House bill eases grocery price tag law

Proposal allows use of price scanners to replace individual labels


Grocery stores in Massachusetts would no longer be required to put price tags on each item and could instead deploy price scanners for consumers to use, under long-stalled legislation that quietly cleared the House this month.

If the bill becomes law, Massachusetts would become the last state in the nation eliminate individual price tag requirement for grocery and food stores. The supermarket industry has fought for years to stop tagging each item; consumer groups say the move is bad for shoppers trying to compare prices.

In order to stop individually pricing items, stores would be required to go through an application process that includes an accuracy check of their scanners and agreeing to sign a waiver that no job losses will result from the change. Stores must also disclose the correct prices of items in a “clear and conspicuous manner.” Grocery and other food stores must also still display the price of each item on the shelves, and the legislation (H 4089) specifically details requirements for the shelf pricing.

After clearing the House Ways and Means Committee, the legislation sailed through the House this week on voice votes and without debate during lightly attended informal sessions. According to supporters of the bill, its no-job-loss provision helped unions that had opposed the bill switch to a neutral stance on it.

The Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MASSPIRG) said the change will not give consumers enough information to make good buying decisions. Other retailers are not required to individually price items, but big box retailers with grocery departments must sticker each food item under current laws.

“The price sticker is the best way a consumer can check an error at the register. The price sticker enables consumers to make better informed choices,” said Deidre Cummings, legislative director for MASSPIRG.

The sticker also provides other valuable information to people when they are shopping, allowing them to compare the retail price to the unit price listed on the shelf sticker to search for the best value, she said.

“The retailers’ replacement pales in comparison. It offers consumer nothing for the tool they now have,” Cummings said.

Under the bill, price scanners must be located in the store every 5,000 square feet – which equates to approximately every few aisles in larger supermarkets, according to proponents of the change.

In a 2008 consumer survey conducted by, 92 percent of respondents said they disapproved of stores removing individual prices, according to Edgar Dworsky, founder of the consumer public service guide. “It is very anti-consumer,” Dworsky said.

Dworsky said it will be inconvenient for consumers to locate price scanners in different aisles, and would create problems at the cash register when shoppers are unable to verify they are being charged the right price.

The Retailers’ Association of Massachusetts called the bill’s advancement “great news,” adding it is something they have been fighting for more than 20 years to help Massachusetts employers be more competitive.

“Frankly, it is a long time coming,” Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers’ Association, said. “We are the last state in the entire nation that still has antiquated price requirements. We’ve got to get to the point where old, antiquated laws and regulations, and tax policy don’t disadvantage our employers.”

Christopher Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association, said his organization supports the change, and called the bill a “compromise piece of legislation,” that gives some relief to retailers while still instituting strict consumer and labor protections.

“Stores must sign a waiver that no job losses will occur because of the application. The fact remains supermarkets want to take workers away from a tedious job and put them in an area that can help consumers,” Flynn said.

Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry, (D-Dorchester) co-chair of the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Business, which reviewed the legislation, said it is a “more comprehensive” bill than in previous sessions, and puts many strict consumer protections in place, including doubling the fines for noncompliance from $2,500 per inspection to $5,000.

“We really listened to all the players involved,” she said. “This is not an elimination of item pricing. You have your small mom and pop stores that may not have the $3,500 to spend on a scanner.”

Under the bill, the state Division of Standards would conduct audits, and any stores with repeated violations could have their price scanner option revoked and forced to go back to individual pricing, according to Dorcena Forry.

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“We eliminated confusing language in the bill that allowed employers to not be fined if they had made a good faith effort to comply. We eliminated the good faith effort language. You have to comply,” Dorcena Forry said.

As drafted, the provisions would take effect Jan. 1, 2013 if the bill passes in both branches and is signed into law by Gov. Deval Patrick.