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Challenging the supermarket scanner

Consumers lose $1 billion or more annually because of errors in stores’ favor. Are you afraid to speak up?

By Donna_Freedman Aug 21, 2012 12:12PM
Image: Grocery clerk (© Corbis/SuperStock)Get Rich Slowly staff writer Kristin Wong recently did an article on "The politeness tax" -- money she's lost recently because she was too intimidated to speak up.

Wong gave several examples, but the one that jumped out at me was a mistake at the cash register: an item that rang up $2 higher than its actual price.

What would you have done? 

Here's what I do: Say "I believe there's been a mistake." If there's a line behind me, I ask if a manager could handle the fix at a different register.

I'm always polite, but I always say something. After all, that's my money the store is trying to keep.

Stretching the food budget

I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Phoebe Hendricks, of Getting Freedom from Debt, says that "every penny counts" when it comes to her family's food budget. She takes all disputes to the customer service desk.

Coupon blogger Briana Carter, aka Bargain Briana, recently had a cashier ring up only nine of 10 free-product coupons. Carter contacted the store manager, who made it right.

"Don't be afraid to ask management for clarification," she says. "Also, don't be afraid to put an item back if it doesn't ring up properly or they refuse to take your coupon."

Post continues below video.

Lauren Greutman usually challenges mistakes, but says she is flexible. For example, if she's gotten her three kids into their car seats before discovering an error, she might let it go.

"I am not embarrassed or ashamed to (protest) someone doing something wrong with my money. I just have to weigh if it is worth it to me," says Greutman, who blogs at I Am That Lady.


On the other hand, Laura Harders has gone to the customer service desk for an error as small as not getting credit for bringing her own bags. "It's just another opportunity to save," says Harders, who blogs at Beltway Bargain Mom.


She suggests a twofold approach: Watch the scanner carefully, and check your receipts before you leave the store.

It adds up

I can imagine what some of you are thinking: Why such a fuss over a missed coupon or a nickel-a-bag credit?

Think of the bigger picture. "Good Morning America" reports that scanner inaccuracies cost U.S. consumers between $1 billion and $2.5 billion per year.

So yes, it does add up. Besides, if a store advertises a sale price, it ought to honor that price. If a store accepts coupons, they should be rung up accurately.

"If you're willing to clip coupons to save a few cents, or buy a sale item to save a few cents,"  Harders says, "you certainly should not have to pay a 'politeness tax.'"

Incidentally, some stores will give you the item for free if it rings up incorrectly. Just sayin'.

Do you challenge mistakes at the register?

More from MSN Money

Aug 21, 2012 4:18PM

I work for a large grocery store and it is always good to correct us on price differences but please do it in a polite way.  Honestly, the employees and management of the stores I have worked for are not trying to steal your money by overcharging.  Things get missed because of the vast number of changes made each week.  Sometimes we goof up, pure and simple.


I guess there are people out there that are dishonest and use these excuses as cover but I have not met any of them as coworkers.  We are like so many companies today and are under staffed and  each of us is expected to do the work of  several people. 


So if you notice a pricing error, speak up and make us correct it because we want to have it right.  Just don't attack us when you do it, if at all possible.

Aug 21, 2012 3:48PM

Dear Ms. Wong,


"Get Rich Slowly staff writer Kristin Wong recently did an article on "The politeness tax" -- money she's lost recently because she was too intimidated to speak up."


You are confusing "politeness" with "intimidation".  One can inquire about a price discrepancy without being rude.  If one is too shy to make such an inquiry, it is, in effect, a "shyness" tax.

Aug 21, 2012 4:05PM

Scanner errors can go both ways.  The question I have is do people point it out when the mistake is in their favor or just when it's in the store's favor?  I am a consumer, not a store representative, and I have brought scanning errors to the attention of the cashiers whether the mistake was to the store's benefit or mine.

Aug 21, 2012 3:59PM
I recently had a beef with a big box home center store.  I wanted a new storm door and paid for measuring and then went to the store and ordered the door and paid for it and the installation.  I was told Iw as getting some kind of discount from the township for the purchase of the door.  A year before I got the same information in another dept. from another sales associate when I bought a different item.  Everything went perfectly as to the door installation.  About two weeks later, I got a call from the store wanting to know if I was satisfied with the door installation and I said I was. After I said that I was informed I needed to pay the balance.  What balance?  The lady from the store told me they hold back 10% of the actual cost just in case I was not satisfied with the installation.  How come no one told me that at the time I purchased and paid?  What happened to my township discount?  I called my township and was informed they have no arrangement with that store and then I called the store manager.  He said it was a state thing (?)  I checked with that store's competition about the situation I encountered and they knew nothing about a township discount, a balance holdback or anything and said I should not have paid the "balance."  That's when I filed a complaint with the state, which I mailed last week.  The balance is about $20.00, but suppose I had spent $3,000.00 and was told I owed a "balance" of $300.00!!!!  No more Ms. Nice Guy.
Aug 21, 2012 8:59PM
I hated, as a cashier, when people had the mindset that I was in charge of how much it rang up, and it's my fault it didn't ring up right.  Yeah, like I was pocketing the difference.   Not everyone was that way, and I totally understand watching the prices, I do it too.  And I like how this article is emphasizing politeness.  I mostly had good customers, but it was those few jerks that really irked me.  
Aug 21, 2012 3:59PM
do you know how many times i have gone to starbucks and the guy quickly swiped my card and then thought it didnt go through and swiped it again. do you know how much starbucks must make in the billions over people not contacting the bank for 2.78 cents. i have and i have to go through weeks of investigating for 2.78. completely ridiculous. im sure plenty of businesses make millions hoping you wont notice
Aug 22, 2012 8:28AM
Yes, I challenge mistakes at the register when I catch them. I do it in restaurants, stores, wherever. I don't always catch errors when they are made. Sometimes I catch them way too late to take action.

But an even better question for posters is:
If the error is in your favor, and you notice it, are you honest enough to call attention to it?
I do, because I think right is right and fair is fair.  There are enough places that will penalize  employees personally , like waiters or waitresses, for the errors. If the shoe were on the other foot, I would hope I had honest, attentive customers who caught the mistake and told me about it. And while I don't always hear a "thank you" from the person whose attention I call to the error in my favor, I know that honesty really is the best policy in life.

Aug 21, 2012 4:25PM
"Coupon blogger Briana Carter recently had a cashier ring up only nine of 10 free-product coupons. Carter contacted the store manager, who made it right." Why didn't she just tell the cashier?
Aug 21, 2012 4:56PM

This article should be renamed, "Being a doormat could cost you money". There is an enormous differance between being a polite person with a quite reserve, assertiveness and inner strength, and being a doormat who is too foolhardy to stand up for themselves!!! This article has nothing to do with being "polite". It's a lesson in assertiveness, which has nothing to do with table manners.


Moving right along...

Aug 21, 2012 3:57PM
I get overcharged quite a bit at the stores I frequent.  Just yesterday I bought an item on sale from 3.99 to 1.99.  At the register I was charged 2.99.  After I got the slip and saw the error I went to the service desk and got my dollar back.  I believe I am overcharged at least once each larger shopping trip.  It helps if you know the price of the things you buy and always check the receipt.  If I am getting the overcharges imagine the 100's of people that must get them and the means more profits for the stores.  People shouldn't be embarrassed money is too tight for most of us. 
Aug 21, 2012 3:57PM

This isn't challenging the supermarket or an issue of politeness...this is verification.  If the scanner is ringing up incorrectly or so fast that I can't see if there's an issue, I speak up!


And that there are others in line isn't my issue; if I'm being rung up wrong so are they and so should appreciate that someone is battling on everyone's behalf.

Aug 22, 2012 2:18PM

I always watch and speak up at registers when the prices dont match the signage.  Yes, I can remember the prices, if you cant write down your sales items at least. 


Walmart is the worse, King Soopers will compensate or have someone check, but they like to embarass you for having to check prices.


Walmart in Colorado had some fishing poles at $19.99 these were ugly sticks that normally run $49.99, when I took 6 of them to the register, the clerk rang them up and I noted that they were on sale, he disagreed and went to the display where there were several ugly sticks.  His Walmart response, "Are you nuts, do you really think we're selling them for $19.99, that's a mistake and Im not giving you that price, we have to make profit too, so do you want them or not."  As I told him, I didnt set the display Walmart did, so they should honor the price, his Walmart response, "You can go to hell if you think Im giving you that price."  I asked him to call the manager and he walked away from the sporting good department and got lost in the store. 


Always know your prices and stand up to the register and make these stores work at their profits.

Aug 22, 2012 1:01PM
Publix supermarkets in the southeast U.S. will give you the item for free if you discover any difference in price, it's nice.
Aug 21, 2012 6:19PM
Wal-mart is the worst.  It is not uncommon to see errors up to $1.00 anymore.  I always do what I can to avoid that place. 
Aug 22, 2012 10:50AM
I'm sure that if they are charging an extra billion dollars a year that they are also losing a billion somewhere. I work in the business and scanners can be a nightmare. I have seen items put in the POS with the price left out. ie. it scans and comes up zero. Your average associate scans the product with the other items hears the beep and keeps going. A whole pallet or display of items can go out the door with nobody noticing (except the consumer) and it is pretty damn rare that they come back and insist on paying. The FDA comes into most establishments and randomly scan items. You have to pass their test to get a certificate. And if you think they they are not watching the big box stores than you are insane. And whats with all these lonely seniors posting on here? They should just be looking at internet porn
Aug 22, 2012 10:25AM

The worst is Wal-Mart, but grocery stores can be just as bad. I always watch the prices as it rings up you would be surprised at what you can catch.

Aug 21, 2012 4:23PM
They need to put an end to ALL automated registers.  They take peoples' jobs and have those horribly rude All-American voices telling us how must as "smart shoppers" saved today.  Go to a human checkout people always; it's their living.  If the make a mistake, tell them; don't be ashamed.  They can make a mistake.  If their are too many people behind you, it's because they gave many of the jobs away to those wonderful machines; let them hire back more human workers.
Aug 21, 2012 9:34PM
Allowing a business to overcharge you, in other words "cheat you", is not being polite, nor is the overcharge a 'polite tax'. It's cheating and many times the store is aware of it.   Why doesn't the store choose to be "polite" and undercharge you......thereby creating a "polite cost" ?   Speak up, complain, otherwise the stores will have no reason to make corrections.
Aug 22, 2012 1:51PM

Watch carefully when you check-out at Walmart.  I have had more problems with them than any other store.  The cashiers are so worked up that they make mistakes every time I buy groceries there.  I had one cashier who charged my wife for 14 cantalopes when she only bought 1.  Luckily, I looked at the receipt when I checked it off of my charge card statement.  I asked my wife why she bought 14 cantalopes and she said that it must have been a mistake.  I quickly drove to Walmart (about two weeks after the purchase was made, but right after I noticed the mistake), and the store's assistant manager had to go back into the stores recorded video to check it out.  I received a phone call two days later to say that my wife did buy only one cantalope, and she was sorry for the mistake.  I told the manager that I expected to be compensated for my time and aggravation and she so generously (not generous at all) gave me a $5 gift card. 

That is an extreme example, but Walmart employees are always messing things up.

Be very careful when going through the checkout line.  I now go to the store with my wife to buy groceries.  I load the conveyer belt while she watches the cashier ring up our purchases.  Then, I check the receipt on the way out the door as I push the shopping cart.  I also have my wife double check it. 

Also, make sure that you check to make sure that they give you all of your bagged groceries.  They sometimes forget.  Recently, I had 1 cashier who stuffed the bags and ripped them (where my groceries were falling out when I picked up the bags from the turn stile), and 3 cashiers who wouldn't let me turn the turn stile to get my grocery bags (all were women who flipped out and yanked the turn stile back so that they could stuff the bags full (ripping them and making them too heavy to pick up).  I hate Walmart as do most people, but from the treatment I get there, they don't care.  I tolerate the employees because I save money on my groceries (when they don't cheat me by charging more for items than they are supposed to).  Good luck shopping there, and keep your eyes open.

Aug 21, 2012 8:36PM
Sure, a dollar here, .50 there certainly adds up.  I challenge anything I see that does not ring up correctly.  How much do you spend over the year if you dont?
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.