SAFEWAY, ALBERTSON'S FINED FOR MISLABELING

PLEASANTON, Calif. -- Two of the nation's biggest retailers heard a wake-up call in the wine aisle that may soon be sounding for other supermarkets in other parts of the country.Safeway here and Albertson's, Boise, Idaho, were fined $30,000 each last month for mislabeled wines in stores in the California counties of San Francisco and Alameda. In settling the case, brought by the district attorneys

PLEASANTON, Calif. -- Two of the nation's biggest retailers heard a wake-up call in the wine aisle that may soon be sounding for other supermarkets in other parts of the country.

Safeway here and Albertson's, Boise, Idaho, were fined $30,000 each last month for mislabeled wines in stores in the California counties of San Francisco and Alameda. In settling the case, brought by the district attorneys in those counties close to the California wine region, both retailers denied any liability, but have been ordered to make sure it doesn't happen again.

The case reflects a national problem, according to wine experts contacted by SN.

The trouble involves shelf-talkers or bottleneck labels with statements about vintages, ratings from wine publications, or varieties. The problem occurs, sources told SN, when shelves are replenished with wines that are different from what is promoted on the point-of-purchase materials, and the POP is not updated or removed.

While store personnel are responsible for filling the shelves with new wines of different vintages, field merchandisers from suppliers take care of the tags, and their actions are frequently not coordinated.

"There was no intent and as soon as it was called to our attention, we immediately took corrective steps," said Debra Lambert, Safeway's corporate director of public affairs.

"Upon notification of the problem, Albertson's took immediate action to rectify the situation," said Stacia Levenfeld, public affairs manager for the Northern California Division of Albertson's. "We removed the bottleneckers and shelf-talkers that were at issue. We removed anything that could be perceived as misleading.

"We have no indication that there was a problem anywhere else, so we took the action in California," Levenfeld said.

However, it is a common problem elsewhere, although the stores and their suppliers get it right more often than they get it wrong, said Charles Olken, publisher, Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine, Alameda, Calif.

"I think all of us who are in business and offer products have a 100% responsibility for getting it right. So in that regard, they are not getting it right. But that doesn't mean they are crooks," he said.

"The amount of money that changed hands is peanuts because it is very difficult for anybody to prove anything worse than a failure to be attentive, which is what I attribute it to," Olken said.

It's information from publications like Olken's that is frequently on the wine POP.

The legal action was not initiated by a consumer complaint, but rather by the two district attorneys offices, said Safeway's Lambert. The investigation did not involve "an extensive" number of stores, she said. "They were doing spot checks."

When contacted, the two district attorneys involved would not comment on who brought the complaint or the number of stores involved.

"Within San Francisco County, it appeared that there were a sufficient number of instances that we felt some action should be taken," said Michael Hudson, assistant district attorney in the Consumer Protection Unit of the San Francisco District Attorney's office.

"We checked a number of stores of a number of different chains, and it seemed to be fairly widespread in San Francisco and Alameda counties," said Anthony Douglas, deputy district attorney, Alameda County Consumer and Environmental Protection Division, Oakland, Calif. Alameda County is located across the bay from San Francisco.

Other retailers, who Douglas would not name, are still under investigation. He would not say why Safeway and Albertson's were singled out for legal action.

The investigation did not concern itself with who was responsible for putting up the shelf tags, Hudson said. "The standard under the law is whether something is misleading or deceptive; the store is the end point where the product is being sold to the consumer," he said.

"The information on the shelf-talkers was not consistent with the product being sold," Douglas said. "But it was not our position that this was intentional fraud."

To avoid any further problems, Safeway is now working more closely with its suppliers to make sure that the placement of the POP and their content is correct, Lambert said.

"We have developed a compliance program to ensure that the tags are properly matched to the appropriate vintage and type of wine on the shelf," she said. Although the legal action pertains only to California, this program is national, she noted.

The retailer also is reviewing all text appearing on the tags to make sure that the sources of awards are properly cited, she said. In the case of point totals attributed to wines by various publications, Safeway requires the type size to match the largest type size on the tag.

"We believe that going forward, things will be appropriately managed from the distributors' side, and we have redoubled our efforts internally to ensure proper rotation of the product," Lambert said.

"We are taking extra steps per Safeway's request to make sure our products comply with their policy," said Dennis Barnett, executive vice president, sales and marketing, Young's Market Co., a wine distributor headquartered in Orange, Calif. For example, "we are requiring documentation from suppliers proving that claims on shelf-talkers are validated by a reliable source," he said.

Southern Wines and Spirits, Union City, Calif., is doing the same thing, said Bob Andrenini, vice president of merchandising. "It's a national problem, so it has to be a national program," he said. His company has 120 merchandising representatives out in the field who have been charged with policing the POP more carefully.

The wineries also are going to have to get involved in solving the problem, he said. For example, sometimes the distributors do not receive the shelf-talkers from the wineries until after a vintage has already sold through, and then a new vintage is about to be brought into the stores. "It's going to be a new awakening for everybody," Andrenini said.