CBC MARKETPLACE: YOUR FINANCES » CHECK-OUT
Check that list twice: Scanner mistakes
can add up
Broadcast: March 29, 2000 | Producer: Sharon
Hanson; Researcher: Cindy Bahadur
nickel here, a dime there... those electronic scanners that make checking
out in a grocery store a speedy experience have been around since the
1970s. Burt checking out with scanners isn't fail-safe. Mistakes are common
and they can cost you in more ways than one.
Debbie Gilbert frequently
finds scanning errors on her grocery bills - anywhere from 30 cents to $9.
She does her shopping in Brampton and Mississauga, Ontario.
"Typically one in three shopping trips I'll find an error," she
Staite of Scarborough, Ont. tells a similar tale: "It could be $2 or
$3 one week, it could be $5, it could be 10 cents, but it seemed to
be on a regular basis."
"My question is,
if I'm a pretty good shopper and I check, how many other people don't?"
Electronic scanners have been around since the 1970s. They've made checking
out faster. And consumers get an itemized bill.
But it's the mistakes that shoppers remember.
Those mistakes can happen a couple of ways:
the scanner can read the bar code incorrectly because of damaged
packaging. But the most common error is when the price entered
into the computer is wrong.
isn't the computer that's the problem," says Louise Jung, a lawyer with
the consumer protection branch of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, "it's
the people who have to enter the prices and who have to change the
signs in the stores."
Jung's agency has conducted two studies looking at the accuracy of electronic
scanners in grocery stores, as well as drug, department and hardware stores.
"These mistakes happen because of human error," she says. "Sometimes
there isn't quite enough attention paid. Sometimes there's a little
bit of negligence involved. Pricing is a very, very meticulous thing.
When you have a store that has upwards of 40,000 or 50,000 items I
think it is inevitable that you are going to have some errors."
One FTC study found that with regular priced products, errors occurred
in 1 out of every 32 items. But there were more errors on sale items -
1 out of every 28.
items pose particular difficulty for stores because you've got a price
change," says Jung. "You've got signage involved, and you usually
have an ad involved. So to have an accurate price on an item you
have to have the sign match the ad, match the price the computer.
And if any one of those is wrong you're going to end up with a pricing
Gilbert recounts a recent experience buying oatmeal. The product "was
supposed to be on sale at $1.79. And it had an end-aisle display,
very, very common, where it was on sale for $1.79. I picked it up,
went to the front and it scanned at $1.99.
As for Leslie Staite, "the margarine, I think it was on sale for … $2.89
and that's what I thought I was going to pay and when I went through
the checkout it was like $3.18 or $3.28."
Marketplace talked to a number of consumers about scanning errors and
we heard lots of stories. But we wanted to get a better sense of just
how often it happens. So we decided to do a survey.
We asked people in 10 cities across the country to go shopping. We gave
them a list of items to buy and asked them to buy sale items as much as
possible. Here's what we found:
Our shoppers bought a total of 487 items. There were 16 errors.
That works out to an error in one out of every 30 items -- almost the
same as the FTC findings.
When we took a closer look at the errors, we found that with seven items,
our shoppers were charged too much. But with nine items, they were charged
That may surprise consumers, but not the FTC's Jung.
studies found that there were slightly more undercharges than overcharges," she
Jung adds that overcharges tend to happen mostly on sale items, while
undercharges usually happen on regular priced items.
And even though our shoppers had more undercharges
than overcharges, it still came out in the stores' favour.
doesn't serve our purposes, management, well to either undercharge or
overcharge," says Paul Wiseman, with Co-Op Atlantic. One of its stores
was involved in our survey.
At the Co-op Basics store in Charlottetown, P.E.I., our shopper found
four errors on her bill - one overcharge and three undercharges.
But if you think that undercharges are a nice little windfall for the
average shopper, think again, Wiseman says.
"If they're not
corrected over a period of time, eventually it will creep into your
price because there's a variance and every business is open to make
Wiseman defends the scanning accuracy at his stores.
believes undercharges are often the result of the store trying to be
competitive. When a price is lowered, it's done first in the computer,
so if the item scans lower than the shelf price, it looks like an error.
"But again it's intended to make sure that the
customer gets that competitive price always," Wiseman says.
Basics, and most other grocery stores, have policies for dealing with
scanning errors. Some will simply refund the difference while other stores
will give the consumer the item for free.
But shoppers say some stores make it inconvenient to get the refund.
waited as much as twenty minutes in one particular store," says Staite.
"Okay, it's 40 cents or 50 cents, but you know that's 20 minutes of my
time that I'm having to put out to rectify someone else's error.
"I get ticked off,
for lack of better words."
One thing that angers consumers even more than the mistakes themselves
is when those mistakes, once reported, go uncorrected.
That's something Debbie Gilbert's noticed.
I purchased some carrots and I went to the shelf and I noticed there
were two bags of one pound baby carrots. One was organic, one was not.
The organic brand was supposed to be $1.99 and so was the regular brand.
So I thought, well, I'll buy the organic ones for the same price. I
got to the front and they scanned at $2.29, 30 cents more."
Gilbert complained and the store gave her the carrots for free. But
it happened again the following week, and again the week after that.
According to the
FTC's Louise Jung, "That's an indication that the store
is not implementing good pricing procedures.
Jung says when a consumer reports an error, the cashier should make
note of it on a form and pass it on to the store manager. The error should
then be corrected in the computer and reported to headquarters. But that
isn't always what happens.
the kind of thing where the management has to stress to employees how
important it is to correct these problems because it does not
foster consumer goodwill," Jung says.
Some tips for shoppers
There are things you can do to reduce the possibility and impact
of errors when you check out through a bar-code scanner:
- Consider jotting down prices on the items as you put them in
your shopping cart.
- Pay attention to the display as the cashier rings up your purchases
- If you're buying items from a flyer, take the flyer with you
so you're sure of the prices
- As much as possible, know the prices of all the products you're
- If you notice a mistake at the checkout, point it out right away
- If you find the mistake later, go back to the store and bring
it to the attention of customer service.