OPINION | Always be alert to prices charged at the till

Unrecognisable woman checking a long supermarket receipt with grocery on foreground.
Unrecognisable woman checking a long supermarket receipt with grocery on foreground.
Image: 123RF/stokkete

If there’s one line consumers have really latched on to, it is “The price you see is the price you pay”, taking it to mean, understandably, that they have a legal right to pay no more than the shelf or advertised price.

In fact, the slogan was introduced by the government in 1991 when VAT was introduced, in an attempt to make consumers aware that the advertised price must include the tax.

The VAT Act states that prices quoted or advertised by a vendor must include VAT, unless clearly specified that it excludes VAT – a legality which many online traders conveniently ignore in order to make their advertised prices seem more appealing.

But there is a significant “but” to that “price you see” line – according to the Consumer Protection Act, if the price is an obvious mistake, the company has an “out” and doesn’t have to honour it – a TV advertised for R500 instead of R5000, for example.

About three years ago, I put the following common scenario to then Ombudsman for Consumer Goods and Services, Neville Melville:

You see your favourite brand of coffee on sale for R55, instead of the usual R70, and decide to buy two jars. But at the till, each jar scans at R70. Can you demand to be given the coffee at the shelf price?

His response: “Our understanding is the transaction is concluded when the consumer reaches or places the goods on the check-out counter. At that point the advertised price is binding.”

Interestingly, he added: “..even if the price is an inadvertent and obvious error, but not if reasonable steps had already been taken to inform the consumer of the error.”

So if you’d spotted the coffee advertised for a ridiculously low price in a brochure or advert, and raced to the store, only to find notices apologising for the wrong price and advising of the correct one, you’d have no right to demand that you be given it for the “wrong” price.

Our understanding is the transaction is concluded when the consumer reaches or places the goods on the check-out counter. At that point the advertised price is binding.

But in most cases – as in my coffee example – you’d be within your rights to insist on paying the price on the shelf, as opposed to the higher price scanned at the tillpoint.

Two retailers have gone further with policies that compensate customers when the shelf and till prices aren’t the same. In Woolworths if a customer queries the price of a product during or after the transaction and it is established that they were charged more than the displayed price, the customer gets the product free, and any other items of the same product at the lower price. So I’d get one jar of coffee free and the other for R55.

The policy was first introduced by Pick n Pay, but a few years ago, PnP diluted their policy – now if a price scans higher at the till than on the shelf, the customer gets double the difference between the right price and the wrong one. So I’d pay R25 for the first jar and R55 for the second.

But I often get e-mails from customers of both stores, complaining that after a price scanned at the wrong price and they pointed it out, no-one in the store said a word about such compensation and merely gave them the item at the lower price.

Clearly it pays to know the policies and to get into habit of comparing shelf and till prices in order to benefit.

Ironically, the increase in the VAT percentage in April has played havoc with this “wrong price” scenario, as Teresa le Grange’s experience in Woolworths at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront illustrates.

On June 24, she bought two mattress protectors marked at R270 and a pair of men's jeans marked R299. She later realised she’d been overcharged by R111 – the protectors scanned as R299 each and the jeans at R350.

She was refunded without question when she returned to the store, but her experience left her asking how widespread overcharging is.

She was even more concerned when I told her that according to Woolworths’ own “wrong price” policy, she should have got one protector and those jeans free and the second protector for R270.

When I took up the case with Woolworths, she was invited back to the store for a further refund. A Woolworths spokesman told me the mattress protector’s price had risen to R299 on May 15, with its system programmed to read lower and higher barcode prices for the next 35 days.

“In this instance, the store did not action the new price after those 35 days,” she said.

“But with the amount of re-ticketing that had to take place to implement the price changes brought on with the increase in VAT, the pricing policy has been temporary suspended for the window period that SARS allows pricing differences between the price ticket and the price at the point-of-sale – that is, until the end of July.

CONTACT WENDY KNOWLER: Email: consumer@knowler.co.za; Twitter: @wendyknowler; Facebook: wendyknowlerconsumer