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ConsumerWatch: Safeway Under Fire For Overcharging Claims

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A receipt from a Safeway supermarket in Burlingame. (CBS)

A receipt from a Safeway supermarket in Burlingame. (CBS)

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SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) — Customers from across California are complaining about being overcharged on purchases at Safeway and Vons supermarkets. A ConsumerWatch investigation into those claims uncovered Safeway is also violating a court order.

Safeway Inc., one of the nation’s largest grocery store chains, has long been accused of overcharging its customers. The State of California sued Safeway and its Vons stores in Southern California, twice in 2003 and again in 2008.

As a result of the most recent judgment against the supermarket chain (.pdf), if an item under $5 scans at the register for more than the lowest advertise price, Safeway and Vons must give the customer the item for free (limit 1 item – the other items must be given at the lowest advertised price). If an item is over $5, Safeway is supposed to give the customer a $5 gift card. The judgment excludes dairy, alcohol, tobacco, fuel and pharmacy products.

“In all the years I’ve called them this I’ve never gotten the item for free,” complained John Mortimer of San Francisco who says he is regularly overcharged at Safeway.

“They just kinda unhappily give me the difference,” added a San Jose Safeway shopper who asked to remain anonymous.

After compiling numerous similar complaints, CBS 5 ConsumerWatch went undercover shopping at five Safeway stores in three counties. Not only were we overcharged five times, but not a single store offered to give them the item for free and two stores flat out refused.

Miguel Monroy, Sealer of the San Francisco County Department of Weights and Measures, calls the findings of the investigation concerning. He pointed out that the court order also requires Safeway post signs in a “conspicuous location in all checkout lanes” detailing the refund policy.

When ConsumerWatch asked clerks about the signs, many had no idea where they were. One store had no signs posted at all while others were in hard to read locations.

“That would be concerning,” said Monroy. Although, he would not comment further on the results of the ConsumerWatch investigation.

In a statement, Safeway apologized for the overcharges that occurred during the investigation and said it corrected the error. But officials said they could not comment on the other customer complaints without more information.

Safeway also wouldn’t comment on the fact that ConsumerWatch was never offered their overcharged items for free, as required by the court order. However, Safeway did “respectfully disagree” with the assertion that the required signs were not conspicuously posted.

When asked if Safeway could provide a phone number for viewers who have trouble getting a refund on overcharges at Safeway and Vons stores, Safeway provided its 877-SAFEWAY help line. However, a customer service rep there said he had never heard of the judgment and directed customers back to the store stating that “refunds were at the discretion of store managers.”

Customers who were overcharged at Safeway or Vons should immediately contact you local department of Weights and Measures. ConsumerWatch would also like to hear from you. Comment below or send an email to consumerwatch@cbssf.com.

Safeway’s Full Response:

October 22, 2012

Dear Ms. Watts:

Thank you for inquiry. Safeway is eager to address and resolve any price discrepancy issues that arise at any of our stores.

Your Personalized Deals

We understand you missed discounts on two bread items when you were shopping at our Marina store earlier this month. It appears you loaded a Personalized Deal good for 30% off all Bread and Buns in our stores from Just 4 U. You purchased Safeway’s Artisan French Bread and Oroweat’s 100% Whole Wheat, and while you received our Club Card pricing on both breads and an unrelated Just 4 U item discount, you did not receive the 30% discount. We have researched the transaction and corrected the error through our current deal cycle. We apologize and are working to improve our future execution.

Pricing Accuracy Policy Signage

Based on the information you provided, all of our policy signage was posted as required; however, you conclude that the signage was not conspicuously posted. We respectfully disagree. We place our pricing accuracy policy statement with other legally mandated and otherwise required customer notices in each check stand at a place where customers pause and notice. This signage is readily accessible to our customers and requires us to continually replace it, which we do regularly. Likewise, we also peridocally issue reminders to our retail employees about our guarantee policy, and have made it clear the policy applies to our Just 4 U program as well. As an extra measure, we are doing so again in response to your inquiry.

Your “Frequent Shopper” Allegations

We are disappointed and surprised you would not provide us in writing with detail on the specific overcharge issues you claim other shoppers found. If you would like to provide us in writing with more specific detail, we would welcome the opportunity to resolve these matters directly with the customers.

We have robust processes with checks and validations in place to ensure our product is priced and charged accurately. The personalized nature of these offers, however, requires us to take additional steps (as compared with traditional, physical advertisements) to confirm the actual offer. While it is possible the failure to receive proper discounts could be our error, as was the case with your bread items, there are a number of ways that inaccuracies can occur. For example:

· A customer could inadvertently select the wrong size, type or flavor;

· They might not properly load the offers to their club card;

· An offer may have expired after being loaded to their card, but before being purchased (but the offer expiration date is always visible); and/or

· Occasionally other members of the Club Card household may have already used the offer and it is no longer available.

We have provided internet access at our stores to assist both the customer and Safeway in accessing the customer’s Just 4 U account. Some questions, however, require contact with our Customer Care Center. We also provide the customer with in-store phone access to our Customer Care Center.

Our company has a well-earned reputation over the years for responsive service, as well as a committed desire to achieve fairness and comply with our legal obligations in all our business dealings. Pricing accuracy is no exception and we never intend to overcharge (or undercharge) our customers under any circumstance. When these matters are brought to our attention, we will continue to respond quickly and fix the situation, refund any customer overpayments, and apply our pricing accuracy guarantee.

Sincerely,

Keith Turner

Director of Public Affairs

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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