A bill that would allow grocery stores to opt for aisle scanners instead of item-by-item pricing is moving forward in the Legislature.
Consumer advocates are slamming a measure that has advanced on Beacon Hill that would allow supermarkets to avoid putting individual prices on each of the items on their shelves.
A bill that was recently approved by the Legislature’s community development and small business committee would allow grocery stores and other food retailers to provide pricing information to shoppers via aisle scanners instead of item-by-item pricing.
The bill is aimed at giving supermarkets options that are similar to those that were provided to other retailers in regulations approved in 2003 by then-Attorney General Tom Reilly.
Massachusetts and Michigan are currently the only two states with strict item pricing laws, according to Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.
“This is the farthest we’ve ever been (with this bill),” Hurst said. “We hope the Legislature pushes it over the goal line.”
The bill’s critics, which include the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group and the ConsumerWorld.org Web site, say consumers will suffer because they may be forced to wander as far away as 5,000 feet in a particular store to scan an item and check its price. If a retailer opts for the scanning system alternative, prices would still need to be displayed on store shelves for most items.
The critics say it will be harder to catch overcharges at the cash register, and the scanning machines may not pick up on sale prices or special prices for customers with loyalty cards.
MassPIRG legislative director Deirdre Cummings said she expects most food stores will pick the aisle scanner alternative or they will simply flout the rules and risk paying a fine. The fine for a first offense within a year’s time would be $250, although the fines would rise for multiple offenses.
“This is nothing but an attempt to get rid of item pricing,” Cummings said.
But Hurst said consumers will benefit in the form of lower prices and shortened lines once stores no longer need to devote resources to item-by-item pricing.
“We would be remiss not to look at any opportunity that we could have to look at productivity in a food store in order to rein in price increases,” Hurst said. “There’s no question that item pricing requirements cost consumers at the checkout in higher prices. ... Any real consumer advocate should be mostly concerned about consumers’ wallets.”
Edgar Dworsky, the founder of ConsumerWorld.org, said he is skeptical consumers will benefit from the retailers’ savings if they choose to drop itemized pricing.
“They’re not going to pass on savings to consumers,” Dworsky said. “It’s going to go to pad their bottom line.”
The proposal still needs to be approved by votes in the full House and Senate. The Legislature doesn’t have much time to approve the bill, as lawmakers adjourn from formal sessions for the year on July 31.
Jon Chesto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.