October 23, 1996 in Nation/World

Grocery Scanners Right On Money But Checkout Counters At Other Stores Less Accurate

Tracey Reeves Knight-Ridder

Worried about those electronic scanning machines that ring up your groceries?

Don’t be.

A new report by the Federal Trade Commission shows that consumers are charged the correct price 95 percent of the time at supermarkets, department and other stores using electronic scanners at checkout.

And when errors are made with scanners, the study found, they more often are in favor of customers, not the stores.

“Today’s study should reassure consumers that they’re not being cheated systematically,” Jodie Bernstein, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said Tuesday.

Over the past year and a half, the FTC checked the scanning price of more than 17,000 items at about 300 stores. Investigators found 446 undercharges and 388 overcharges.

The commission said supermarkets had the lowest overall error rate, just more than three for every 100 transactions, while department stores had the highest error rate at nine out of 100. Home stores, drugstores and discount stores fell in between.

When supermarkets were wrong in scanning, they overcharged consumers an average of 53 cents and undercharged them an average of 76 cents, the study said. When scanners in department stores erred, they overcharged consumers an average of $7.62 and undercharged an average of $5.29. The error rates for home improvement, discount and drugstores were in between.

In cases of overcharging, FTC officials said, the errors appeared to be a result of negligence, not wholesale cheating. Store employees, for example, could fail to enter sale or price changes into computerized scanning systems.

The study, officials said, shows a turnaround from several years ago when other investigators found that scanners were overcharging consumers far more than they are today.

Scanners were introduced 20 years ago, and most large supermarkets and retail stores now use them, according to the National Federation of Retailers.

One reason errors occur less in big food stores is because they’ve used scanners longer, said Bonnie Jansen, an FTC spokeswoman.

“Clearly, as the report acknowledges, checkout scanners result in fewer errors than manual entry of prices at the checkout,” said Tim Hammonds, president of the Food Marketing Institute, which represents food wholesalers and retailers.

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