Paying The Price

By: Call For Action's Betty Sexton
By: Call For Action's Betty Sexton

As a shopper, nothing's more annoying than getting home, checking your receipt, and discovering you've been overcharged. No one minds paying less, but paying too much is unacceptable. We wanted to see how accurate price scanners are so KKTV’s Betty Sexton went shopping. More in this Call For Action report, “Paying The Price.”

We wanted to find the worst offenders. You know, stores that post one price then charge you more at the register. So the state Department of Agriculture, which oversees store pricing accuracy, gave us a list of Colorado Springs businesses which had been fined for overcharging.

Our unscientific test found most companies had taken care of their pricing errors, except for one. Thanks to PalmVid, we used a hidden camera to visit various stores on the state's list---places like Target, Wal-Mart, King Soopers, Safeway, 7-Eleven, and Longs Drugs. We bought various items from different departments---checking the posted price versus the one at the register.

We weren't overcharged once, until we got to Longs Drugs. There we bought nine different items and two were priced incorrectly. One was in our favor—two 2-packs of Dove Soap were posted on sale for $5.00. But at the register, we were only charged $4. However, we lost money when it came to a box of Ritz Bitz Cheese Sandwiches. It wasn't the $3.59 posted price. The scanner charged us $3.79.

"There are a few firms that continue to struggle and we do have problems with," says Lane Simmons, an inspector with the Colorado Department of Agriculture. He visits stores unannounced, comparing shelf prices to those scanned at the register and fining those with too many violations.

Dillard’s department store let us accompany Simmons when he checked merchandise at the Citadel Mall location. He says businesses are only allowed a 2% error rate. In big stores like Dillard’s , he'll check 100 items from various departments---only allowing two overcharges. The third constitutes a fine. In small stores, 50 items are scanned with only one allowable overcharge. The second comes with a fine. Undercharges are noted. but not considered a violation. In this case, Dillard’s had no mistakes getting a 100% perfect score.

Simmons and Dillard’s general manager Jack lemon agree: If a posted or tagged price is lower than the one scanned, the store should honor the posted price. "To be fair to the customers, you have to have the right prices on your merchandise," says Lemon. "Typically, if the item is stocked that way---if every item on the shelf is tagged that way--- it's quite obvious that someone in the company intended to tag in that manner. Yes, the store is held to whatever that price says," says Simmons. Electronic price scanners have been in use for more than 30 years. But Simmons says they're simply a function of what humans put into them.

In the case of Longs Drugs, random inspections found numerous violations over a 15-month period. That cost the company $1,050 in fines. A Longs representative told us, the chain is now in the process of upgrading its' technology. It is putting in new systems. And as hard as employees try to prevent mistakes, some do happen. Customers should look at their receipts carefully and report any errors to managers, who will immediately correct them. Longs Drugs officials also tells us, they have put their most senior district manager in charge of stores in Colorado to address issues, like overcharges.

Simmons believes stores don't purposely overcharge, but he says it's up to the consumer to be aware. Because of budget cuts, he says state inspectors have been forced to change their focus. They now spend substantially less time on routine price checks. "We've had to concentrate on those firms that have had previous violations," he says.

In Los Angeles County, California, inspectors checked 600 stores and found one-third were overcharging customers. So they started posting warning signs on store doors. In Michigan, if you're overcharged, state law allows you to collect penalty compensation for the mistake anywhere from $1 to $5. Last year, Colorado inspectors conducted 850 scanner inspections throughout the state and found only 1.3% of the items were overcharged. That is considered acceptable by national standards.

No matter where you shop, pay attention to price tags and shelf labels. We learned some stores will pay you for overcharges. And in some cases, you can get the item for free.

Store Policies for Overcharges

  • Albertson's:
    Customer can get the item for free, unless it's produce, milk or cigarettes. In those cases, customer is refunded the difference.

  • King Soopers:
    Customer gets the first overcharged item for free. If there are other overcharged items, customer is only refunded the difference.

  • Longs Drugs:
    Customer will get the item for free

  • Safeway:
    Customer will get the item for free, unless it is "Buy One Get One." In that case, the customer is refunded the difference.

  • 7-Eleven:
    Customer is refunded the difference.

  • Target:
    If customer catches the overcharge on the date of purchase, the difference is returned. If it's after the date of purchase, no refund is given.

  • Wal-Mart:
    If the item is under $3, the customer will get it for free. If the item costs more, $3 will be deducted from the price of the item.


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