Q: I was at an appliance store buying a DVD player when the clerk tried to charge me $375 for one that the shelf price said was only $250. I wouldn’t pay the higher price and they wouldn’t sell it to me at the lower price because it scanned at $375. Is that legal?
A: No. The store’s refusal to sell it at shelf price may violate Ohio’s Consumer Sales Practices Act. Price scanners are most often right, but they can also be wrong. When a retailer offers something for sale at a specific price (whether the sale price is marked on the shelf item or the price is advertised in a newspaper) and you agree to buy it at that price, the store has to sell it to you at that price. Even if the scanned price does not match the shelf price or the advertised price, the advertised price is what the consumer expects to pay and is the price the store is legally obligated to charge.
Q: I want to buy the DVD player, but is there anything I can do about getting the reduced price?
A: Sure, you have nothing to lose by trying. Be sure to be calm and business-like. Remember, you are just a consumer trying to be treated fairly. First explain it to the cashier. If that doesn’t work, ask to speak to the store manager. If you still are unsuccessful, ask to speak to the storeowner.
If your attempts to negotiate with the storeowner fail, you may wish to contact the Ohio Attorney General's Consumer Protection Section at (800) 282-0515 or through the Consumer Protection’s page at the Attorney General’s website (www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov). The Consumer Protection Section offers an informal, non-binding mediation service free of charge. A mediation specialist will work to open lines of communication with the company and work towards a favorable solution to the problem on your behalf.
If all negotiation efforts fail, you have several choices. You could pay the higher price and then sue the store to get back the overcharge. Or, if you can find the item at a lower price somewhere else, you can go buy it there, and then sue the first store for whatever amount you may have had to pay above the first store’s advertised price of $250. In fact, if you have to go to court and the court rules there have been violations of the Consumer Sales Practice Act, you may be entitled to $200 for each of those violations. Under certain circumstances, you may be able to recover three times the price difference. Be sure to get a photo of the shelf price and product so you can prove what the shelf price was, though. Otherwise, it is just your word against their word.
As long as the amount of money involved is less than $3,000, you can file your case in your municipal or county small claims court.If you choose this option, you do not need an attorney. The Ohio Consumer Act, however, allows you to recover your attorney fees if you decide to hire an attorney to handle your case for you.
Q: What should I do in the future to make sure I'm charged the correct price?
A: You should be especially careful of price scanners at the checkout counter. Scanning errors are a long-running problem for consumers. In 2010, ABC News reported that errors cost consumers $1 billion to $2.5 billion per year. A 2007 nationwide Federal Trade Commission study (which included Ohio retailers) found one price error in every 28 products that were scanned. Even a 1993 study by CNN and Money Magazine reported the seriousness of scanner errors at the checkout. The most frequent errors were found on sale price items that scanned at higher prices than the prices advertised.
There are some things you can do to protect yourself. Watch as each item is scanned to make sure the price rings up correctly. Be extra careful when you buy something that is on sale. Coupons or other discount specials may not have been entered into the computer. Also, check your receipts when you get home to be sure that the price you paid is what you expected.
When you see an error, bring it to the attention of the store cashier. You might also alert your county auditor’s office, since that office is in charge of ensuring accurate weights and measures. Your county auditor should be able to tell you when price scanners were last tested in your county and what stores were the most accurate. If the problem persists, notify the Ohio Department of Agriculture Weights & Measures at (614) 728-6290. That way, you can improve the odds that you will be charged the right price in the first place.
This "Law You Can Use" consumer legal information article was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was prepared by Dayton attorney Ronald L. Burdge.