Grocery receipt mistakes costing Canadians plenty

Check your grocery receipt

If you’re not checking your grocery receipts for errors before leaving the store, chances are you’re overpaying for some of your groceries, especially for discounted items.

In the U.S., some states have tried to put a number to the problem of receipt discrepancies. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Standards Division collected fines—the average fine was between US$40,000 to US$50,000—from dozens of Walmart stores due to pricing errors over the course of 2022.

The agency found about 26% of price scanner inspection failures. The technology itself was an issue, not human error. The department also detected that in roughly 10 per cent of cases, at least one item was overcharged for one reason or another.

Aldi in Australia recently got into hot water when consumers took to Facebook to share easy-to-spot errors the grocer was committing. Worse, the errors were repetitive. In the same country, at Coles Supermarkets, it was revealed an automatic discount was issued to regular shoppers who were mistakenly charged full price on previously discounted items. The chain even spontaneously printed the word “apology” on receipts.

In Canada, few know how significant this problem is but mistakes on grocery receipts do happen and they happen for a variety of reasons. For one, cashiers or other employees may accidentally input the wrong item or price into the system. Also, the store’s technical equipment may malfunction, leading to incorrect pricing or item information, especially on items that are either volume discounted or even “enjoy tonight” deals.

Price discrepancies are also quite frequent. Stores may update their pricing regularly, especially these days, leading to differences between the advertised price and the actual price charged at the checkout. Scanning errors may also occur when an item can be double-scanned.

Another common mistake will occur even before you show up at the register. While shopping, you may think you’re reaching for an item on sale but end up with a higher-priced item because a clerk stocked the shelf with the wrong product.

Mistakes on receipts can happen for countless reasons, but some people never check receipts. Anywhere from 35% to 45% of Canadians rarely, if ever, verify grocery receipts for errors, according to estimates, while about 30% of consumers will always check. Many don’t bother because they feel rushed or can’t pay attention for one reason or another. Some opt to use self-checkouts for that exact reason.

The onus is on you to be extra careful.

Consumers who are more vigilant and check for mistakes will likely save more money. But as a shopper in Canada, you do have rights if you see a mistake at the grocery store that ends up costing you more.

Many years ago, the Retail Council of Canada, along with the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, instituted a national scanner price voluntary code. Consumers are entitled to a discount of up to $10 for each scanning error at participating food retailers, including Walmart, Sobeys, Loblaws, Costco and Metro.

In Quebec, it’s the law. Grocers must give the discount but in the rest of the country, retailers should comply with the code and give you a discount and are obligated to display a description of your rights as a shopper at checkout areas.

The pressure of exiting the store as soon as possible, coupled with bagging items yourself, means that errors can be overlooked. With food prices the way they are these days, if you see a mistake, don’t hesitate to alert a clerk or manager.

And don’t wait until you get home. Few will go back or will forget about it.

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Many Canadians skeptical of new drinking recommendations

Guidelines hard to swallow

It looks like we all need to drink less alcohol.

Last fall, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA), a national organization that provides information and advice on substance use and addiction, shared recommendations that we should all drink no more than one or two drinks a week. We learned recently these are now Canada’s official guidelines.

Since 2011, in Canada, moderate drinking has been defined as up to two standard drinks per day for women and up to three standard drinks per day for men, with no more than 10 standard drinks per week for women and 15 standard drinks per week for men. So, a limit of one or two drinks a week is a complete departure from the public recommendations we had been given before. Furthermore, the CCSA also recommends adding warning labels on bottles, stating that alcohol can cause cancer.

It’s unclear whether Canadians would appreciate such labels, but when looking at the scientific literature and the links between alcohol consumption and cancer, the findings in recent years are overwhelming. The evidence that alcohol causes seven types of cancer is now incredibly strong. Numerous studies from all over the world can easily be found; many of them aren’t cited by the CCSA. Some articles claim that current estimates suggest that alcohol-attributable cancers make up 5.8 per cent of all cancer deaths globally.

These studies, coupled with the CCSA’s recommendations, will likely be received by many Canadians with great skepticism. After all, we are living longer, and many seniors drink regularly and responsibly without experiencing any health issues.

Alcohol has been around for a very, very long time. Historians claim that fermented beverages existed in ancient Egypt. Some archives also suggest alcohol was drunk by the Chinese over 9,000 years ago. Intuitively, it’s hard to understand why anyone would put alcohol in the penalty box, as we did with cigarettes or other such harmful products in our lives. According to multiple studies, other substances and factors can cause cancer. But the risks have now been demonstrated scientifically.

But the CCSA’s scientific evaluation is far from perfect. For one, a number of studies still show the benefits of moderate consumption when considering all the causes of mortality in determining health risks. In other words, drinking may not be the main cause of death, even for a regular consumer of alcohol. These studies are mentioned in the report but barely in passing.

Another of the CCSA’s most significant oversights is its evaluation of the social and cultural aspects of drinking. Alcohol is very much part of many celebrations, leisure events, holidays, vacations, end-of-day routines, and more. The CCSA dismissed all research which looked at the social value of alcohol, believing none of it was worthy of scientific consideration. Perhaps overlooking such an important piece of behavioural science will only make more Canadians unconvinced. This research area requires more attention, and many Canadians would likely concur.

Socializing alcohol doesn’t just have its bright side, though. Undesirable social problems are also obvious, including mental and physical ailments, incidences of abuse, sexual and domestic violence, harassment, and so forth. Alcohol is often part of our society’s darker side.

The CCSA’s recommendations point to an opportunity for Canadians to have a deeper, better understanding of our relationship with alcohol. We need to be open and honest with ourselves while appreciating the fact that enjoying our favourite alcoholic beverage responsibly, in moderation, remains the most balanced policy.

But there is hope. If we can make chicken meat in the laboratory, we can certainly make synthetic, non-cancer-causing alcohol. In fact, GABA Labs, based in the U.K., has already launched a product called Sentia, which mimics the effects of alcohol, but doesn’t cause a hangover or long-term health consequences. Many expect the science to be perfected and commercially available in many outlets within five years. Quite promising.

Still, our beverage industry has done wonders for Canadians and will undoubtedly continue to innovate and offer great products for all to enjoy.

Food science can come to the rescue and help many Canadians lead better, healthier lifestyles. But in the meantime, the CCSA’s report is likely a difficult message for Canadians to swallow.

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Grocer code of conduct could help reduce loss of trust in sector

Gaining shoppers trust

A grocer code of conduct is coming to Canada.

The United Kingdom and Australia, where grocer oligopolies exist, have a similar code already. This is great news for consumers. In fact, it should be considered a minor miracle.

It all started in 2020 when Michael Medline, Sobeys’ big boss, told the Empire Club in Toronto that the major stores, including Walmart, Loblaws, Costco, Metro and Sobeys, were abusing their power by introducing all kinds of fees to their suppliers in a brutally random way.

Medline’s announcement sent shock waves through the industry, upsetting the in-group among retailers keen to continue intimidating the rest of the industry. At the time, Eric Laflèche and his team at Metro, for example, told some reporters to ignore this issue and that the industry was fine. Total arrogance.

Now, after just a few years of this, the public sees the major chains as public enemy number one. Our food retailers are accused of abuse and trickery daily.

Grocers have now begun to realize that there might be a problem. Major grocery chains have had a lot of power, maybe too much. The famous dispute between Frito-Lay and Loblaws last year exposed the problem to the public. It was ugly, very ugly.

Marie-Claude Bibeau, the federal agriculture minister, supported by André Lamontagne, Quebec’s agriculture minister, took the lead by creating a working committee to develop a code of conduct for the industry to give Canada’s food processors a chance to be heard. Since then, the project has really become the responsibility of Lamontagne and Quebec. The project will establish a code that will help the industry, but above all, consumers.

The leadership of Lamontagne and MAPAQ clearly compensated for the bewildering inertia of the Ford government in Ontario. The food processing sector in Ontario is the largest part of the manufacturing sector in Canada’s largest province, which makes Ontario’s silence puzzling.

But consumers will also gain in the long run. Many Canadians are unaware that suppliers must pay grocers to do business. While the fee is justified by merchandising costs and shelf space, the types of costs you would expect, things of changed in recent years. Companies like Loblaws, Walmart, and Metro abuse the system, and some levies have been imposed quickly, incidentally, and unilaterally. It is now more difficult in Canada for food processors and independent grocers to compete.

A code of conduct for grocers should change the culture of an industry where vertical co-ordination and collaboration barely exist. It is also about tackling a broken business model. A code can neutralize power relations within the chain, stabilize retail prices, emphasize value and innovation for consumers, improve the security of the domestic food supply, and encourage investment in the agri-food sector. In the U.K., where a grocer code of practice exists since 2010, the country’s food inflation has historically been lower than Canada’s.

It must be understood that the code is not about endorsing a police state or some attempt to nationalize our food distribution. The spirit of the code is to establish greater discipline and eliminate breaches of trust, which is exactly what we have now. Many supply chain relationships are dysfunctional, while public trust is at an all-time low.

The governance around the code will also allow for greater transparency, something we sorely lack at present. A secretariat will be created to enable industry to be accountable to itself and the public.

For some time now, with an inflation rate that has reached record levels, consumers have been increasingly frustrated, fed up, and downright deprived at the grocery store. We want to better understand the mechanics behind pricing. Now, we’re left to guess at just about everything. Consumers do not feel informed or protected.

The code will surely help in these respects. The code will also help independent grocers who deserve a chance to compete against the bigger retailers. Innovation, variety, and food congruity for all of us often go through the independents.

But it is a voluntary, government-coordinated and industry-led code. Compliance and consumer trust will be significant challenges, especially for now. Time will tell if the code will be effective.

The irony in all of this is that, in the beginning, it was food manufacturers who wanted a code. Now, knowing that they are facing a crisis of confidence, grocers themselves need the code, more than ever.

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

We all pay for grocery store theft

Combating theft from stores

Grocery theft has always been a major problem, but with food inflation as it is, shopkeepers now fear the wrongdoers more than before.

In December, some Ontarians visited stores in Trois-Rivières, Que. to steal $4,000 worth of meat. In Sherbrooke, Que. a man was arrested following a shoplifting incident a few days before Christmas, and two other people are still on the loose. They stole more than $2,000 worth of groceries.

Since they got caught, these thefts were probably perpetrated by amateurs, who may have been already doing this for a while. The volume and the amounts tell us, though, that they were targeting a resale market, likely in the food service industry.

These two cases are obviously known due to media coverage. But most such incidents are handled by store management. Cases of grocery store theft are grossly under-reported, and obtaining food theft data is extremely challenging.

Most thefts are in-store, off-the-shelf, of only a few products and usually driven by desperation, negligence, or a mixture of both. But the most troublesome and financially damaging incidents for grocers are those carried out by internal employees. Those cases rarely make headlines due to their sensitive nature, as the optics can be embarrassing. Volume and valuation for these cases are usually more important.

Theft, in general, in food retail is taboo. But with the food inflation rate exceeding the prevailing inflation rate for more than a year now, the industry realizes that its theft problem is worse than before.

According to some industry data, an average-sized food retail store in Canada can have between $2,000 and $5,000 worth of groceries stolen every week. With the relatively narrow profit margins in grocery, this amount is huge.

To cover losses, grocers need to raise prices, so in the end, we all pay for grocery theft.

Some stores are increasing security to prevent theft these days. There are certainly security guards at the entrance, but there is also more security in the form of personnel dressed in civilian clothes, patrolling the stores all day pretending to do their shopping. It’s a discreet tactic but one that is very effective.

Elsewhere in the world, certain methods are much more visible. Some stores in the United States, Europe and elsewhere have even installed anti-theft alarms directly on certain products, especially on meat cuts, cheese, and confectionery.

No merchant has done the same thing in Canada, at least not yet. But don’t be surprised if you see these devices here in Canada at some point. Also, you can expect more cameras, more surveillance and more security in general, as your favourite grocer won’t have a choice.

The other challenge facing grocers is self-checkouts. In a recent survey by our lab, more than 65 per cent of consumers now prefer to use a self-checkout with an order of fewer than 20 items. They are increasingly popular. But monitoring at the point of service is challenging: the technology is still not yet ready to limit theft.

Limiting labour and handling required by the consumer at the exit during the self-checkout process is not easy. Using the smart cart, which calculates everything automatically, or a giant black box in which we put all our products at checkout and calculate everything in a few seconds can help. Canada, though, is still not there.

The world’s first self-service supermarket, the Piggly Wiggly, opened in Memphis in 1916. Customers were allowed to visit the aisles on their own. Like today, a customer would receive a basket and choose from the various items they wanted. That was 107 years ago, and, back then, the greatest fear was also theft.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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