WEST OCEAN CITY — The Staples store in the White Marlin Mall was cited last month by the Maryland Department of Weights and Measures for charging a price at the register that was different from the price marked on the shelf. The local Staples was one of 38 stores cited in a statewide sweep of 210 stores, resulting in $35,000 in fines.
This was Staples first violation but it was also its first inspection. Weights and Measures only recently added retail stores to the kinds of places they inspect.
The department is responsible to make sure than anything that is sold on the basis of measurement is done so fairly. This generally requires checking scales in supermarkets, certifying gas station pumps and a host of other responsibilities — propane distributors, hardware stores, refuse collection centers — in the interests of consumer protection.
The addition of retail establishments is tied to scanners, which have to be maintained and calibrated just as any other measuring machine. Pricing mistakes or mis-keys on the operation’s back end can result in significant losses both for the consumer and the company.
During the investigation of Staples, the office supply store was found to have 26 items mis-priced across nearly every department of the store.
Some variations were negligible, 50 cents to $1 off one way or the other, while others were a little more substantial, a $3 overcharge for a desk lamp, for example.
What may concern some consumers, though, are the smaller discrepancies, given that many of them were on items often purchased in bulk, such as Hi-Lighters, business cards, and file folders.
Michael Frailer, who has been an official at Weights and Measures for nearly 30 years, said that first time violations are not indicative of a systemic problem. It is often the case that a company is able to make the corrections needed to eliminate problems in the future.
That said, once a store has been found in a violation of one kind or another the establishment remains on the regulatory agency’s radar for some time and will almost certainly be subjected to additional checks.
Weights and Measures is part of the Maryland Department of Agriculture and is funded from the state budget, not the fines it invokes. They make their sweeps at random times, rather than on a predictable schedule.
Depending on the gravity of the violation, the department can issue anything from a citation letter to a fine ranging to $2,000, which is the cap even for recidivist chains. In the most recent sweep, 18 of the 38 stores were fined $1,000 or more; 10 of those were fined the maximum.
Once a store reached the $2,000 fine limit, however, there are no additional penalties.
In the most recent sweep, Giant Foods accounted for 14 of the cited stores for a total of $18,000 in fines, many of which reached the $2,000 maximum.
Representatives of the Staples corporation issued the following statement: “Staples is committed to providing great prices on all our products. We work hard to make sure our customers get the best prices.”