Scheming Supermarkets

How many of you walk to the nearest super-market the first thing that you think “I need to buy something” ? To how many of you does that come impulsively, like muscle memory ? Here’s a little something to make you walk an extra bit further, or keep your eyes that extra bit open.Receipt

Ever since I have been living in Amsterdam (been a while), I have been walking to the nearest supermarket, which more often than not turns out to be Albert Heijn. The parts of Amsterdam I have seen, I believe that the Albert Heijn chain was planned by walking through the city, and placing the stores strategically so that one would never have to walk more than 10 minutes to get to an Albert Heijn. Well, based on my experiences with buying from the local small grocer and buying from the supermarket, here are a few thoughts :

– There are no price tags on products (not only in this store, but any other). I understand the “saves labor if prices change” argument, but it is not in the interest of the consumer either if the price can be changed at a click, arbitrarily and by almost anyone, even. It’s easy for “mistakes” to flow through, honest or dishonest.

– Products are often ‘misplaced’. I have sometimes picked up a product, reading its price tag as say X, but paid more, because, the product was not near the correct tag, or it was a different product. I would put it down to consumers checking out products and not putting them back correctly, but it has happened more often than that for me to dismiss it. I have explicitly observed a label of product A and no sign of it anywhere, and product B in its place. At home, out of place.

– There are “mistakes” in price tags. More than once, I have paid more than the “discounted” price tag for the product. I have had that nagging feeling, ‘Hey, this is not what the price tag said’.

– Another move that makes things work in favor of super markets is that the checkout counters are placed right at the end, and you checkout after you have done all your picking. People who have placed something in their cart aren’t likely to opt not to buy the product _just because_ it is 10 cents more expensive than they thought. And they aren’t very likely to argue either on the price, seeing that the aisle from where they picked up the product is far away and there is (usually) a queue of customers behind them.

– A lot of people often don’t ask for receipts since they shop everyday at the supermarkets and never do examine the prices of what they bought. Even if they do, they don’t really have a ready comparison to check if they were charged right.

So here’s what happened :
Last week, I had some free time on my hands, and thought, ‘Let’s buy some fruit, try my hand at eating healthier’. I walked with a pack of strawberries to the checkout counter, and got charged 50 cents extra for it. I had some time on my hands, so I went through the supermarket again (after paying), checked the prices, then went to the reception, pointed out the discrepancy and had them walk with me to check it out. One of the products, it turns out, was not overcharged (it was a different product from the one that I had assumed based on the tag, the names being the same but one being wholesale and one being a retail price, the difference between 5kg and 1kg packs ). The second one, however, was indeed over-charged, and the agent spent the 30 seconds walking back with me to the desk trying to explain to me that it was a “computer mistake” and “such mistakes happen”. Well, if such mistakes happen that often, I am quite interested in knowing in whose favor they go.

I don’t know (and I didn’t bother to find out) how many stores of this chain are in Holland (or elsewhere), how many people go to them everyday, and how many of them end up paying for the products with “mistakes”. I do make a simple calculation though. I was charged 50 cent extra for a bunch of strawberries. Assuming each store sells 50 such boxes a day (they were on discount, I am sure they sell more), they earn 25 Euros a product a store a day. I know that there must be at least a 100 such stores in the country. That would comes to 2500 Euros a day per product per mistake. I know these are overly simplifying assumptions, but they are not unreasonable and I am estimating they are under-represented even with this. I don’t even want to point out how much an average household spends per year on daily household goods, and how much of a difference a mistake of even 10 cent per 10 Euro purchase could make them, its just very sad.

Wow, talk about lucky mistakes. I’d sure love to make some such.

[ Note: There is a whole study and discussion about pricing strategies to make consumers spend, but you can read it here, I don’t have much to add to the discussion there : ]