CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - Independent investigations by the Hamilton County Auditor's Office and FOX19 are revealing major pricing errors in some Cincinnati stores as holiday shoppers try to take advantage of big discounts. The investigations show that customers are not always charged the price listed on the shelf when they get to the register and a cashier scans the merchandise's barcode.
"Generally it is, you know, with all of the sales going on, a lot of shelf tags being changed," said Tom Woods, the lead inspector for the weights and measures division of the Hamilton County Auditor's Office.
FOX19 caught up with Woods on a recent morning when he was doing surprise inspections at the Sam's Club and Costco in Springdale. Both stores easily passed.
"Everything was perfect," Woods said, coming out of the Sam's. "Zero errors. We did 100 items scanned randomly and all the prices checked-out perfectly."
He uses a special barcode reader that prints a receipt full of the barcodes of the random merchandise he's scanned. He then takes that printout to a cash register to see what the store's scanner identifies the price as. If it's different than the label on the shelf, it's a violation. In a 100 item test, a store is not allowed more than two violations or it fails the inspection.
According to the auditor's office's log of the stores inspected this year, inspectors found the highest number of scanner errors at the Kmart on Beechmont Avenue in Anderson Township. That store had 13 errors. But five of them actually would've benefited the customer by charging him or her less than the price on the shelf.
It's not uncommon either.
"Well, that's true!" said Auditor Dusty Rhodes. "And we find that quite a bit that the consumers will benefit from a mislabeling situation, as well. So the stores are generally happy to see us coming."
Kmart likely would not have been happy to see FOX19 coming had we not gone into its Anderson Township location undercover. We wanted to capture with a hidden camera whether store employees had corrected the scanner errors. After buying a diverse range of items, we thought we had been overcharged for a holiday tablecloth. But upon looking at the video from inside the store, we realized a customer had likely put the tablecloth on the wrong rack after looking at it.
"People move items around, especially around this time of year," said Woods.
He says that generates a lot of complaints from consumers.
But in the end, that's "not the store's fault," Woods said. "They will honor (the cheaper price) in a lot of cases. But that's not their fault."
We also discovered Kmart's scanner gave us the sale price on some gym shorts for a sale that wasn't supposed to begin until the next day. That made us happy. But it would've been a violation had an inspector found it.
Kmart did not respond to FOX19's request for comment about this story.
In going through the inspectors' reports from this year, one of the most surprising scanner errors occurred when an inspector scanned a wool coat at the JC Penney's on Fields Ertel Road. What was supposed to be a $56 coat rang-up at $80. It was one of only two scanner errors the inspector found that day, so the store passed the test.
"The timing of the inspection coincided with efforts to markdown our entire inventory of seasonal items, which likely resulted in the two discrepancies," said JC Penney's corporate spokesman Joey Thomas. "Fortunately, nearly all items scanned correctly, and our store passed the price verification inspection."
Managers of Kroger grocery stores also found themselves subjected to inspectors' surprise visits this year. Hamilton County's reports show that 16 Kroger locations were tested in 2012. Four locations were tested twice and passed both times. Six different locations were tested once and passed.
However, six Kroger stores failed their tests. Of the 23 scanner errors inspectors found, 15 would've cost a customer more money than what was listed on the item's shelf label. In eight cases, the customer would've paid less.
A Kroger spokeswoman says store employees "perform daily checks to ensure price accuracy for shoppers."
Hamilton County auditors actually applaud Kroger for its "Scan Right Guarantee." If a customer sees that an item has scanned at a higher price than the shelf tag, sign, or product label they get one of that item for free, as long as it's worth $5 or less. (Alcohol and tobacco products are excluded.)
"Retaining our customer's confidence and trust in us is of paramount importance to all of us at Kroger," said spokeswoman Jennifer Gross. "If an error is brought to our attention, we take immediate action to verify and, if needed, correct (it)."
The Target store on Beechmont Avenue in Anderson Township had the second-highest number of scanner errors for a single store, according to the auditor's records obtained by FOX19. An inspector found nine violations there. Most of them would've benefited the customer. But not if they bought a Minnie Mouse birthday item, which was supposed to cost $8.99 but rang-up at $21.99.
It's an issue that a Target spokeswoman says the department store chain focuses on a lot.
"Our store teams are committed to ensuring that shelf tags are accurately updated to illustrate sales prices and temporary price cuts, and that clearance pricing is clearly marked on our product," said Target's Jessica Deede.
Of course, no one's alleging that any of these stores are deliberately trying to charge customers more. But with so many stores experiencing various scanner errors, what's a consumer to do?
"Well, what you should do is treat retailers just like we used to treat the Russians when it came to the Cold War," said FOX19 financial analyst Nathan Bachrach. "Trust but verify."
That means either writing down the shelf price on a piece of paper or taking a quick picture of the shelf label with your cell phone. Bachrach also recommends using your mobile phone to find the best deals.
Meanwhile, Hamilton County's Tom Woods says he's seeing far fewer scanner errors in stores than he did ten years ago. And in Butler County, Consumer Services Director Thomas Kamphaus tells FOX19 the auditor's office there has seen a dramatic decrease in the number of stores failing scanner inspections just within the past year. Butler County had 24-percent of its stores fail last year, he said. This year, that's fallen to 14%.