Special Report: Retail Ripoff - Are You Getting What you Pay For?

For the reports that show all retail and fuel pump inspections in Central Wisconsin between 2009 and 2013, click the document links on the right side of the article text.

People work hard to earn a living for themselves and their family, so when you go to purchase something, you would hope you are actually getting the price advertised to you. Sometimes, that is not the case.

Grocery shopping, for example, is something we all have to budget for, but have you ever been concerned if you’re actually getting the amount of food you’re paying for?

“Not really,” said shopper, Arlita Steinhaus. “I do watch my prices and make sure that I do get charged the correct amount. If I don’t, I just go to the courtesy desk. Occasionally it would happen, but rarely.”

It is inspectors like Jacque Daniel from the Department of Weights and measures, who make sure you do not have to worry.

He said, “we’re responsible for anything that’s sold by weight, measure or count. We measure the devices that weigh measure or count. We investigate consumer complaints. We check method of sale. We do package weights. We do price verification inspections. We also scale retail computing scales inspections.”

At grocery stores, there are a number of inspections he performs, one being price scanning verification.

“They have to tell the consumer that if they’re using a scanner system in their store,” Daniel said, “to check out the items that are offered for sale. If that scanner system is in place, then if there is a difference between the shelf price and the register price, they will make up the difference to the consumer.”

Stores are required by law to post signage in plain view, such as on the signing shelf at the check out counter, letting shoppers know their right to the advertised price.

Daniel starts his price scanning inspection by dividing the store into sections, such as the deli, dairy, frozen section, and individual aisles, then randomly sampling items from each section.

“I would have to have two or three samples in each section of the store to split up that 50 items evenly around the store,” said Daniel.

He takes down the advertised price, scans the item, and takes his list to the check out counter.

“If the scan price is different from the shelf price,” he said, “then I’ll have to go in and record it and it will show up as an error. An overcharge will show up red and an undercharge will show up green.”

Daniel said, if it shows up red, retailers are required to correct the overcharge and will be re-inspected at a fee within 30 days.
Pick ‘n Save in Schofield passed its most recent inspection, but other stores did not fare so well.

After going through thousands of inspections, Franks Do It Best Hardware in Stevens Point had the most overcharges of the 2013 inspections with six different items totaling $13.22.

The assistant manager at the store said they previously did a sticker-based pricing format and only got a computer system last year. She said if there was a customer discrepancy, they would honor the shelf price. However, even small errors can add up.

“If they [the store] had a pricing error, it immediately affects the consumer. It immediately affects the people of Wisconsin,” said Daniel.

“Say you came in here and pistachios are listed for $8.99 and they ring up for $9.05, that’s a six cent error. Say they have 100 packages and they sell all 100 packages today, how much money did they make off of people today? $6.00. They just made $6.00 off of people today.

Advance Auto Parts in Marshfield had the most overcharges between the 2009 and 2013 inspection years with eleven overcharges, totaling $21.72.

Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft in Rib Mountain had the single highest pricing difference last year. A medium dress form advertised at $179.99 scanned in at $279.99. That is a $100 difference. All of these overcharges corrected after the inspection.

The good news for shoppers, however, is you are rarely getting ripped off. In fact, sometimes shoppers actually get a better deal than they bargained for.

Records show Quality Foods in Wausau gave away the most cash between 2009 and 2013. During their inspections, 52 items they brought to the check out were found to be undercharging customers by $220.94, and that is only if each of the 52 items was sold once. The majority of its undercharges happened in 2010.

Jeff’s Family Foods in Laona undercharged for 25 items in 2013 worth $70.22.

Yonkers in Marshfield gave the single biggest discount, $81.02 off a pea coat in 2013.

Weights and Measures does not require retailers to fix undercharges, but they request to be and would be re-inspected within 30-90 days at no cost.

Over the past five years, more than 23 thousand price accuracy inspections were done in our viewing area. The advertised price was different from the scanned price 3.6% of the time, or for 841 inspections. However, 98.8% of the time, the shoppers either paid the advertised price or were undercharged.

Along with price scanning, state inspectors also check the scales. Scales are required to be accurate within 2% to pass the inspection.

Daniel said he starts by making sure the scale he is inspecting has not been tampered with. He then moves onto doing an increasing load test where he places weights to see if the scale adds up correctly. He also checks to see if the scale takes weight evenly throughout its surface called a shift test by moving weights around the four corners of the scale. Finally, he does a decreasing load test. It is the same concept as the increasing load test, but of course in reverse making its way back to zero.

“Any person that’s using this scale shouldn’t have to, on a regular basis, re-zero this scale. It should do it itself. It’s designed to do it,” Daniel said.

In the last five years, 99.6% of the scale inspections found scales to be accurate or benefit the consumer.

State inspectors also measure foods or items sold by weight that has a pre-weighted price on it. Daniel said he would measure the empty package, or tear, on the item and add it to the declared weight.

He gives the example of prepackaged Buffalo wings. “It says it has a tear of .06 and then it’s declared at 0.83, so then you would expect to see a 0.89 register on the scale. Then I would make sure the scale is at zero, then place this (the package) on here. I expect to see at least a 0.89 and,” he said, waiting for the scale to register the package, “it’s 0.89.”

Exactly 8.6% of the package weight inspections from 2009 to 2013 came up inaccurate.

Daniel and other inspectors are also in charge of inspecting consumer complaints.

“I probably fill anywhere from 15 complaints, 15-20 complaints, a year on deer corn, deer apples, deer attractants. That’s huge,” Daniel said.

Grocery and retail stores are not the only things that weights and measures checks. They also make sure shoppers are getting their money’s worth at the pump. Gas pumps are one of the other biggest complaints filed, but mostly during the summer month.

“The biggest complaint (at the gas pump) is meter jump. That’s when you pull the nozzle off and before you even pump anything out, it jumps or it rolls off some price. That’s an issue,” said Daniel.

He suggested that people wait to place the fuel nozzle in their gas tank to let the pump cycle through and return to zero to help with this error.

That is not the only thing he checks for. He would start his inspection by checking for the advertised prices, making sure they are easily visible to the consumer as required by law. This is the most common violation found at gas stations. He’ll then go stall by stall opening up the pumps to make sure no gas is leaking out into the environment.

After the physical checks, he would do a five-gallon check. It is a test to ensure the five-gallons purchased at the pump, actually adds up to five-gallons.

“I’m going to open this full flow and go until it says five gallons on the display and then, we’ll measure on our calibrated device for the accuracy,” said Daniel.

The gas is measured in cubic inches, so a zero on his proofer scale means five gallons. Pumps are allowed to give out six cubic inches more or less than the zero mark for the pump to be within tolerance. Weather can affect testing. Gasoline under 60 degrees in temperature will start to contract and may show less than what is actually there. Above 60 degrees, it starts to expand. Gasoline inspections are not temperature compensated, however. Daniel said most gasoline inspections are done in the summer months, so workers can stay out of the cold as much as possible.

Over the past five years, less than three percent of pumps failed their tests. Only half of a percent of pumps gave consumers less than what they paid for.

The biggest rip off since 2009 was at Cyrans Du Bay Pitstop in Mosinee back in 2010. On its premium pumps, it had error rates of -127 and -106, meaning for every five-gallons people thought they were filling up with were actually only getting about four and a half gallons.

However, again, consumers do not have to much to worry about, as many stations actually over-deliver at their pumps than under-deliver. Records show, 99.6 percent of the time, people are getting what they paid for or more.

In 2011, Krist Food Mart in Park Falls was giving away a full extra gallon for every five that was pumped. In 2010, Schierl Tire in Plover gave customers up to an extra half-gallon for every five they pumped, and this was at multiple pumps. Remington Phillips 66 in Antigo has been consistently over delivering for the past three years.

Across Central Wisconsin, at the check out, the scales, or the pumps, chances are people are getting their money’s worth.

If you think you are getting ripped off, no matter what you are buying Daniel said to speak with the clerk first. People can also give the Weights and Measures Department a call. Inspection stickers can be found at each location that is inspected.

“We’re in consumer protection,” Daniel said. “Our biggest thing is that we want equity in the market place. We don’t want any business to have any unfair advantage over the next business, but we want the consumers to get what they paid for as well. That’s our main concern is that the people, the consumers, the citizens get what they pay for. We all work too hard for it.”

Daniel added that all complaints must be addressed, inspected, and reported back to the consumer within ten days of receiving a complaint.

The inspectors at the Department of Weights and Measures are working hard to make sure consumers do not have to worry about falling victim to a retail rip off.

“Never really thought about it,” shopper, Craig McEwen said.


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