Wendy Knowler masthead
January 9 2013 at 09:06

When some retailers introduce customer-friendly practices, it tends to create the impression among consumers that the courtesies are their legal right.

The return of “change of heart” purchases creates the most confusion in this regard.

The Consumer Protection Act only compels retailers to take back defective goods within six months, and give the consumer their remedy of choice – refund, replacement or repair. But many stores will take back non-defective goods, leading consumers to believe that stores are legally obliged to do so.

Many major stores worldwide have introduced a policy to compensate consumers if an item they’ve chosen scans at a higher price at the till than on the shelf display, and again, there’s the perception that such compensation is legally compulsory.

In Canada, for example, almost every major store has signed something called the “Scanner Price Accuracy Voluntary Code”, introduced 10 years ago, in terms of which, if a store scans a product at the wrong price – and if the item costs more than C$10 – the customer gets C$10 off the price. And if the item costs less than C$10, they get it for free.

The key word is “voluntary”, but because so many stores have chosen to implement this policy, many Canadian consumers believe it’s the law.

In South Africa, the Scan Right policy which Pick n Pay introduced many years ago, is more generous. If any item scans at a different price to that displayed on the shelf label, and the barcode corresponds, then that item is free. And the balance of the purchase of the same product will be at a lower price. Of course, this happens only if the customer is sharp enough to notice the discrepancy, but Pick n Pay does display its policy in the front of its stores.

In August 2011, Woolworths followed suit and implemented a similar policy, in the wake of several complaints that its “two for the price of one” food specials were not being honoured at the tills.

The company later extended the policy to cover all items sold. If it scans incorrectly, the consumer gets the item free, and other identical items in their basket at the lower price.

Just before New Year, I received a complaint from Kareemah Sulayman of Cape Town about her Scan Right experience which went wrong in Pick n Pay’s Goodwood store.

While shopping on December 29, she noticed that the prices of three of her chosen items had scanned incorrectly: a packet of chips advertised at R6.49 scanned as R7.99, a four-litre pack of juice reflected as R29.99 instead of R25.99 and a pan scanned as R139 instead of R99.

“When I queried the difference in price, the cashier called the supervisor, who corrected the prices, and while doing so explained to me that they only apply the Scan Right policy when a client insists, otherwise they just give the correct price.

“When I told her that I thought they should apply it now, she said that she can only give it on the juice and the chips as the pan does not fall under the same policy.” When Sulayman protested that this did not make sense, the store manager was called.

When he confirmed that the pan was excluded from the policy in accordance with a directive from head office, and offered only to cancel the frying pan purchase, she abandoned all her purchases and left the store. “I am very disappointed. Why have a policy if it doesn’t apply equally to all items? Wendy, can you please investigate and let me know if this is false advertising?”

It occurred to me that Pick n Pay might have revised its Scan Right policy to limit its liability, as with the Canadian version. Apparently not. Having e-mailed the company about the case, a customer care agent contacted Sulayman to tell her that there were no exclusions to the company’s Scan Right policy – it applies equally to all items sold.

“The manager was incorrect in saying that the frying pan was excluded,” she said.

As a goodwill gesture, she loaded Sulayman’s Pick n Pay Smart Shopper (loyalty) card with the full value of the chips and the juice. But for some reason, she chose to do something different when it came to that more expensive pan. She loaded not the full value of the pan but R40, being the difference between the right and the wrong price.

Responding, Pick n Pay’s Western Cape general manager, Jarett van Vuuren, said Sulayman has since been told that the pan was available to her free of charge “as per the policy at the store”.

“The store manager has been in contact with her to apologise to her, and Pick n Pay would like to apologise for the inconvenience,” he said.

In fairness, I regularly get reports from consumers who have been delighted by Pick n Pay’s policy, among them Elma Carolissen. “At the Fish Hoek branch, the manager gave me a toothbrush free when I told the teller that the scanner charged me R25.99, when the shelf price was R21.99.” At another supermarket, she had to make a fuss to be refunded the price difference when overcharged.

Bottom line – you are not entitled by law to insist on being given an item free if the till scanner reflects a higher price than that displayed on the shelf. But if a store claims this as its policy, stand your ground if it applies to your purchase.

The policy is an excellent one. According to the Retail Council of Canada, it visibly demonstrates retailer commitment to scanner price accuracy to consumers and provides retailers with a consistent mechanism for giving consumers redress when they are overcharged because of inaccurate scanning.

Hats off to those South African retailers which have chosen to adopt the policy as best practice.

I daresay, if more consumers paid more attention to price discrepancies at tills, and publicly demanded redress, the policy would be adopted more widely, and scanning accuracy would improve.

E-mail: Consumer@knowler.co.za

On Twitter: @wendyknowler


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