SALT LAKE CITY — Most people don't give store scanners much thought. Shoppers usually assume they're being charged the right price, even for sale items. But sometimes the price listed on the shelf is not the price the scanners charge at check-out.
Brett Gurney is in charge of Utah's Weights and Measures division, which checks stores' scanners regularly.
"All of our weights and measures inspections are unannounced," he said. "No one knows we're coming."
One of the group's many responsibilities is to ensure shoppers pay the right price for groceries at checkout. He took us through the aisles of Dan's Market in Salt Lake, with the permission of the store, to show us how that is accomplished through random inspections.
"We want to get a good selection of all the products along the aisle," he explained.
Gurney picked up a 12-ounce bag of Enjoy Life Very Berry Crunch granola. The shelf price was $5.99. Then, he checked to make sure that price matched Dan's pricing system. It was a match.
Last year, 11 percent of Utah stores failed a state inspection.
Next he moved about 10 products down the aisle and randomly picked up a 2-liter bottle of diet Sunkist orange pop. It sold for $1.69 and again was a match. The same thing happened another 10 products down the aisle with a 12-pack of diet Vernor's ginger Aae. It was a match, too.
During a typical inspection, about 50 products are pulled off shelves from various aisles at random. Each item is scanned to make sure the pricing is right. While all the items scanned during this trip to Dan's were correct, sometimes inspectors find a mis-match.
"We may end up having a shopping cart with us, or a basket to collect the items that may not be scanning correctly," Gurney said. "We'll take them up to the cash register, verify with the sales receipt."
Last year, the Weights and Measures group inspected the pricing systems of 394 Utah stores. Forty-five failed. That's 11 percent of the total.
About price verification
- All business that use UPC scanning systems are subject to inspection.
- Testing is done by randomly selecting items, recording the display price, then verifying the posted price matches the scanned price.
- A passing score is 98% or above, meaning that only one of each 50 items selected is allowed to scan incorrectly.
A store must be at least 98 percent accurate to pass.
"It's a tight tolerance," Gurney said. "We expect the stores to charge the prices that are being advertised."
Of last year's failed inspections, 26 percent of the stores were charging higher-than-advertised prices. Twenty percent were undercharging. Either way could bring serious penalties. By law, stores are required to charge you the advertised price.
"We issue a notice of violation, warning notices," Gurney explained. "We can give them fines up to $500. Citations could go up to $5,000 per occurrence."
Gary McCloud is a marketing specialist for Associated Foods, the outfit that owns Dan's. He said the store changes thousands of prices every week, both in Dan's pricing system and its ads.
"It can be human error. Occasionally it can be a computer error because the computers are managing this all the time," he said. "Sometimes it can be as simple as an item being placed on the shelf so it might appear to be wrong, but it's just in the wrong spot."
Regardless of how it happens, McCloud said stores take getting the price right at checkout very seriously, not just because of the threat of fines. It's also good for business.
"Our guests want to have a positive experience when they shop with us. It's not going to create a positive experience for them if they get to a register and things don't scan what they're supposed to. We want them to return," he said.
Some stores have a policy that if a shopper catches a price mis-match the store will give them the item for free, but that's rare. Usually a store will simply give the shopper the difference in money.
Weights and Measures employees inspect not only grocery stores but all stores with a scanner, from convenience stores, to electronics stores, to the big box retailers.