Monday, October 12, 2009

The Hidden Price of Progress

One of the things I look back on with nostalgia is having my purchases rung up by a cashier on an old-fashioned cash register. You know, the ones that weighed 1700 pounds and had a marble writing surface, fancy brass decorations, and little numbered signs that popped up in the window when the keys were pushed, and which made a loud and satisfying ka-ching! when the sale was verified by pulling a lever or pushing the "Sale" button. One like this, perhaps...

That was back when you got a bit of a show for your money, as opposed to just a bunch of beeps and squeaks as bored cashiers draw your purchase across a laser window, and rows of lighted, inflated numbers march across a cold, blue screen. There's no adventure and entertainment value in checking out any more.

Or is there?

My beloved Agnes is a wonderful lady, but is suspicious by nature. Her going-in assumption when dealing with stores and salespeople of all sorts is that they are going to try to cheat her somehow, and she must be ever-vigilant to prevent this. One example is our typical trip to the Costco warehouse store, where we typically buy a large cartload of items. Each individual item may be low-priced, but in the aggregate, the cart will usually total out to something approaching the GNP of a typical third-world country. Agnes is usually convinced that an error has been made by the cashier, and will carefully review the receipt line-by-line, trying to translate the truncated description of each item (what's a LG BX HND GRNDS?) before muttering to herself that it's usually correct.

Except when it isn't.

Yesterday, we visited a local store. I had run out of my favorite vanilla syrup, and Agnes picked up a small bag of chocolate and a bag of chips. The cashier dragged each item across the laser window, the system beeped accusingly, and a total sale of $14.27 magically appeared in glowing yellow numbers on the screen. While I paid the bill, Agnes disappeared back into the store, reappearing a few minutes later to tell me that the chocolate - which had rung up at $4.49 - was posted on the shelf at $3.99. She wanted to confront the cashier and demand the extra 50 cents back, but I was tired of shopping and in a hurry to move on, and so we did.

Agnes believes (and I tend to agree) that stores nowadays probably make a modest killing on the difference between the price marked on the store shelves and the price carried in the computer that the laser scanner matches with the product. After all, you almost never see a price tag actually stuck on an item any more, particularly in a big see the price on the shelf tag, but the item itself usually only has a bar code...

If you have a cart full of things that the cashier is whipping across the scanner at the speed of light, and if you don't remember the shelf-indicated price of each item, you may be overcharged without realizing it.

Agnes has accumulated a store of anecdotal evidence to support her contention that stores are gouging us on this difference. She notes 5-6 recent incidents at various stores in which she has caught items scanning at prices in excess of their labeled cost...usually by a small amount (25-50 cents) which she interprets as the threshold below which the stores probably figure a customer won't think it's worth the time and trouble to come back and complain.

Being one who will generally give the benefit of the doubt, I tend to interpret this phenomenon a little less Machiavellianly (new word alert, Scholastic Scribe!) than Agnes does. I imagine that it's fairly easy to have things slip through the cracks between programming the sales computer and coordinating those prices with the labels on the shelves. Nevertheless, the economy being what it is, I wouldn't put it past some unscrupulous merchants to use this as an underhanded scheme to rip off unwary customers.

Things used to be a lot easier, for the customer, anyhow. When the cashier had to punch several keys to raise flags in a cash register window ($2.49 = $2.00 + $0.40 + $0.09), then push a separate button or crank a lever to "ring up" each sale (we still say that, even though cash registers no longer give that loud and satisfying ka-ching! as the sale is registered), we had time to see what we were being charged, and to compare the price stuck or written on the item with the amount shown on the register.

So, what do you think? Are these innocent errors, or are stores using technology and psychology to rip us off for small amounts they think we'll ignore?

Inquiring minds want to know.

And this inquiring mind wants to go and enjoy the last day of the three-day weekend (for Federal employees and contractors, anyhow) before heading back to the old grindstone. There are leaves to be raked, summer items to be stored, fall and winter items to be brought from storage, and many more honey-do's to be tackled.

Or, if I'm lucky, avoided.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



bandit said...

I don't remember if this was a local or national story. At some checkout lanes when you scan your own card, it asks if you want cash back. Some systems in some stores were automatically deducting cash back amounts without the customer choosing that option. Some of the clerks were handing the cash back amount to the customer with the customer saying "What?" Sometimes the clerks were not offering the money back.

As far as what you were stating in your post, I can tell you that it is a very simple procedure to change prices in the system.

Bilbo said...

Bandit - I'm sure it's quite simple to change prices in the system. My point is that changes in the system must be coordinated with changes to the prices marked on shelves or individual items...and this is what isn't always being done. Someday, I'll post my Story from Hell about how a simple change in a system can go terribly wrong...

KKTSews said...

I doubt if it's INTENTIONAL (because, like any colassal fraud, that would eventually come out). I suspect it happens, though, and stores really should do a lot to combat it. Because, if it were publicly known that the stores were intentionally (or even just through routine neglect)overcharging, no one would trust the electronic scanners anymore. Those scanners are in place for several reasons: they speed check out, thereby reducing the number of cashiers needed; they improve accuracy over a human inputing prices in that old fashioned way; and they are necessary for the self-checkout which drastically reduce personnel requirements as well as packing more check out stations into less space.

One of our local grocery chains offers you the item FREE if you find they have one of those programming errors. Pretty good incentive to get those chocolate chips for free, eh?

Thanks for reminding me of the old cash registers. My first job involved one only slightly more modern than the one pictured. I didn't have to crank it, but did have to press the $2, 40 and 9 and then a huge "enter" button to "ring up" $2.49.

Jay said...

I'm sure it happens sometimes, but normally prices are set by the barcode and scanned into the system when items are received and put on the shelves. Then the same barcode is used at the cashier. Normally items that are on sale were put on sale by the wholesaler. But, not always. ;-)

I watch the cashier like a hawk for when they accidentally charge me twice for the same item by waving the thing back and forth over the scanner. Gotta keep an eye on them! haha

Bandit said...

I have had this discussion before. My general thought is that it is unintentional. A stock boy/girl is sent out to lower the price of an item and a manager has the responsibility to go into the system and change the price. This is when human error or miscommunication comes into play. Theoretically, the price should be changed in the system 1st, then on the shelf. But in the case with Agnes, myself, and thousands of others, we know that this is not the case.

The folks that I have discussed this with that think it is intentional give this theory. Many shoppers like myself only go in for particular items then get out as quickly as possible. In this case, you are not looking at the prices that closely, just the item you want. In this case if the price is not showing the markdown at the register, you will probably not notice.

Phfrankie Bondo said...

...I have run across numerous instances where this has happened. Intentional or no, the wise shopper reads his/her reseipt before he/she leaves the store...

Ken said...

Two days ago I was shopping at Lowes for replacement garage door weather stripping and a few other items which I put on my Lowes LAR account. I hadn't really looked at the register this time when signing my name on the weird screen with the weird pencil and as I was walking to my truck I glanced to see if my $70 to $80 guess was close. Three Hundred Forty Seven!!!!! She had charged me for fifty two 7' weather strips instead of 2. I usually check my statements each month but never the details, just the fact that yes it was ME who bought these items.
I will forever check at the register from now on.

Mike said...

I bought a $500 item. Swiped my card and the cashier said that it didn't take and to swipe my card again. Well it DID take the first time. Luckily I caught it on the statement.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

That cash register looks so solid and reliable....not like a bar code.

Leslie David said...

At Harris Teeter I get to view the items as they're scanned, so if I know something is off, I'd tell them and make them check it out. I've also noticed that in some stores you can scan the item and find the price before putting it in your basket.

I learned to cashier on a manual register, although not one as old as the one in your picture. I had to enter the item, subtotal, look up the tax on the chart, enter it in and total, and then I had to count back change by hand.

Anonymous said...

Be extremely careful when purchasing a gift card with a debit oard. A Wal-Mart clerk handed me a gift card intended for my daughter-in-law supposedly with $150.00 on it. When she received it via the US mail, it was worth $2.00. She mailed it back to me, where I anticipated a real hassle.

To Wal-Mart's credit, (pun intended), they had the electronic ability to trace and print out the entire transaction, identify the cashier, give me a new card, and cahsier the cashier. It seems he had palmed the real card, giving me one that had been severely used.

The only delay was that only one manager knew how to recover all the vital information, and getting him and me together took another day.

I recommend that once you buy a gift card anywhere, go immediately to the card-check machine, and check it out, wherever you buy it. If they don't have a check station, buy the card for $1.00 more than you intend to give, and buy a $1.00 item immediately.

You'll have a written receipt that shows the remaining amount on the card, independent of the one you got at the register. Save them both until you are certain the transaction went as planned.

Eminence Grise