Leo Barrieau probably didn't realize the power of the consumer when he complained to The Bottom Line in April about improper unit pricing at two retail stores in West Hartford.
The state Department of Consumer Protection, after being contacted by TBL, inspected Wal-mart and BJ's Wholesale Club, finding violations at both. State law requires all qualifying retailers that sell a consumer commodity to post the unit price and total price of that commodity.
A report by DCP inspector Fred Journalist listed violations at the Bishops Corner Wal-mart for improperly labeled paper products and laundry detergent. The store was cited for marking toilet paper and paper towels as "per each" instead of per 50 or 100 count and for listing some laundry detergents as "per each."
At BJ's, where Barrieau says he spoke with store management about laundry detergent labels, the DCP cited the store for marking some detergent in ounces and others in quarts.
"The two measures cannot be mixed," Journalist wrote in his report. "If mixed, the consumer cannot make an easy comparison."
TBL has special powers, but getting the DCP to check unit pricing at a store isn't one of them. The state agency relies entirely on consumers for enforcement.
"Unit pricing we do on a complaints-only basis," says Frank Greene, director of the DCP's Food and Standards Division.
After Barrieau's complaint, both stores were given two weeks to correct the labeling. The DCP, after a second inspection, says the stores' unit labeling now complies with state standards.
"Standard procedure is you do a routine complaint inspection," says Ted Faulise, a Food and Standards Division supervisor. "If it falls under tolerance, you'd do a letter, usally a 30-day letter, to correct it. Then you go back for a reinspection."
BJ's attributed its labeling violations to human errror.
"The SKUs were set up by an assistant buyer," says spokesman Nicholas Shields, "who incorrectly listed the price using quarts instead of ounces. New labels have been generated."
During the Wal-mart inspection, a store representative with a hand-held scanner and portable printer accompanied the DCP inspector to check the unit pricing and correct any mistakes.
"The only thing we can come up with as a reasonable explanation," says Fanny Chan, the store's assistant manager, "is that at the point when we first set up the store [before it opened in February] the computer hadn't been linked with the home office yet. . . . From now on, we all know. This is a new experience. We didn't pay attention to it and it's our fault. I'm so sorry about that."
Wal-mart immediately corrected the labels in West Hartford, but it hasn't always been compliant. Last August, Wal-mart agreed to pay a $6,850 civil penalty after failing to correct violations cited in a Norwalk store. During the initial inspection, the DCP found 23 violations in a check of 50 items. A reinspection cited 16 noncompliant items. State law allows penalties from $100 to $500 for each offense, with possible criminal penalties.
Wal-mart was also cited in 2010 for unit-pricing violations at stores in New Haven and Shelton. Whole Foods Market paid a $2,600 civil penalty in March 2012 for 16 unit-pricing violations at its store in Milford.
"The law requires that unit pricing be consistent across a particular product class," says Claudette Carveth, a DCP spokeswoman. "Liquid detergent, powdered detergent and detergent in little 'pods' are all considered different product classes, so each could be priced using a different unit of measure. However, within a single product class, the units used in pricing should be the same, so customers can see which is the better bargain."
The increasing number of sizes and types of products makes accurate unit pricing a challenge for stores, even with a computerized system.
"The average store, like a typical supermarket, has 30,000 separate items," says Greene. "It makes it complex. Informally, we hear the stores complain to us about the varying sizes of the containers."
Says Faulise, "The regulations can't keep up with the industry making the changes. The paper towels used to be one sheet, 12 by 12. Now, how do you compare a 6-inch one to an 18-inch one?"
Barrieau, a West Hartford resident, noticed immediate changes at the local BJ's, including other products now listed in easily understandable terms.
"I did find a cute trick in the cost of sunscreen, however," he says. "While most had the price comparison based on quarts one was priced listed as ounces. Sometimes they just can't control themselves."
If you spot a unit pricing violation, report it to the state Department of Consumer Protection at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 860-713-6160.