By Kellie Hwang, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Grocery stores and other retailers across the Bay Area have recently been caught overcharging customers, according to county inspectors — a problem that experts say happens far more than most people realize.
In early August, SFGate reported that several Safeway stores in Marin County were charging customers too much for items such as produce, cheese and laundry detergent. And that was after Safeway paid out a $2.25 million settlement in 2014 when inspections revealed pricing inaccuracies at stores throughout the state, and last year, Target similarly reached a $5 million settlement with several California counties.
More than one-third of stores in Sonoma County failed price accuracy inspections over the past year, the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat reported in May. In Santa Clara County, inspectors last year found discrepancies at Walmart, Target, Walgreens and other stores, ABC7 reported.
I spoke to several officials and consumer advocates and asked: Why do customers keep getting overcharged, and what can they do to avoid it?
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Overcharging at stores: Why does it happen?
Inaccuracies at the cash register mainly come down to human or computer error, officials and consumer advocates say.
Jamie Court, president of advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, said that grocery store pricing is mostly “based on commodity pricing and supply and demand.” The inaccuracies crop up when updates to prices through electronic bar coding, or weights and measures on scales, don’t match the advertised prices.
Such cases often occur when stores have cut back on staffing or don’t have the latest systems to check prices, he said.
In Sonoma County, for example, weights and measures officials said high staff turnover during the pandemic combined with rising inflation left retailers struggling to keep up with accurate price changes, according to the Press Democrat. As a result, inaccurate receipts at local grocery stores from May 2022 to April 2023 rose 10% from the prior year.
Scott Wise, the assistant commissioner for the Marin County Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures, said his agency regularly performs accuracy inspections on a variety of items, including gas pumps, electricity meters, barcode scanners and scales.
He explained that companies change the prices of items in their centralized databases, and then push that information out to their stories. Each store is responsible for taking down the old shelf tags that list the prices, printing new ones and replacing them.
“When a store fails the pricing accuracy inspection, we conduct reinspections until the store passes,” he wrote in an email. “We are able to levy fines of up to $1,000 for continued pricing issues.”
The San Francisco Department of Public Health, Weights and Measures Program also has a verification program that ensures customers are charged the lowest advertised price. Any overcharges found during an inspection are corrected on-site, and the store is subject to more frequent inspections. If the violation isn’t fixed or is repeated, it could lead to penalties.
“Most pricing errors are due to system-wide price changes that are digitally updated faster than store clerks can change them on the shelves,” the department told me in an email. “We advise stores to remove price tags or ads prior to the roll-out of new prices to avoid these pricing errors.”
While Wise focuses only on Marin County, he said it “would not be surprising” if the problems found there were happening in stores throughout the Bay Area.
“In the time between the rollout of the new prices in the point-of-sale … and the replacement of shelf price tags, customers may experience price discrepancies,” he said.
Sometimes customers may get undercharged, Wise added. For example, among the total price inaccuracies found by Marin County inspectors in fiscal 2019, 2.3% were overcharges and 2.2% were undercharges, according to a department report.
What should consumers do to ensure they are not being overcharged?
Know your rights
First of all, customers should know the law when they go shopping, Wise said. The correct price is the “lowest posted, quoted or displayed price,” he said.
A shelf tag, item sticker or sale sign would all be considered the “correct price,” Wise said — but when there are multiple different prices, you are entitled to the lowest one.
For example, if the shelf tag lists a can of soup for $1, a sign lists it on sale for 75 cents, and the register rings it up to $1.25, you are legally entitled to pay the lowest of those prices: 75 cents.
While the store might try to argue that the sale sign expired a week ago, Wise said that under California law, “there is no such thing as an expired sale sign.”
“The sign is on the sales floor, the store must honor it,” he said. “It is not the customer’s fault that the sign was not taken down by the store in a timely manner.”
Keep in mind: If a discounted price is part of a membership program, the customer must be a member to get the lower club price.
Be alert at the cash register
You are your own first line of defense, so it’s a good idea to pay attention during checkout to ensure you’re getting the store’s lowest price listed.
Los Angeles County consumer affairs officials recommend watching the cash register display to be sure you are charged the correct price, and pointing out any overcharges immediately to the cashier.
Check your receipt
Another important practice: After checkout, review your receipt for any errors, and try to do it before you leave the store.
“You have to watch your receipt, and check it against the price advertised on the shelf,” Court said.
He acknowledged that such vigilance is “not easy to do in a busy life, except when there is a glaring inaccuracy.” In his view, county weights and measures departments should “do a better job of deterrent fining” to prevent the problem from happening in the first place.
“If the stores were financially liable for more money for these inaccuracies, they would invest more to fix them,” Court said. “But fines are a slap on the wrist to major grocery stores. It’s easier to pay and not invest in the infrastructure to fix the problem.”
While overcharging appears to be a nationwide problem, Court said some states have better enforcement or the ability to file class-action lawsuits. But in California, the only thing people can do is scrutinize their purchases.
Alert a store employee or manager
If you were overcharged for something you purchased and are still at the store, alert an employee and try to resolve the issue in person. According to a consumer guide from the California Department of Food and Agriculture Division of Measurement Standards, many stores have a policy to refund part of the price or give you the item for free, but the law does not require them to do so.
Report the problem or file a complain
If the issue isn’t fixed or you want to file a complaint, contact your local office of weights and measures. Information for the Bay Area offices is below.
“We often take it for granted that computer systems will get things right, but we lose a lot of money that way because systems can be wrong,” said Court. “Many are programmed by human beings, so there is a lot of human error.”
Bay Area weights and measures departments
Reach Kellie Hwang: [email protected]; Twitter: @KellieHwang