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Why You Shouldn’t Trust Grocery Store Prices


Credit card statements and cellphone bills aren’t the only documents you need to review line by line for inflated charges these days. More errors are popping up on your grocery receipt, too.

Recent Department of Consumer Affairs inspections of New York City supermarkets found that just 33% are properly pricing items, leading the city to “deputize” consumers last week to act as secret shoppers on its behalf and report problems like nonworking scales or items without price tags. In February, Ralphs Grocery Co. pled no contest to allegations that it overcharged shoppers in Los Angeles stores for pre-weighed products by including ice and the packaging in the price. (The chain was fined $16,900 in 2008 and 2009 for similar problems.) Michigan also revised its so-called scanner law this spring. Effective Sept. 1, stores must display prices at the items’ shelf locations.

How much of an impact do pricing problems have on your bill? A big one, if older figures are any indication. When the Federal Trade Commission last studied grocery pricing errors in 1998, it estimated that the average item over-charge was 66 cents. Other estimates from that time put total losses between $1 billion to $2.5 billion each year. And that was before the advent of self-checkout lanes, virtual coupons linked to your store loyalty card and register restrictions to limit extreme couponers, which lead to errors planned and inadvertent, says Teri Gault, founder of The Grocery Game. “We need to be alert at the register,” she says. “A lot can go wrong — it’s like Murphy’s Law.”

At the register, consumers should pay attention to the price of each item scanned, and any discounts taken off for coupons or club card promotions, Gault says. “It’s a lot easier to catch errors when you watch [the checkout tally] on the screen,” she says. Items may be accidentally scanned twice, or a coupon doesn’t actually go through. Also check that the weight of produce seems accurate — checkers often accidentally lean on the scale. Keep your weekly sales flier on hand to confirm sale prices. “There’s over 10,000 items in a supermarket, and they change sales every week,” Gault says. “Sometimes the sales just aren’t in their system like they should be.”

Errors are easily remedied right there at the register, or even days after the fact with your receipt, Gault says. Finding one can be more lucrative than recouping a few cents lost, too. State laws often award victimized shoppers extra cash. Michigan, for example, requires stores to refund you the difference, plus a bonus worth 10 times that amount; at least $1 and no more than $5.


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    • I ALWAYS check my receipt before I leave the store. I am constantly surprised as to the mistakes made, and it has saved me much in the past. I do pull away from the register so that I don’t hold up the line. Coorections are easily handled at the service counter.

About Pay Dirt

  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.