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Byline: Troy Anderson Staff Writer

Outraged over widespread overcharging at retail stores, Los Angeles County supervisors moved forward Tuesday with a plan to display notices - possibly like the grades posted in restaurants windows - showing how often particular stores are convicted of overcharging.

Details of the plan will be worked out with the retail industry before the supervisors give final approval, expected in several weeks.

The proposal includes hiring 17 more weights-and-measures inspectors - instead of only one that now is in place for the entire county - to be funded by new fees on checkout scanners. A toll-free number would be posted at the cash register for customers to call if they believe they were cheated.

Also, the county will create a weights-and-measures Web site listing all the businesses fined and convicted of cheating customers.

``We are all at the mercy of this industry, and we have to rely on their integrity,'' said Supervisor Gloria Molina, holding up a report showing businesses were convicted of 100 offenses and fined $60,090 from August 2000 and last August.

``I was shocked and surprised at the number of convictions,'' Molina said. ``The county doesn't have that many inspectors, but they get an awful lot of convictions. In one instance, the same store had four convictions in a month. You have to wonder if the store treats it as a cost of doing business.''

Last week, county officials said a three-week undercover investigation found 60 percent of 108 retail stores overcharged for advertised sale-price items that were rung up on automatic checkout scanners.

A temporarily augmented crew of inspectors found an average overcharge of $2.35 at Kmart; $2.69 at Wal-Mart and $14.95 at Macy's, Molina said.

Looking at a variety of other stores, inspectors found they were overcharged on 11 percent of the items they purchased with an average overcharge of $3.89.

``These findings were particularly troubling since our investigators focused primarily on sale items, and since so many consumers - particularly low-income shoppers - rely on bargains found at discount chains in order to make ends meet,'' Molina said.

During follow-up inspections a week later at 17 stores where overcharges occurred, the inspectors were overcharged on 26 percent of their purchases.

The overcharges boosted the cost of purchases by 3 percent, and were more than three times as frequent as undercharges.

``We found that at least, at a 3-1 ratio, all of the mischarges were in favor of the store,'' said Cato Fiksdal, agricultural commissioner and director of weights and measures.

During the past two decades, county inspectors have checked retail pricing accuracy at an average of 650 stores a year out of the 10,000 in the county with scanners, finding overcharges on 4 to 7 percent of items purchased.

Stores that overcharge by more than $1 face misdemeanor fines of up to $1,000, and stores that overcharge $1 or less face infractions carrying fines of up to $100.

Gilbert Canizales, government director for the California Grocers Association, asked the supervisors to postpone their vote on the matter for two weeks to give the grocery industry time to review the plan.

``We'd like to come to the table and discuss some of the proposals,'' Canizales said. ``As an industry, we recognize the need to accurately charge our customers for the prices charged on the shelves. It's a very competitive industry and it behooves the industry that customers know we have integrity and the prices are accurate.''

Canizales said reports by a food marketing institute show the overcharges and undercharges are about even.

``Our supermarkets have the highest price accuracy among all retailers,'' he said.

Kmart spokesman Greg Parry said if the company finds out one of its advertising publishers misprinted a sale in an advertisement, the store puts a retraction notice near the item.

``I've never, ever in my life seen a notice that says at the place where you buy a hair dryer that 'we didn't mean it, it was a misprint,' '' Molina said.

``I've seen it in grocery stores, but not in retail stores,'' Supervisor Don Knabe said.

Parry said the industry has people whose sole job is to make sure items are priced accurately at checkout stands.''

Molina said she became concerned about overcharges after she went to a Kmart last summer, was overcharged and had to wait in a customer service line ``forever for the manager to come over.'

``I asked him to take the sign down and he refused so I took the sign down myself,'' Molina said.

Molina said posting some kind of notice on store windows showing convictions for overcharging will put pressure on the industry to crack down on such problems.

``We haven't decided whether the sign should be neon pink or the size of the door itself or whether it should be a grading system for the integrity of the pricing,'' Molina said.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jan 30, 2002

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