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CONSUMER BEAT

Price tags play hide and seek

Starting tommorrow, shoppers can scan items themselves

Shoppers looking for price tags this holiday season may not find them on the products themselves.

 

New state regulations taking effect tomorrow allow stores to stop stamping prices on most individual products as long as the stores install bar code scanners that not only let consumers check a price but print out a price sticker if they want one.

Retailers say the new regulations will satisfy those consumers who want prices on their products while allowing stores to avoid the time-consuming and expensive task of stamping prices on most of their inventory.

Many retailers, including Home Depot, Staples, and CVS, said last week they were testing scanners and plan to start installing them over the coming weeks and months. Wal-Mart has already installed the machines in some of its stores, although many weren't working properly on a walk-through at the Quincy store last week.

The retailers all say the new regulations, which require one scanner every 5,000 square feet, will either save them money in labor costs or allow them to redeploy staff to other more important tasks. One manufacturer is charging $1,200 for its scanner/

printers. "It's far less expensive than having an army of people in the stores doing nothing but pricing," said John Simley, a spokesman for Home Depot, who said price stickers are not important to most consumers.

A Staples spokeswoman said the savings from using scanners will exceed the cost of the machines by the second year of operation. A CVS spokesman said installing scanners would be cost-effective, even though the convenience store chain is still subject to a separate state law covering food stores that requires price stickers on most individual food items.

State Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, who never enforced the old item-pricing regulations, settled on this new approach after Dorchester resident Colman Herman began taking retailers to court for their noncompliance, and winning. Home Depot paid $3.8 million late last year to settle a class-action suit where Herman was the lead plaintiff.

A Reilly spokeswoman declined to say how aggressively the new regulations would be enforced. She noted retailers are required to conduct self-audits to verify compliance, although the regulations indicate the self-audits are only encouraged as a defense against class-action suits.

Consumer advocates who have battled Reilly as he sought to scale back the state's item-pricing regulations say the new rules are a setback for consumers. Whether they know it or not, the advocates say, consumers will now find it much more difficult to compare prices and guard against overcharges at checkout.

"We are going to be transformed into unpaid stock clerks, forced to lug products around the store to those stickering gizmos," said Edgar Dworsky, editor of Consumerworld.org. "Time-pressed consumers won't buy it because of the inconvenience, and they will be less informed about prices and less protected against overcharges. What kind of consumer protection is that? Consumer laws are supposed to protect the masses, not just the motivated."

Even the motivated may have some problems. I went to Quincy Thursday morning to check out the scanner/printers installed at the Wal-Mart store there. I tried 18 scanners. Three didn't work at all and seven displayed a price but didn't print out a sticker. Only eight worked properly.

Even though the new regulations hadn't taken effect yet, the Wal-Mart store wasn't marking prices on many of its products. In some cases, there weren't even prices on the shelves. A Chutes and Ladders game didn't have a price on the box or on the shelf and the closest scanner/printer didn't work.

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said she was not aware of any problems with the systems, and the scanner manufacturer, Symbol Technologies of Holtsville, N.Y., had no one available to comment.

Herman, the Dorchester resident who sued retailers to force compliance with the old pricing regulations, said he intends to be just as vigilant in making sure they comply with the new rules.

"The game isn't over. It's just a new game," Herman said. "My battle is no longer about item pricing. It's about making corporate bullies comply with Massachusetts consumer laws."

Over-the-limit returns

Susan Smith of Westborough said Target recently refused to let her return a gift that had been given to her daughter because she had already returned too many items without a receipt in the past. Smith said she could recall only about a dozen items without receipts over the years and was astounded to learn she had exceeded an unstated limit and would never be able to do it again.

"I was really quite shocked by this policy," she said. "I did not see a display explaining this policy in the store, nor on their Website."

A Target spokeswoman did not return repeated phone calls, so I called customer service. The representative said the company accepts returns only with receipts, although returns may be allowed without a receipt if the customer presents a driver's license. The customer service representative said there is a limit on these returns that is "system-generated," meaning it's random.

More rebate annoyances

Two of my rebate submissions recently came back to me, one asking for additional information I had failed to provide and the other demanding a UPC symbol for a product I never bought. Keyspan Energy Delivery was the reasonable one. Its letter said I had failed to include the model number of the thermostat I had purchased. I called in to make sure what the company wanted, got it straightened out quickly, and mailed the needed information.

By contrast, RebatesHQ.com, which handles rebates for Strawberries, a subsidiary of Transworld Entertainment, sent me an e-mail saying the form I filed for a $5 rebate on an Obie Trice CD was invalid because I failed to include the UPC symbol for the "Daddy Day Care" DVD.

There was no contact information for RebatesHQ. I'll mail in my copies of everything again, but I'm not optimistic.

Bruce Mohl can be reached at mohl@globe.com.

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