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It soon may be harder for Massachusetts shoppers to find out the price of groceries if a bill just entering the final stage of passage in the House becomes law.
The bill, House 4089, approved on Monday by the House Committee on Ways and Means, would allow supermarkets and other sellers of groceries to remove price stickers from most items if they install self-service price scanners in some store aisles so shoppers can check prices themselves. The bill, pushed by the retail and supermarket industries, also exempts small stores like drugstores and convenience stores, and large ones like warehouse clubs, from having to provide either price stickers or aisle scanners.
“It is absolutely outrageous to allow the CVS’s and BJ’s of the world to stop pricing their goods and not have to offer a good price disclosure alternative for shoppers,” commented Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org, a former assistant attorney general and author of the current food store item pricing law. “Warehouse clubs like BJ’s have racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars of pricing violations over the years, and they are the last ones who deserve special treatment at the expense of shoppers.”
While the bill does require a small price label on displays or shelves, Dworsky foresees difficulties with those signs because stores often fail to update them with current prices, misalign them, or fail to post them for sale items.
“Everywhere we turn, we are bombarded with ever more sophisticated pricing strategies and gimmicks by companies trying to sell us things. These days shoppers need more and clearer price information, not less about the products we buy,” said Deirdre Cummings, MASSPIRG legislative director. “This is a pro-big-business, anti-consumer bill.”
Specific provisions or omissions in the bill provide multiple disadvantages for shoppers:
- In food stores, aisle price scanners would have to be located one every 5,000 square feet -- a 50% cut in the number of scanners compared to prior bills -- thus inconveniencing shoppers who will have to lug their groceries two or three aisles over just to find a machine and verify a price.
- Aisle scanners would only momentarily display the price. Only one aisle scanner in each store will be capable of printing price stickers thus forcing customers to search high and low for that one scanner. (This contrasts with an Attorney General’s regulation that requires all scanners to print prices in non-grocery stores.)
- Warehouse clubs are completely exempt from the law. This has multiple ramifications: inspectors who currently check for incorrect or missing prices on goods and on signs will no longer have jurisdiction in these stores; aisle scanners will not have to be installed in the grocery department, aisle scanners in other parts of the store would continue to have no inspections, scanner overcharges will no longer trigger the item being given free to the customer, and technically, the store wouldn’t even have to provide a sales receipt.
- Without prices on items, it will be almost impossible to catch overcharges at the checkout or on one’s receipt because there will no price on each item to compare it to.
- Existing aisle scanners at stores like Target, Wal-mart, Home Depot, and Walgreens which have not been inspected (and fined) for nine years, will continue to go virtually unchecked.
- Stores like CVS with its extensive grocery section and small convenience stores will not be required to have prices on those items nor have scanners in their grocery departments.
- The bill fails to include over two dozen consumer protections proposed by advocates that would include increasing fines, the breadth of inspections, and more.
The food store item pricing law has been in effect for 25 years in Massachusetts and generally provides that most items in supermarkets and grocery items in other stores need to be price marked. Legislative attempts to water down the law have become an annual event, but this bill is viewed as the most serious threat to date by consumer groups.
“Although the price sticker is old fashioned, no technology has yet been developed that provides the same benefits of helping shoppers find prices easily, compare prices in the store, tally one’s shopping cart while shopping, catch overcharges at the checkout or at home, and check the last price paid for items in one’s cupboard,” said Corey Pilz, Vice Chair of the Massachusetts Consumers’ Coalition.
The proposed substitute for item pricing -- in-aisle scanners -- has proven to be anything but reliable. A 2009 test of nearly 150 such scanners at a dozen retail stores by Consumer World found that 70% of them failed to function properly or meet state requirements.
The public has also historically rejected aisle scanners as a substitute for item pricing. In a 2008 study, 95% of shoppers said they wished that stores like Target, CVS and Home Depot went back to putting prices on items.
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