“Treat me nice, and I treat you nicer; treat me bad, and I treat you worse.”
Grocery shopping isn’t for the faint of heart. Nor is it for the ignorant, the ill-prepared, the careless, or the blindly trusting—at least, not if you want to stretch your food dollar and get what you think you’re paying for.
Some years ago, a shop steward at Local 672 of the AWPPW won the door prize (a $20 gift certificate redeemable at Von’s market) at the monthly membership meeting, and, in an unexpected display of generosity, donated it back to the local, figuring the cash-strapped union needed it way more than he did. He wasn’t wrong.
The following week, three of us Executive Board members (who were at the union hall working on an arbitration hearing) decided, during our lunch break, to take the certificate to the neighborhood Von’s and use it to buy cleaning supplies, paper towels, toilet paper, refreshments, etc., for the hall.
Walking the nearly deserted store aisles on that early winter afternoon, casually picking up this item and that, we found the experience not altogether unpleasant. Committed to not exceeding the redeemable value of the certificate, we carefully did the arithmetic before heading to the checkout stand. But when we got there and the items were rung up, we were stunned to see a total of slightly over $22.00.
Perplexed, we asked the checker if there had been an error, if it were possible he’d rung up the wrong prices. He told us that the prices displayed (the ones we’d used in our calculations) were available only to customers with a Von’s Club membership card. If you weren’t a Von’s Club member, you paid a different price. And by “different,” he meant “higher.”
We weren’t notified of this in advance. We weren’t told there were two price scales in effect—one for the informed Chosen Few, the “illuminati,” and the other for naïve, unsuspecting shoppers like us—until the total had been rung up and the items bagged. The checker didn’t utter a word about it until we challenged him. Had we said nothing—or had we not been doing the arithmetic in our heads—it’s likely we would have simply paid the total and walked out of the store oblivious to what had happened.
When we told him we needed to remove as many items as required to bring the total under $20.00, he effortlessly shifted into his professional customer-service mode. Flashing a big, Thank-you-for-shopping-at-Von’s smile, he assured us that it was no problem, that we could fill out a Von’s Club membership form right there on the spot—retroactively, as it were—and get all those items at the lower “membership” price.
This is where it became a bit ugly. We refused. We told him that we viewed this membership arrangement as a scam, as a way to “harvest” ignorant shoppers who didn’t know any better, and that because he had already tried to cheat us, we had no more interest in joining his corrupt little “club” than a man on the street would have in becoming friends with the person who had just tried to mug him.
We abruptly began removing items from the plastic bags. We took out some stuff, put back some stuff (Do we keep the Windex? The potato chips?), took out some more stuff, put back some more stuff, etc. Adding, subtracting and substituting various items was more complicated than we anticipated. Even though the checker was clearly annoyed—staring daggers at us—he dutifully tried to keep a running tab.
We finally got as close to $20.00 as we could. With the total standing at $19.60, I asked how much one of those tiny Twix candy bars adjacent to the register cost, and he said it was 30 cents. I grabbed it and threw it in the pile, bringing the total to $19.90. That was it; we left the store. Once outside, the three of us—three beefy union goons—carefully split up that miniature Twix bar and inhaled it in two seconds.
While we’ve all heard the admonition, “Buyer Beware,” it’s curious how few consumers truly heed it. Retail outlets—grocery stores in particular — regularly cheat us without our being especially aware or concerned.
Because most shoppers are now “Club members,” the old dual-scale pricing scam doesn’t work as often as it once did; but grocery stores still have a bag of tricks available to defraud customers. Coupons and misleading advertising are a prime example. They’ll run ads for discounts on certain items but lure you into buying the wrong ones—items that aren’t on sale. This is especially easy to do with bar codes having replaced clearly marked prices.
For example, they’ll hope you inadvertently pick up the 20-ounce size of something, instead of the 16-ounce size, which is the one in the ad. When chicken is on sale, they’ll put the expensive, non-sale chicken out front, within easy grasp, with the “On Sale” sign prominently displayed, and place the sale chicken in the back of the meat case, hoping you’ll pick up the wrong one by mistake.
The store will entice you inside by offering tantalizing coupons for items which, when you get there, aren’t available. They’ll pretend they already “ran out,” hoping you’ll either stick around and buy something else (at regular price) or won’t follow through on the rain check you’re entitled to.
Beware when soup goes on sale. You’ll load up, only to find that the discount applies specifically to chicken noodle and tomato. The store hopes you don’t notice that you’ve paid full price for the vegetable beef. I’ve seen 12-packs of Pepsi on sale, where the small print indicates that only Pepsi this-or-that is available at the low price, not all Pepsi—despite all the varieties being displayed beneath the sale banner.
It’s a war out there. And if you don’t think grocery stores want to confuse and misdirect you, try making sense of your receipt. The way these things are printed out, you can’t tell whether or not you got the discount you were entitled to. Which is precisely what they want. Besides being a foot long, these receipts are loaded with “decoys”—pre-sale totals, regular totals, subtotals, more subtotals, augmented totals, discounted totals. It’s a mine field.
Food shopping used to be simple. God help us, it used to almost be “fun.” Prices were clearly marked, checkers ran up your total using “real numbers” on adding machines, and receipts were self-explanatory. Today, grocery store receipts are almost as hard to decipher as telephone bills, which is really saying something.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor” (available at Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, etc.) He can be reached at email@example.com