By Michael Norton and Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JUNE 25, 2012……With just two senators present, the Senate on Monday morning approved a bill that food stores in Massachusetts have been pressing unsuccessfully for a decade.
Under the bill, which has already cleared the House, grocery stores in Massachusetts would no longer be required to put price tags on each item and could instead deploy price scanners for consumers to use.
If the bill becomes law – lawmakers told the News Service they hoped to get it to Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk today – Massachusetts would become the last state in the nation to eliminate individual price tag requirement for grocery and food stores. The supermarket industry has fought for years to stop tagging each item; consumer groups say the move is bad for shoppers trying to compare prices.
“We’re extremely disappointed. This is a time we ought to be providing more and better price disclosure, not less. And in the end, I think the consumers are harmed,” said Deirdre Cummings, a lobbyist for MASSPIRG who said she hoped Patrick would veto the law.
Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, was one of a handful of people on hand to see the bill approved, with only Sens. Stanley Rosenberg and Michael Knapik in the chamber.
“It’s a long time coming,” Hurst said after the vote. “It’s never gotten this far. It’s something we’ve been working on for more than a decade.”
Hurst said a law approved in Michigan last year made Massachusetts the only state left with an item pricing requirement. He said studies show the law can add up to 10 percent to food prices.
“This is one of those laws that put us at a competitive disadvantage,” said Hurst.
Chris Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association, said the bill would provide more accurate pricing to the consumer as well by doing away with the “archaic” and “problematic” practice of pricing each item with a pricing gun.
Flynn cited a state survey from last December, which showed price scanners had a nearly perfect record of 99.46 percent accuracy, but Cummings said there is not sufficient oversight of retailers who use the self-scanners. Cummings cited a 2009 study by the non-profit Consumer World, which showed only 30 percent of 144 scanners surveyed were completely functional and in full compliance with regulations.
“Given the track record, we need to ensure that if we’re going to allow supermarkets to use that inferior substitute, we need to have some mechanism to ensure they’re working properly,” said Cummings, who also supports more scanners per square foot and enforcement of the regulation that requires scanners to be able to print their own price tags. She said the changes would make it more difficult for consumers to compare the price of something already in the basket with a similar item on the shelf because it would no longer be printed on the item itself.
Cummings said sticker pricing is more popular than self-scanners among consumers and objected to the lack of debate or roll call vote on the legislation.
“Neither in the House or the Senate is there one recorded vote on this,” Cummings said. “There’s no way the consumer or the voter can hold anybody accountable.”
Flynn said the change was a “compromise” that will be a victory for consumers and supermarket owners. The bill, which would take effect next January, does not do away with all sticker pricing; it allows stores to apply for a waiver, replacing sticker pricing with self-scanners, Flynn said. That waiver includes a required affidavit that the store will not lay off any employees because of the labor savings, Flynn said.
“Labor budget stays the same. You’re just able to have these workers do activities that are more productive to the consumer,” Flynn said. It will also create a more regimented system for accurate pricing rather than relying on the accuracy of scores of employees with their own pricing guns.
“The problem with these stickers, too, is they fall off,” said Flynn. He said that under the bill, if a shopper is over-charged for an item that shopper can either take the item for free or a $10 credit on the actual price, depending on which is less expensive to the store. The bill would also subject stores to fines reaching as much as $5,000 for breaching the waiver agreement.
Hurst said the state’s original item pricing requirements were included in a 1971 regulation put in place by the attorney general. In the 1980s, he said, the item pricing law was codified by the Legislature and Gov. Michael Dukakis, with some exemptions allowed in the food industry. Hurst said former Attorney General Thomas Reilly in 1998 lifted item pricing requirements for non-food items.
Under the bill, in order to stop individually pricing items, stores would be required to go through an application process that includes an accuracy check of their scanners. Stores must also disclose the correct prices of items in a “clear and conspicuous manner.” Grocery and other food stores must also still display the price of each item on the shelves, and the legislation (H 4089) details requirements for shelf pricing.
The bill also sailed through the House in May without debate or a recorded vote.
According to Hurst, the state’s 1998 scanner accuracy law means that even with stores deploying electronic self-scanners, Massachusetts will have “the strongest consumer protection pricing law in the country.”
Under the bill, price scanners must be located in the store every 5,000 square feet – which equates to approximately every few aisles in larger supermarkets, according to proponents of the change.