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Facing the unknown – in retail

Five years ago, my kid was a freshman at VCU in Richmond, Virginia.

After finding the interstate path undesirable, I mapped out a way to get there by lesser highways and only lose about 20 minutes of time. (Of course, that was based off no roadwork or accidents on the interstates, which was frequent, so the time was probably equal.)

Along these less frenetic roads, I was calmer and didn’t mind making regular stops to stretch the legs and grab snacks.

Imagine my surprise in finding that no matter what store I visited, there were no price tags on the food. I had no idea what any of the items cost.

So I would look for things that came with their own prices attached like Little Debbie snack cakes and potato chip bags.

The stores apparently got wise to that because soon they offered two or three dessert brands, but not Little Debbie. And the same type of chocolate-covered doughnuts or oatmeal creme pie cost three times as much when I had them priced at the register.

So I refused to pay that price and left the items at the counter.

In one store I didn’t feel like taking things to the counter so I hollered out from a couple dozen feet away, “Hey, how much is this snack?”

The man said he didn’t know.

“What about this one?” I asked, pointing to another shelf.

He said he could tell me if I brought it to the register, but he didn’t know the price of any of them.

“You have an entire display of snacks, and you don’t know the price of any of them? And you don’t show a price so I might know the price of them, either?”

He said he was sorry, but it wasn’t his rule. It was the company’s.

I learned to stop at Food Lion or Dollar General in town and pick up a bag of goodies before ever heading out for VCU. I refused to buy something if they won’t tell me what it costs.

That was five years ago.

Now imagine my surprise that this trend is growing throughout Surry County. More and more convenience stores don’t list prices on many of their goods.

After Hurricane Katrina, people in New Orleans were fighting mad that opportunistic retailers were jacking up listings on things like water and batteries in obvious displays of price gouging.

But, if stores never list prices in the first place, how would you know if the price jumped up 50% or 100% during a crisis?

This ticks me off so bad. Why is this legal? And is it going to grow to other types of stores?

The retailers obviously want to entice us with their products, get us all the way to the register and then sway us into buying an overpriced item because we are already so committed to the purchase. This is clearly manipulative.

If it didn’t work, no one would do it. And since it does work, why haven’t our lawmakers done something about it?

Trust me, I don’t like big government. I am a “live and let live” kind of guy. But these business people are trying to pull a fast one on me, and that infringes on my rights.

I tried searching for consumer rights and pricing regulations on Google, and I didn’t come across much. I found a 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce listing what each state offers as protection.

In Virginia there was Statute 3.2-5627: Pricing of retail merchandise.

A. In a point-of-sale system the selling price of a consumer item displayed or offered for sale at retail shall be clearly and conspicuously indicated in Arabic numerals, so as to be readable and understandable by visual inspection, and shall be stamped upon or affixed to the consumer item or posted at or adjacent to the display.

B. Any person who knowingly violates the provisions of this section is guilty of a Class 4 misdemeanor.

That sounds simple and reasonable to me. It was enacted in 1991 and tweaked in 1993.

Then it was repealed effective Oct. 1, 2008. What? Repealed? Why?

Now get this, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee haven’t had any such regulations to start with. So we are surrounded by states that offer no more protection than our own.

How do other states differ?

In California, it is illegal to charge a higher price than what is advertised (in print ads, TV commercials, store stickers). State inspectors will go through the store, and if a certain percentage of goods is higher than what is advertised, then a fine of $25 per item can be charged up to $1,000; and if the fine total is on the high side, the person can even be subject to jail time for being “grossly negligent” up to a year.

Under Arizona law, the report says that if a business does not have prices displayed, the first inspection is a stern warning.

On second inspection, if the business fails, it has 30 minutes to get prices up on any item not priced.

If the store has fewer than 96% of items priced after 30 minutes, then the inspector can impose a civil penalty of $50 for each non-priced inspected lot.

When the inspector comes back for a third inspection, any unpriced good results in a civil penalty of $100.

Now I will admit that $50 an item sounds outrageous. But, remember, this is a state where stores have long known that pricing is not an option.

In this state, if the N.C. General Assembly passed a similar law, that penalty could be as low as $1 per lot in a store with many types of items (when you think about gum, breath mints, soda, candy bars, etc.). Fearing that hefty fine, it wouldn’t take long for retailers to comply.

But our lawmakers don’t think we as North Carolinians have a right to know the price of things that we are trying to purchase.

So what exactly has the General Assembly been doing this year — aside from everything related to COVID-19?

What about Senate Bill 782?

“An act amending the campaign finance laws to raise the limit on merchandise sales for political parties,” says the title of the bill that was passed into law.

I’m not sure what the limit was before, but the bill said it would raise the new limit to $10,000. Then during haggling on the floor of the General Assembly, the number was bumped up to $20,000.

So this is how our elected officials are spending their time: haggling over how much to raise limits on their own campaign finance laws.

Or how about the hundreds of hours spent in gerrymandering? Which is trying to redraw voting districts so that one political party can try to keep itself in power over the other. Both Republicans and Democrats have been guilty of this, as if two wrongs make a right.

This is why Surry County is split up like Mount Airy and Pilot Mountain don’t belong together.

These elected people are doing things for themselves. What about looking after their constituents?



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