Some people refer to "Whole Foods" as "Whole Paycheck" for its up-market prices, but a new overcharging investigation of the chain has made the joke all too real. Experts say it's up to consumers to protect themselves.
Last week investigators with the New York Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) alleged the chain had been consistently overcharging customers, with overages ranging from an extra 80 cents for a bread crumb mix to an additional $14.84 for a packet of shrimp.
DCA found that Whole Foods was routinely mislabeling the weights of prepackaged foods. In a statement, the company said it disagrees with DCA’s “overreaching allegations... and are vigorously defending ourselves.”
Spokeswoman Kate Lowery added, "If customers think an item is priced incorrectly, we encourage them to ask the cashier to double check. If it is and not in the customer’s favor, will give away the item for free as our goal is 100 percent pricing accuracy."
Consumer advocate Edgar Dworsky says one of the ways such overcharges can happen is when the same price label is slapped on a product whose weight can vary, like a sandwich.
"A particular sandwich may say 7 ounces preprinted on the label. Obviously various sandwiches are going to weigh different amounts," said Dworsky.
But we're not just talking lunch. The DCA investigation found mislabeled weights on everything from meat to dairy, seafood, baked goods, nuts, berries, and vegetable platters.
And Whole Foods is far from the only store where overages can occur. Sometimes they're even almost laughable, if they didn't cost so much.
"I bought a boneless roast on sale, took it home to find it was not boneless," said grocery savings expert Terri Gault. "The price difference was $1 per pound, about a $4 overcharge."
Here are some tips to make sure you're paying the right price for the right weight at the grocery store:
Ask yourself, do the prices make sense?
If all the cuts of salmon in the freezer have the same price, check the weight. Prepackaged items sold by weight should have different prices. If all the labels look the same, that's a red flag.
Watch the scale at the deli
Make sure the scale starts at zero before they toss your roast beef or provolone on it so you're not paying for "invisible" weight. Also, watch the workers to make sure they're not accidentally leaning forward on the scale. You can always ask for a reweighing.
Get the ice off your fish
Fresh seafood often sits on crushed ice behind the display cabinet. Ask for any ice to be removed before it's weighed. You don't want to pay the price of fish for the weight of ice.
Weigh it yourself
Supermarkets often have a scale you can use to check the price of any item that's priced by weight. Ask an employee or look for it in the nut aisle. And if you discover a mislabeled weight, some stores will let you get a similar item for free.
Keep your eyes on the checkout screen
Sometimes a cashier might enter the wrong produce code or accidentally include the price of the packaging itself. And listen to the "beeps." If an item doesn't scan, said Gault, a checker might try quickly several times and then it beeps twice. If the cashier doesn't notice, ask for the item to be taken off so you're not double-charged.
Double check your receipt
"Always review your receipt to make sure you were charged the advertised price, for the correct number of items, and that you weren’t charged tax on non-taxable goods such as medicines and many foods," advises the DCA.