Survey finds problems with supermarkets’ scanners
David Kiah of Newton is like many grocery shoppers who have had the experience of finding an item at the supermarket advertised at one price, only to be charged a higher price at the register. And the 75-year-old described the experience succinctly:
“It irks you,” he said during a recent shopping trip at Wegmans in Chestnut Hill.
Electronic scanners installed in supermarket aisles are supposed to prevent irksome cash register surprises by allowing consumers to scan UPC codes to check the price of a can of tuna or jar of peanut butter. But a review of nearly three dozen supermarkets in Greater Boston by the online journal ConsumerWorld.org found nearly half the scanners did not work or otherwise comply with state rules aimed at guaranteeing pricing accuracy. The rules went into effect 18 months ago.
Some scanners malfunctioned, others were hidden in obscure places, making it difficult for consumers to find them, according to the reportreleased Wednesday. Most of the grocery stores ignored a key requirement that they post signs clearly and conspicuously alerting customers that they that can get an item for free (up to $10) if it is not accurately priced at checkout.
“Price is a critical thing for most consumers, a critical consideration,” said Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld, a Boston-based consumer advocacy website, and former director of consumer education for the state. “Most of us are not Warren Buffett and can ignore the price of goods.”
A new law that went into effect in January 2013 allowed supermarkets to stop placing price stickers on individual items if they paid up to a $1,000 fee and installed scanners for customers to check prices. At least one scanner in every store must be able to print out prices.
Additionally, the new law requires stores to post signs identifying where scanners are located and where to seek assistance if a scanner is broken. Finally, they must post price guarantee signs at cash registers alerting customers of their right to a free item they are charged an incorrect, higher price at checkout.
Dworsky, a veteran consumer advocate who helped write state product pricing laws in the 1980s, said he wanted to see whether food stores, which had lobbied for the changes, were complying with the rules.
Dworsky reviewed about 140 scanners at stores that opted to forgo price stickers in favor of scanners. His survey checked locations of most of the major chains in Greater Boston, including scanners at Stop & Shop, Shaw’s, Market Basket, Whole Foods, Roche Bros., Hannaford, Trader Joe’s, and Wegmans.
About a quarter of scanners checked in the survey did not work mechanically. Wegmans at Chestnut Hill had nine scanners, but only four met all state requirements. The scanner in front of the customer service counter gave no price when Dworsky put an item under it. (The store, however, prominently displayed price guarantee signs at registers.)
Jo Natale, a spokeswoman for Wegmans, said the supermarket chain takes pricing rules very seriously. She said state inspectors had approved all the signage in the store, prior to its opening in April. “We are perplexed by this finding,” she said.
As for malfunctioning scanners, she said there were software problems and some scanners were in need of replacement. They were replaced the day after a reporter’s phone call.
The three scanners at Trader Joe’s on Memorial Drive in Cambridge failed to meet all state requirements, the study found. None of the staffed cash registers had price guarantee signs. At the chain’s Burlington location, only one of two scanners in the store worked properly. Officials from Trader Joe’s did not respond to a request for comment.
Nonprinting scanners at Market Basket locations in Chelsea and Somerville, by contrast, passed the test with flying colors. At Hannaford in Saugus, “every single scanner was 100 percent,” Dworsky said.
Christopher P. Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association, a trade group for the supermarket industry, said he could not comment on the specifics of the report because it had not been made public yet. But, he said, many supermarket companies supported the law as a way to reduce fraud through price sticker switching.
“Our stores put a lot of effort into it,” he said of the switch from price tags to scanners. “The last thing they want to do is aggravate customers.”
Charles Carroll, director of the state Division of Standards, which is responsible for enforcing the pricing rules, said the agency has fined grocery stores that opted for scanners about $14,100 for various violations since the law went into effect.
Massachusetts is the only state in the nation that had a legal requirement to install scanners, said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.
“The bottom line is scanners need to be working. They need to be maintained,” Hurst said. “A good retailer is going to do that because they want to keep customers happy.”