As originally appeared in The Telegram June 17, 2013
Although customer service or lack thereof has been a primary focus of mine, there is plenty more to talk about in terms of consumer awareness. Whether you've checked the flyers and made a list or you’re just stopping for in for a couple of items, one place where you can see some interesting trends and increase your consumer savvy is at your local grocery store.
Anyone who has ever been subjected to the madness of a grocery store on the Thursday night before a long weekend can probably imagine being somewhat baffled in deciding whether to buy the tin milk marked 4 for 5 dollars with a starburst SALE sticker, versus the one with a regular price of $1.25 a pop. The sale sign designed to make you think you are getting a deal when you are actually paying the same as always.
Add to this the odd trend I have been hearing about lately, where an in-store sign advertises (hopefully in error!) the same or an even higher price than normal. Sometimes it seems a wonder that anyone can be sure they are getting a break at all.
In the last month, pictures have been brought to my attention showing Vachon cakes that were regularly $2.50 advertised for $2.99. Vienna sausages on sale for 6 cents more per can than their regular price. And let’s not forget the fantastic “flyer savings!” on a $4.99 bottle of lotion – marked down to the low, low price of $5.99. Hopefully, these were just oversights that make for some good consumer humour, but there is definitely something serious going on when it comes to what Consumerist calls the dreaded “grocery shrink ray”
We all know the story: meat prices going up. Produce prices going up. Most any price you can think of, going up. But as prices rise, something odd is happening to some packaged foods. They are mysteriously shrinking. This is due to a practice whereby items are reduced in size but sold for the same old price. I have encountered this on a number of occasions here in St. John’s. Take, for example, the 1.75 litre of orange juice that used to be 1.89 litres but still costs $3.99. I also used to pay $11.99 for a 6.6-pound bag of dog food. The first time I noticed this change, I had just paid a sale price of $9.99 for what I thought was the same amount of food, but when I got home found 0.6 pounds of kibble missing. Not as good a sale as I thought, and guess what? Now the 6-pound bag is back at its “regular” price of $11.99.
Another way that you might be tempted by a sale-that’s-not-really-a-sale is the 10-for-10 dollars tactic. In this manner, you could be enticed to purchase 10 of an item, even though you would normally buy only 2 or 3 of the same item. This might not be such a big deal with non-perishable items that you can stock up on, but maybe not so great for those who can’t pass up a deal and end up wondering what to do with the additional 9 packages of frozen green peas. Good news, though: when the sign says 10-for-10, the same price is usually applied no matter how many units you buy. Would you have bought 10 if a 1-for-1 dollar sale were advertised?
Luckily, there are some consumer safeguards in place. First of all, should you find yourself bamboozled by the neon yellow signs, take a moment to look at the less conspicuous shelf label. You will generally find a unit price for the product in small print. Checking this price will tell you how much the product costs per unit, for example, per 100 millilitres or per litre for larger items. By looking at this information, you can make a more informed decision about the value you are getting for your money.
Finally, once you have navigated your way to the checkout with your purchases, you may find yourself availing of the consumer empowerment offered in the voluntary Scanning Price Accuracy Code. This code allows a customer to make a claim for reimbursement when the scanned price of a non-price ticketed item scans for a higher price than posted. In eligible cases, the lower price will be honoured and the retailer will give the product to the customer for free where the product cost less than $10. In the case of a higher-priced item, the customer will be given a $10 discount on the correct price. There are caveats, of course -- I have posted a link at my blog to the full text of the code at the Retail Council of Canada’s website. All of the national chain supermarkets in this province are signatories to this practice, so keep an eye out for scanner errors and don’t forget to mention the scanning code of practice to your cashier if something rings up wrong.
Do you think that voluntary practices such as the listing of unit prices and consumer protection such as the Scanning Price Accuracy Code should become mandatory? What tips do you have for becoming a more informed customer? Join me in the conversation about incorrect labeling, pricing errors and of course, customer service @ishopandtell on twitter, or send me an email with your thoughts.