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Dale Investigates: Don’t Always Trust the Cash Register

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One Walmart store in Holly Springs was charging its Georgia customers a California only recycling fee! Do you know what’s on your receipt?

Have you ever noticed that little barcode on almost every item you purchase? If you’ve ever used a self checkout, you have to find that barcode and scan it for each item. It’s called a UPC, a universal product code, and almost anything with a price has one. The barcode holds information about a product. When a cash register scans the UPC, it matches the product information with a price in the store’s database, and that price shows up on your register.

But sometimes the information in the pricing database is wrong. That’s what happened with the Walmart in Holly Springs. Somehow, when their registers saw certain items, they were charging a recycling fee that only applies in California.

It turns out that some of the cashiers knew about this pricing error and were happy to fix it for people. One cashier we met even looked for people buying those products to help make sure they had the fee removed. But what if you didn’t have a cashier looking out for you like that?

Price Scanning

Price scanning using UPCs has been around since the 70s. Today, almost everything you buy has a UPC. It makes checking out faster, increases price accuracy compared to manually entering each price, and saves on labor costs for retailers. It also gives retailers an easy way to manage inventory. But like most technology, you still need to pay attention.

Because pricing information is retrieved automatically from a central database, there can be errors. A database may have old or incorrect information. In the case of the Walmart store in Holly Springs, their database had a California recycling fee attached to many of their bottled beverages being sold in Georgia. The human cashiers knew about the error and knew to correct it, but that’s not always the case.

How to Avoid Price Scanning Errors

  • Know the prices of the items you are purchasing.
  • Watch the cash register display as your items are being rung up. Let your cashier know if something looks wrong.
  • Check your receipt before you leave the store (or better yet, the checkout line).
  • If you notice a pattern of price scanning errors, alert customer service or the store management.

If a consistent price scanning problem seems to be intentional, you can contact the Georgia Consumer Protections Unit to report deceptive or fraudulent business practices.

And, of course, you can always contact TrustDALE.com if you have a consumer complaint that you just can’t resolve.