June 2, 2004
The days of consumers getting frustrated because they can’t find a price on an item or can’t watch the register at the checkout are coming to an end.
Beginning Saturday, merchants who don’t post prices on or near every item they sell will be subject to mandatory civil penalties. The state Department of Weights and Measures will let them off with a warning the first time, but repeat offenders could end up shelling out hundreds of dollars in fines.
The new rule permits the state agency to stop the sale of items if the retailer does not comply with the law within 30 minutes.
There also is a provision that requires all cash registers to have a screen visible to customers during the sale to ensure they are not being overcharged. Machines that aren’t brought into compliance will be shut down.
The department rule includes a section that says prices for online sales must be listed and that what is charged must be what was quoted at the date and time of the order.
Arizona has had a price posting rule for years. But until now, it has applied only to goods wrapped in packages, and there were no rules about either cash registers or Internet sales.
Dennis Ehrhart, who runs the compliance section of the Department of Weights and Measures, said the exceptions left customers without the ability to comparison shop. And the inability to see the register undermined existing regulations requiring retailers to give customers a grease pencil or other method of marking prices on unmarked items so they can ensure what is being run up matches the price advertised.
"We want to make sure the folks know (what they’re paying) before they get to the register," he said.
The rules mean anyone going to buy a used car will find a price on the window rather than having to find a sales rep to figure out what the dealer is asking. Bobbi Sparrow, who lobbies for the Arizona Automobile Dealers Association, said members of her organization already follow that practice.
But it might create problems for dealers that sell only used vehicles. Charity Crawford, executive director of the Arizona Independent Automobile Dealers Association, would not comment on the rules.
Ehrhart said the rules still allow buyers to negotiate on the price. In all cases, he said, any revisions have to be down from the posted price; a dealer who attempts to charge more will be breaking the law.
Normally this would be an issue only on used cars, as new cars have the manufacturer’s suggested retail price on the window. But Ehrhart said a dealer that intends to get a premium for a vehicle in high demand must post the highest price expected on the vehicle.
Ehrhart said rules about cash registers stem from practices used at many department stores where the only screen faces the sales clerk.
Now, he said, the screen will need to be turned so that the customer can see it.
If that isn’t possible, he said, retailers will need to buy accessories such as a second screen that faces the consumer.
The old rule gave the agency discretion about when to levy a penalty and when to forgive. Ehrhart said that system will be gone: If a problem is found after a courtesy first inspection, the retailer will pay.
That second offense will result in a $50 fine for each batch of identical items; a subsequent violation equals $100 per batch, with each future offense boosting the fine by another $100. Failure to correct the problem within 30 minutes means the item cannot be sold until a price is posted on it.
Ehrhart said the only real complaint about the expanded price posting rules came from jewelry stores.
"They didn’t want to put the price on things because of smash-and-grab people," he said, thieves who will bust out a jewelry case "to get the expensive stuff." Ehrhart said the solution is simple: Put the price on a tag and turn it backwards.
The rule covers more than outright sales. Rentals are also subject to the price posting, even if the item is not readily displayed.
So someone going to rent equipment to dig a trench or throw a party would have to have access to a price list. The alternative, Ehrhart said, would be that when the item is brought from the back, there would be a tag on it that the would-be renter could see before signing any contracts.
Ehrhart said there are some limits to the rules. Individuals who have yard sales, he said, need not fear that a state inspector is going to show up and fine them for failing to put tags on each item.
But Ehrhart said those who buy space at swap meets will be expected to comply with the new rules.