Canadians Should be Checking Receipts at the Grocery Store as Errors are Common [Op-Ed]

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Price Check, Aisle 7

If you’re not checking your grocery receipts for errors before leaving the store, chances are you’re overpaying for some of your groceries, especially for discounted items.

In the U.S., some states have tried to put a number to the problem and look into receipt discrepancies. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Standards Division collected fines from dozens of Walmart stores due to pricing errors over the course of 2022. The average fine was anywhere between $40,000 to $50,000 USD. The agency has found about 26% of price scanner inspections failures. The technology itself was an issue, not human error. The department also detected that in roughly 10% of cases, at least one item was overcharged for one reason or another. Ten per cent!

Aldi in Australia recently got into some hot water when consumers took to Facebook to share easy-to-spot errors the grocer was committing. Worse, errors were repetitive. In the same country, at Coles Supermarkets, it was revealed that an automatic discount was issued to regular shoppers who were mistakenly charged full price on items that were previously discounted. The chain even spontaneously printed the word “apology” on receipts.

In Canada, few know how significant this problem is, but mistakes on grocery receipts do certainly happen, and they happen for a variety of reasons. For one, cashiers or other employees may accidentally input the wrong item or price into the system. Also, the store’s technical equipment may malfunction, leading to incorrect pricing or item information, especially on items that are either volume discounted or even “enjoy tonight” deals.

Price discrepancies are also quite frequent. Stores may update their pricing regularly, especially these days, leading to discrepancies between the advertised price and the actual price charged at the check out. Scanning errors may also occur when an item can be double scanned. Another common mistake will occur even before you show up at the register. While shopping, you may think you’re reaching for an item on sale but end up with a higher priced item because a clerk misplaced the product while stocking shelves.

Mistakes on receipts can happen for countless reasons, but some people will never check receipts. We believe anywhere from 35 to 45% of Canadians rarely, if ever, verify grocery receipts for errors, according to estimates. We believe about 30% of consumers will always check. Many don’t bother because they feel rushed or can’t pay attention for one reason or another. Some opt to use self-checkouts for that exact reason. But if you do, you’re not immune to technical problems and need to remember prices you noticed while roaming the aisles. The scanner can scan the wrong code or may forget a promotional code. The onus is on you to be extra careful.

Consumers who are more vigilant and check for mistakes are likely saving more money. But as a shopper in Canada, you do have rights if you see a mistake at the grocery store which ends up costing you more. Many years ago, the Retail Council of Canada along with the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers instituted a national scanner price voluntary code. Consumers are entitled to a discount of up to $10 for each scanning error at participating food retailers, including Walmart, Sobeys, Loblaws, Costco, and Metro. In the province of Quebec, it’s the law. Grocers must give the discount. But elsewhere in the country, retailers should comply with the code and give you a discount, and retailers are obligated to display a description of your rights as a shopper at check out areas.

The pressure of exiting the store as soon as possible coupled with bagging items yourself means that errors can be overlooked. If you see a mistake, don’t be afraid to alert a clerk or manager. And don’t wait until you get home. Few will go back or will forget about it. With food prices the way they are these days, anyone being held up will sympathize, no doubt.

Sylvain Charlebois
Sylvain Charlebois
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is Senior Director of the Agri-Foods Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Also at Dalhousie, he is Professor in food distribution and policy in the Faculty of Agriculture. His current research interest lies in the broad area of food distribution, security and safety, and has published four books and many peer-reviewed journal articles in several publications. His research has been featured in a number of newspapers, including The Economist, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, the Globe & Mail, the National Post and the Toronto Star.

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