Boston retailers fined total of $92,000 for consumer violations

Walgreens accounts for more than third for price scanner overcharges

SEVERAL BOSTON RETAIL CHAINS were hit with a total of $92,000 in fines in 2022 for violating state consumer protection laws, including provisions intended to assure that customers pay no more than the marked price on merchandise and get the stated weight.

Walgreens paid the biggest amount,  $33,600, for violations that included price scanner overcharges at checkout and the failure of self-service, price-checking scanners in store aisles. Walgreens did not respond to requests for comment.

CVS, the other major drug chain operating in the city, was fined $24,300 for scanner overcharges.

“We make every effort to ensure that the prices advertised in our stores are accurate and we cooperated with the City of Boston in this matter,” CVS spokesperson Mike DeAngelis said in an email.  “If a discrepancy between a posted price and the price being scanned is found, our policy is to honor the lower price.”

Edgar Dworsky, the founder and editor of Consumer World, a website devoted to consumer issues, said stores are required by Massachusetts law to charge the lower price in such cases.  “And in the case of grocery items costing up to $10 for which consumers are overcharged, CVS, Walgreens, and many grocery stores have to give customers the item for free,” Dworsky said.

The fines in 2022 were imposed as a result of unannounced inspections conducted by Boston’s Inspectional Services Department.

The largest price scanner overcharge was $58 at the CVS store located in Charlestown, where a steam inhaler was priced at $101.99 but rang up at $159.99, a 57 percent overcharge.  The smallest overcharge was 6 cents at a CVS store in the South End, where a package of Smart Snacks priced at $4.29 rang in at $4.35.

Once in a while, though, it can go the other way — a bottle of Nature’s Bounty Fish Oil at the East Boston Walgreens, for instance, was priced at $41.99, but rang up at $33.99.

Four supermarket chains in Boston were also fined for violations of state consumer protection laws.  Whole Foods Market, which is owned by Amazon, was fined $6,100 for scanner overcharges.  The company did not respond to requests for comment.

Inspectors found short-weighing, which involves a product weighing less than the stated amount on the label, at three of the Boston supermarkets: Stop & Shop, Star Market, and Roche Bros.

Of the $8,000 Stop & Shop was fined for violations of consumer protection laws, $4,200 was for short-weighing; of the $7,800 Star Market was fined, $2,100 was for short-weighing; and of the $2,600 locally-owned Roche Bros. was fined, $2,000 was for short-weighing.

William Pohl, directory of regulatory compliance at Roche Bros., said that the short-weighing at his stores is typically the result of a problem with the “tare,” which is what the container weighs when empty, something for which consumers cannot be charged.  “The majority of time the fines [for short-weighing] have to do with the weight of the containers used in the deli department not being subtracted from the total weight,” Pohl said in an interview.  “It may be off by a percentage point.  That sometimes will happen.”

Teresa Edington, a spokesperson for Star Market, said the company works hard to comply with consumer protection laws.  “While it’s uncommon for an error to occur, we work quickly to resolve any issues,” she said in an email.

One short-weight fine came about as a result of a complaint filed by a customer of Eataly, the Italian marketplace chain located at the Prudential Center.  The emporium was fined $100 because of the short-weighing of store-packaged cheese.  “I checked three different containers of the product in question,” the ISD inspector wrote in his report.  “All three containers were short (under weighing).”

As allowed by law, ISD retains most of the fines it imposes, which can be used for tasks such as inspector training, purchasing measurement devices, and covering administrative costs.

Eleven stores that violated the price scanner law were given a huge break on the fines.  Nine 7-Eleven convenience stores were fined a combined total of $6,700, but the fine was reduced by $5,250 to $1,450 — a 78 percent discount.  The fines for two gas stations were also substantially reduced.

“It is [at] the discretion of the assistant commissioner of the weights and measures division to examine all fines and determine if a reduced rate is applicable,” said ISD spokesperson Lisa Timberlake in an email.  “Assistant Commissioner [Elaine] Grillo chose to reduce some fines to companies believed to have acted in good faith (took immediate action to correct) upon learning of the violations.

ISD is also responsible for assuring compliance with the unit pricing law, which requires that the price per measure, such as price per ounce or price per 100-count, be disclosed to consumers.  The agency, however, does not conduct inspections to check for compliance on a proactive basis.

“Although we are not mandated to conduct yearly inspections for unit pricing, our [inspectors] will respond to complaints and educate the manager of the laws associated with unit pricing,” Timberlake said.  No unit pricing fines were issued by ISD in 2022.

Dworsky of Consumer World suggested taking inspections a step further.  “While inspectors are in the stores enforcing other laws, at the very least a spot check and timely instruction on improving compliance with the unit pricing law would go a long way toward ensuring that this invaluable consumer tool is being properly maintained,” he said.