Op-ed about prices on scanned items
Supermarket Scanners: a Heavy Burden on Shoppers BY RAY BONNER and TRINA OSTRANDER As food prices soar, despairing shoppers are seeking to stretch their limited food dollars by becoming more price-conscious. price-conscious. price-conscious. And yet the supermarket industry, ostensibly in the name of fighting inflation, is proposing to do away with one of the most effective tools available to the consumer in the frustrating battle to keep grocery bills down: The industry industry wants to eliminate the price markings from individual individual items. Three years ago, California passed a law requiring supermarkets supermarkets to stamp the price on all items for sale. Because Because of intense opposition from industry lobbyists, however, the law was only temporary. Sen. David Roberti (D-Hollywood) (D-Hollywood) (D-Hollywood) and Assemblyman Herschel Rosenthal Ray Bonner, co-director co-director co-director oj tfc fastings Public Interest Law Center in San Francisco, is on (he board of directors oj Consumers Union, the publisher oj Consumer Reports magazine. magazine. 'Vina Ostrander is co-director co-director co-director oj the Hastings Public Interest Law Center. (D-Los (D-Los (D-Los Angeles) have introduced legislation that would make the law permanent that is, supermarkets would be reo.uired to retain clearly readable prices on each item they offer for sale. The Assembly Labor, Employment and Consumer Affairs Committee will vote on AB 725 this week. The legislation is necessary because of the industry's conversion to an automatic checkout system, called the Universal Product Code, or UPC. Developed by computer companies in the early 1970s, the system uses a laser scanner scanner at the checkout stand. The scanner reads the product code those squares of dark vertical lines and digits now appearing on virtually all packages, from peanut butter jars to magazines as the item is passed by the checker quickly over the scanner and into the shopping bag. A computer then tabulates the shopper's bill. Because the scanner is programmed to read the product code rather than the price marking, the supermarket industry industry proposes to discontinue the practice of stamping prices on individual items. Also "discontinued," of course, will be those employes who perform these tasks. Thus, while computers will have the information they need and supermarkets will have greater profits clerks will lose their jobs and consumers will lose an important inflation-fighting inflation-fighting inflation-fighting tool. Under this proposed system, product prices would appear appear in only two places: The supermarkets say they will provide shelf labels bearing the prices of their products, and the prices will also appear on the cash-register cash-register cash-register receipt. While the industry contends that shelf labeling and a cash-register cash-register cash-register receipt are adequate for the shopper, it ignores ignores the fact that in many instances shoppers need to know the prices of products after having left the area where the item was removed from the shelf, and long be-jore be-jore be-jore arriving at the checkout counter. For example, when you enter the produce section of the supermarket and find fresh broccoli on sale for 39 cents a pound, you choose between it and the frozen broccoli you selected 40 minutes earlier by comparing the price stamped on the package. When you've already bought tomato tomato sauce and come upon an end-of-the-aisle end-of-the-aisle end-of-the-aisle end-of-the-aisle end-of-the-aisle end-of-the-aisle end-of-the-aisle "special," you compare the price of the house brand with the more expensive can already in your cart. When you reach the end of a weekly shopping trip and decide that your three-year-old three-year-old three-year-old three-year-old three-year-old child has talked you into too many cookies and candy bars, you decide which ones to put back by looking at their respective prices. A comprehensive study conducted for the food industry by Michigan State University in 1975 confirmed that price-conscious price-conscious price-conscious shoppers rely heavily on individually marked items to guide their shopping. The study found that nearly one-third one-third one-third of the shoppers in those markets which stamped prices on individual items made their choices by comparing prices. On the other hand, at markets without stamped item pricing, only 21 of the customers engaged in comparative comparative shopping. Moreover, when asked the prices of any three items in their carts, these shoppers made errors more often, and were twice as far off in their estimate of the prices of what they had put in their grocery carts, as traditional-store traditional-store traditional-store shoppers. Finally, when shown a product and asked to check all of the available price markings on the shelves, on the package and on displays these shoppers shoppers were wrong about the actual price three times as often often as shoppers in conventional markets. A 1977 report by A. Alan Post, then the California legislative legislative analyst, sharply criticized the supermarket indus try's suggestion that shelf pricing would be adequate for consumers. The report noted that it would be an "unneces- "unneces- sary trial" for the elderly to have to bend down to peer at the small print on a low shelf in order to determine the price of an item. Also particularly disadvantaged by the shelf -labeling -labeling system, the report noted, would be shoppers not fluent in English, who would, for example, be confronted confronted with a shelf label which reads, "Dole Pine Chks 12 oz. 49 cents," instead ol having a price on a can of pineapple pineapple that they recognize. Moreover, a 1975 study conducted by the federal General Accounting Office found that 7 to 30 of the shelf labels surveyed were obscured or difficult to read clearly, and 10 to 20 of the shelf labels were missing altogether. Considering how essential ready access to price information information is to inflation-beleaguered inflation-beleaguered inflation-beleaguered consumers, it is somewhat somewhat disingenuous for the supermarket industry to invoke "inflation" as the justification for installing the Universal Product Code system. What the industry fails to note is that it is possible to install the system and still continue to price-stamp price-stamp price-stamp individual items. While the supermarket industry claims that introduction of the Universal Product Code system will benefit the consumer consumer by permitting supermarkets to reduce costs and thus reduce inflation, there is some evidence to suggest that the savings will be minimal. Using figures supplied by a lobbyist for the California Grocers Assn., state Sen. John Garamendi (D-Lodi) (D-Lodi) (D-Lodi) has calculated that the cost of continuing continuing to price-stamp price-stamp price-stamp individual food items would average one dollar per person annually. Moreover, William S. Mitchell, the former president of Safeway Stores, has admitted admitted candidly that "maybe there won't be an immediate reduction in grocery prices." That it more likely will be industry shareholders and not shoppers who benefit from the installation of the Universal Product Code system also has been confirmed by the legislative legislative analyst's office, in a report that also concluded that "the most noticeable benefit of the scanner technology may not be so much its potential to reduce consumer food prices significantly as its potential to raise the retail food industry's return on equity." In short, the proposed new pricing system means higher profits, not lower food prices. A 1975 survey by the New York state legislature revealed revealed that an overwhelming 88.8 of the public "would mind" if prices were removed from individual items. But James L. Stell, until recently the president of Lucky Stores which has installed the computerized checkout and others argue that if consumers are opposed to die elimination of prices, they should shop in those stores which retain individually marked items. Fine, in theory, but this overlooks some basic facts of life. Safeway's former president Mitchell has predicted that computerized checkout will be widely used by 1980 or 1981. Where is the price-conscious price-conscious price-conscious consumer to shop then? And what about the elderly and low-income low-income low-income persons who do not have cars, or those who are unable to or unwilling to pay the skyrocketing price of gasoline, or who are simply simply interested in conserving energy? Where are these people people to shop if the only market which retains individual prices if any do is several miles away? It is important that consumers band together to defeat the supermarket industry's attempt to eliminate individually individually marked prices on food items. The industry's effort to introduce the Universal Product Code system as a substitute substitute for stamped prices is a system that guarantees increased increased profits for the supermarkets, but undercuts the shopper's ability to buy wisely. By voting yes on AB 725 and SB 92, California legislators can help protect consumers, consumers, who in these times of soaring food prices, must retain retain every available means to stretch their shrinking budgets.