ACT TO AVOID ITEM PRICING, RETAILERS URGED

CHICAGO -- Executives from Kroger and Wegmans sounded a rallying cry and urged retailers to take action to ensure that mandatory item pricing does not become the law of the land.Growing concern about pricing integrity by the media, consumer advocates and inspectors has put supermarkets under increased scrutiny, they said.Although only a handful of states currently require individual product pricing,

CHICAGO -- Executives from Kroger and Wegmans sounded a rallying cry and urged retailers to take action to ensure that mandatory item pricing does not become the law of the land.

Growing concern about pricing integrity by the media, consumer advocates and inspectors has put supermarkets under increased scrutiny, they said.

Although only a handful of states currently require individual product pricing, that number could start growing if retailers don't do a better job in policing their own pricing accuracy, said Jack Partridge, group vice president of corporate affairs at Kroger Co., Cincinnati.

"The combination of the large number of items found in the supermarket and the number of price changes we make in our stores each week make 100% accuracy indeed a very ambitious objective. Compounding the problem is the fact that the procedures used by some weights and measures inspectors, consumer advocates and others can be sometimes unscientific and biased," he said.

Partridge, along with William Pool, manager of food safety and regulations at Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., spoke at the Food Marketing Institute annual convention here. They took part in a workshop titled "Price Verification -- Your Key to Consumer Confidence."

In the absence of uniform procedures for measuring price verification, Partridge said, retailers must intensify their efforts to improve their pricing accuracy report cards.

"Those of us who operate in a state without mandatory item pricing should count our blessings and do everything we can to see that we don't end up in a state with mandatory item pricing," he advised. "We really have to clean up our act," because new legislation could force supermarkets to "take 20 steps back" in terms of operating efficiency.

Wegmans' Pool stressed that consumer fears about scanner accuracy were unfounded. Citing media reports motivated to stir emotions rather than inform, he remarked: "It's interesting they all talk about scanner errors. The scanner is not the source of the problem. It's the human intervention. The more human intervention you have, the greater the potential for mistakes."

But he also outlined concrete steps the 48-store chain is taking to genuinely improve pricing accuracy.

By restricting access to its pricing data base and utilizing "price check coordinators" at store level, the chain has improved pricing integrity. During one week in April, for example, Wegmans achieved a 98.8% pricing accuracy rating on 197,000 items checked, Pool said.

"In our operation [the data base] is extremely restricted. We limit access to the data to retail buying groups. You have got to keep absolute control of your data," he said.

Though Wegmans does not encourage price changes at the store level, it doesn't prohibit them. "Stores can change prices, but if they do, they've got to notify the buying office."

Wegmans' price check coordinators are responsible for monitoring price accuracy and for compiling error count summaries each week. "We've made our store people a real integral part of the process," Pool said.

Price check coordinators walk the store aisles ensuring that shelf signs are up to date and that advertised specials match those displayed in store. They also identify manufacturer coupons that scan incorrectly as well as Universal Product Codes that consistently have poor "first-time" read rates.

Also speaking at the FMI session on price verification was Ken Butcher of the Office of Weights and Measures at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, Md.

Butcher urged retailers to get involved and ask questions when inspectors make on-site visits. "A lot of the people going into your stores are ill-trained and unprepared to do that kind of work. The reports they generate are 'ticking time bombs.' "

The reports are based on information often gathered through inconsistent procedures. For example, inspectors' sampling sizes can range from 10 items to 300 items. "If I do 10 items and two are [priced] wrong, that's a 20% error rating," which will result in fines, he said.

Butcher said the National Conference on Weights and Measures is developing an examination procedure for price verification that states may choose to adopt. The NCWM, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has no regulatory authority.