepped-up inspections, more barcode scanners around stores. Some sound reasonable, but they are expensive, and the crowds who flock to warehouse stores such as BJs (which hardly ever labels items or has aisle scanners) suggest that consumers regard these measures as unnecessary. The world has changed and with it the need for the state’s heavy hand.
Tom Keane writes weekly for the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.