Store Scanners - The Price Is Not Always Right

Keeping Your Eyes on the Scanner

••• Getty / Matt Meadows

Have you ever been overcharged at a store, but did not know it until you got home and looked at the receipt? Watched the register and caught where the item scanned showed a higher (or lower) price than what was advertised? Chances are the answer is yes. In fact, it happens all of the time. Most of it is because of this little symbol called a UPC code.

Almost everything we buy today bears a Universal Product Code (UPC). This code is made up of a series of numbers and bars which is basically shorthand for product information. When a cashier passes the UPC symbol over an electronic scanner, a computer decodes the symbol and sends the price to the register. The price appears on a display screen and on your printed receipt.

The Benefits

Retailers claim there are many benefits to using scanners rather than manually inputting the information. Checking out at the register is faster, price accuracy is better, and inventory reconciliation is quicker. However, errors still do occur. Shoppers do get overcharged and undercharged due to human errors, faulty UPC codes, and sloppy management practices.

Consumer Concerns

As a result, consumer regulators and advocates are concerned about inconsistencies between advertised or posted prices and prices stored in the computer, inaccurate prices throughout a chain of stores because of an error in the central computer and problems for shoppers who may not remember posted prices or special promotions when they check out.

Savvy shoppers check scanner charges for items they know are on sale and many are quite vocal about their willingness to shop elsewhere if price corrections are not made. Often they will encourage retail stores to police the accuracy of their checkout scanners.

But what happens to the rest of us that either can't remember the advertised price of each item we purchase or who cannot police the scanners at checkout because we're watching our children grab madly at the candy display or too busy unloading our carts?

Spotting Scanner Price Errors

  • Watch the display screen for prices.
  • If you have several items, like at the grocery store, you can politely ask the cashier to hold off scanning until you finish unloading your cart. Tell her up front that you want to see the prices of the items you are buying.
  • If you are reluctant to stop the cashier from scanning, try segregating your sale from non-sale items in the cart. Load the non-sale items on the counter first. Often times this will allow you time to get your cart unloaded before the sale items are scanned. You can then check the scanned prices on the sale items and review the receipt for proper pricing on the non-sale items.
  • If you think you are being overcharged, speak up. Ask about the store’s policy on pricing errors, and ask the cashier to make the adjustment before you pay. Although some stores simply adjust the price, others deduct an additional amount. Still, others offer the mispriced item for free.
  • Bring a copy of the store's flyer or newspaper ad to the checkout counter. Some advertised specials — 15 percent off an item for two hours, for example, or a two-for-one promotion — may not be in the computer and must be entered manually by the cashier.
  • Consider jotting down prices or special sales as you make your way through the store. In grocery stores, you may want to use a pen or crayon to note the product prices on the packages.
  • Check your receipt before you walk away. If you notice or even suspect an error, have the price checked and if there is an error ask the cashier to adjust the total. If you have already left the cashier’s lane, see the store or department manager or the customer service department to correct any mistakes.
  • It is not just grocery and drug stores that make pricing errors. Department stores, specialty stores and everywhere you shop where UPC codes are scanned can put you at risk for being overcharged.

When and How to Complain

If you notice a pattern of electronic scanning errors in a particular store, talk to the customer service department or the store manager. You also may want to write a letter to the company’s headquarters. The retailer may not realize a problem exists until it’s pointed out.