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Inspectors check price accuracy

State officials look at scans, products at stores all over Utah

Utah Department of Agriculture inspector Mitzi Hansen writes up a report for a retail store after finishing a store inspection.
Utah Department of Agriculture inspector Mitzi Hansen writes up a report for a retail store after finishing a store inspection.
Michael Brandy, Deseret News

The manager of the West Valley City drugstore wasn't excited to see Weights and Measures inspector Mitzi Hansen show up to verify the prices the store charged its customers.

She was less charmed still when told that a reporter wanted to watch, though she allowed it. "No photos in the store," she warned. "That's corporate policy."

For the next half-hour, Hansen and a store clerk wandered the aisles. Hansen would take an item off the shelf, check its price and hand it to the clerk, who operated a handheld scanner. The clerk would announce the scanned price, which Hansen would check against the tag affixed to the shelf.

Only 45 of 50 items checked registered the correct price, well below the mandatory 98 percent accuracy rate required by the state.

In the state pickup truck, Hansen typed a list of overcharges and undercharges into the computer attached to her dashboard. She printed out the report and returned to the store to deliver the bad news.

The drugstore manager would have preferred there be no tangible record of the failed inspection. But the one thing the Department of Agriculture's Weights and Measures Program has plenty of its records of its taxpayer-funded inspections, all neatly filed away in more than a dozen huge file drawers.

They are open to the public, but no one ever asks to see them.

Some of the files are thick, containing information on a combination of device inspections, including inspections of UPC scanners, gas pump accuracy and product packaging. Others have a single category. Stores that fail inspection and have to be rechecked again and again have thick files. Others have a single page.

More often, however, there's no file at all for a given store, because inspectors haven't been there yet or may not even know that a particular "there" exists.

Poring over records

Since January, Deseret News reporters have been hand-combing the Weights and Measures Program inspection records, since there's no comprehensive computer database of them — something Regulatory Services director Chris Crnich said his staff would dearly love, but for which there's been no money budgeted by the Legislature.

A review of almost 1,000 inspections conducted over the past three years reveals Utah retail chains and independent operators have very accurate bar-code scanning systems, with some notable exceptions. Last year, of those subjected to price verification, 88 percent of all businesses passed their inspections, while 85 percent of all individual inspections resulted in passing grades (some businesses were inspected more than once).

That is a vast improvement from 2000 when only 65 percent of all businesses passed their inspections, and 70 percent of individual inspections resulted in passing grades. In fact, the accuracy of scanners has improved significantly in each of the past three years.

One out of every four businesses tested has not had a single pricing error in three years of testing.

And when errors are found, two out of three are in the consumer's favor.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that one out of every four inspections over the past three years found the business failed to keep its pricing systems at state-mandated levels of accuracy. The state has set 98 percent as passing, although inspectors gave 48 passing grades to businesses whose error rate was below 98 percent.

Part of the discrepancy may be inconsistencies in whether an inspector counts an undercharge in the percentage. The Deseret News also observed a glitch in the computer software that miscalculated the percentage for the report when certain combinations of errors occurred. If an inspector didn't notice it, it could slip through.

Program director Brett Gurney said that problem was fixed last week.

If state inspectors had been consistent in requiring a 98 percent passing grade, the failure rate jumps to 29 percent of all inspections.

"We've been doing more training to make sure everyone's consistent," said Gurney.

Buyer beware

You've seen the signs in department stores: "Discount taken at cash register." And you've probably believed it. And though consumers report they do watch sale items as they check out, most don't pay attention to the items not on sale.

You're not supposed to have to. That's one reason Weights and Measures inspectors go into stores large and small and randomly check a prescribed number of items to see if the scanners accurately reflect the price for purchases. That's what some of your taxes pay for.

But when a program has just 10 inspectors to verify the accuracy of every price scanner, gas pump, scale and other measuring device statewide, the task becomes impossible. And the files show it.

Only 355 different businesses have had one or more scanner inspections over the past three years, with an average of 228 stores receiving a visit from the state each year. That's a paltry total given the number of businesses using the bar-code scanners is now in the thousands, with hundreds more changing to the system every year.

"It's probably easier to identify the stores that don't have the scanners," said Kyle Stephens, deputy commissioner of agriculture.

There are times when Gary and Debra Griffith, co-owners for 19 years of Triple G Foods, wish they were still among the have-nots. Like the day two weeks ago when Hansen showed up to do an inspection.

As they stood in their small market in a strip mall on 4100 South, they weren't thrilled to see her, either, but they were cheerful about it. When they first got a price scanner, in fact, they asked Weights and Measures to come in and check them out. They wanted to know how their system was working.

But on that day, their scanner program was acting up. Though items were ringing up OK at the cash register, their hand-held scanner had been delivering fiction, one price at a time. They were worried about the result.

Hansen simply switched gears, checking questionable items at the register. The store passed the inspection.

An antiquated system

When the records are tucked away in files, even a careful hand count of the inspection reports is not without problems. Reporters had to rely on what was in the drawers at the time, so a small percentage of files may have been missed. To minimize that, the reporters double-checked each file several weeks apart in case some were missing in the first go-round. Gurney said that the last inspections conducted in 2002 had not been filed yet, so those reports weren't included in the 2002 count.

The hand count and the numbers the program cites don't always agree.

Gurney said the program's records for 2002 showed a 22.7 percent UPC inspection failure rate — higher than the Deseret News' findings but lower than the 47 percent failure rate cited by the department during presentations to the Legislature. His number was likely different from the newspaper's, he said, because his tally included the December numbers, which are in his computer program, but not yet filed.

Regardless of whose numbers are used, though, the bottom line remains the same: The six state inspectors who are qualified to do the scanner inspections are limited by time and resources to inspecting maybe 1 percent of all businesses using scanners. Most businesses with scanners, including some of the state's largest retailers, have never seen a state inspector. And they're not likely to anytime soon.

It's a sampling of a sample.

Time and again, reports indicate businesses failed the inspections, but inspectors did not return within 30 days to see if the pricing problem was fixed. Four businesses have never passed a state scanner inspection nor received a follow-up visit on their initial failure.

That problem is getting better. In 2000, roughly 53 percent of businesses that failed a scanner inspection did not receive a follow-up inspection within 30 days. Last year, that was down to 12 percent.

The system is also for the most part toothless. In only a handful of cases were penalties levied against businesses with serious problems. Instead, after two failed inspections, the business is charged for mileage, equipment and the inspector's time. There are no immediate penalties for even the most egregious cases. Instead, a notice of violation, with no penalty, warns that the inspector will be back within a month.