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Price you see should be what you pay

| Economic factors

The local tourist market might not bring foreign currency with it, but word of mouth from your compatriots is more powerful because locals know where and how to complain.

You expect your holidays to be about relaxation and not sweating the small things, but poor customer interaction is bound to get even the less highly strung among us riled up.

Pure Venom Reptile Park outside Shelly Beach in KwaZulu-Natal boasts about being the “biggest, most unique reptile farm in Africa”.

Having spent the morning there, the Kittel family from Fourways took their children into the “Creepy” curio shop to buy souvenirs. Their son wanted a cup and a cap; their young daughter had set her heart on a snake soft toy. The toy, which was marked R50, wasn’t exactly brilliant quality so they didn’t think to question the price. And why should they? The price you see is the price you pay, right?

At the till, though, things fell apart. The surly shop assistant said the price couldn’t possibly be correct and that “customers change price stickers all the time” – essentially meaning she didn’t trust her customers not to alter the prices.

Whose fault is that – improve your systems then, because the till is perfectly capable of handling barcode technology, Hans Kittel insisted. After minutes of pointless argument with staff, he eventually conceded that he’d pay whatever the “correct” price was – a total of three price stickers were found on the toy – he just wanted to leave the shop and give his 4-year-old her present. But by then, the assistant didn’t want to sell him the toy until her manager had sorted out the issue.

The manager arrived at the shop, in a storm of dust and ready for a fight, but Kittel firmly stood his ground. In the end, the manager stormed off in a huff because of the encounter, Kittel paid the R50 and left with a bad taste in his mouth. In his view, the experience was one of “pure venom”.

It’s a lesson many smaller retailers still need to learn because it’s not only the law, but you can’t charge differently to the marked price. Barring some exceptions though – if, for example, a promotional print error advertised a television for R5 000 and it was actually selling for 10 times that, which would be an obvious mistake.

Some big retailers have got it right: a few years ago, Pick n Pay was so sure of its systems that it advertised if the price you saw on the shelf differed from the computerised price, you’d get the item for free. Woolworths followed suit by instituting a policy that if the scanned price differed from the marked price, you’d get the item for free.

PnP’s Scan Right policy was subsequently replaced with a new one, Double the Difference, which means if an item scans at a higher price than that displayed on the shelf and the barcode corresponds, they will give you the item at the marked price, and double the difference off the first item (and the subsequent items at the lower price).

It might seem to be a claw-back on their initial confidence in their system, but customers are still being rewarded for system errors.

However, Tony Walsh from Port Elizabeth wrote to me about his gripe with Pick n Pay in Heugh Road, Walmer: “On Sunday, March 13, I popped in to a Pick n Pay bottle store to purchase a couple of bottles of red wine. I bought decent bottles as I had a work colleague visiting and I didn’t want to give him plonk. Both bottles were priced at R99.99. 

“When the cashier rang up both bottles she asked for R220, which I thought was wrong but I paid as there were people in the queue waiting for me to pay. When I got the till slip, I went to the shelves to check the price – both bottles were priced at R99.99. 

“I was annoyed and went to the cashier. She was of no help at all and just looked at me as if I was mad, so I asked her to call the manager, who eventually arrived. His first words to me were that I was not allowed to take photos in the store (I took pictures to prove my story).

“I would have thought his first topic would be to deal with an unhappy and over-charged customer. 

“His explanation to me, it was human error and he apologised for the over-charge. I said it seemed very strange that two bottles of wine from different areas of the shop would have exactly the same mistake: both being priced R10/bottle more than advertised. He then told the cashier to refund me the difference, but it was a mission, so I left the store without a refund. 

“My issues with PnP are as follows: I feel as if this store is ripping people off by advertising one price and charging another. If I had not picked up that my spend would have been around R200, I probably would not have noticed this over-charge; their staff are ill-equipped to deal with issues like this; and their refund process is far from ideal. 

“How lucky must I be to pick up two bottles of wine from ­different areas of the store and be over-charged the same amount on both? The odds of this happening are like winning the lotto every week.”

Human error aside, management should have handled the issue better and not gone on the attack from the outset.

Retailers are not obliged to overcompensate customers to the extent that PnP and Woolies do, but two acts apply to the sector: the Consumer Protection Act for goods sold in a physical shop, or the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act for the online environment.

Generally speaking, retailers are required to display their prices – either on the item itself (which is becoming rarer), or on the shelf. If two prices are displayed for the same item, the lower price should apply. Customers can also not be forced to pay the higher displayed price. If a price sticker was placed directly on top of the old price – as a Pretoria reader complained about after she sought an official shirt during the Rugby World Cup – the higher price applies. And if a price error occurs, the retailer is bound by that price until the consumer is informed.

Online retailers are required to get it right, though.

In terms of the ECT Act, they are required to give “sufficient” descriptions of their goods to allow customers to make informed decisions about purchases, but judging by the websites and descriptions I’ve seen for some products, that is clearly still a grey area.

Interestingly, the online supplier is not obliged to sell you an item – they are viewed as advertisers and retain the right to accept your “offer to purchase” or decline.

When it comes to goods advertised at incorrect prices, you don’t have an automatic right to buy them at that price.

If an item was advertised on TV, radio, in a promotional brochure or other material, the seller would not be liable if they took reasonable steps to correct the obvious error, which a “reasonable man” would recognise as such.

The Consumer Goods and Services Ombud says that if a supplier “advertises goods at a specified price and the advertisement expressly states a limitation in the numbers available, the supplier must honour the advertisement terms. If no price limit is expressed, the supplier is not bound by the advertisement, but would nevertheless be liable for contravening the section”.

And if you feel you have suffered as a result of that ­prohibited conduct, you may institute a civil claim, but you need to approach the Consumer Tribunal for a certificate to that effect.

Kittel might not exactly have been prejudiced by the price discrepancy, but he was right to insist on that R50 toy.

If price tags can be so easily switched, it’s not the honest customer’s problem – it’s very much the store’s issue.

Wise up - here's how

Too good to be true? A customer cannot hold the supplier/retailer responsible for an obvious error, provided they took reasonable steps to correct and inform customers of the error, so if you were thinking “bargain of the year”, it was probably not meant to be.

Shopping online? You must be given an opportunity to review your transactions in a “checkout” and correct any mistakes or cancel the transaction before placing your final order.

You have the right to cancel online transactions within 14 days and have five days to return items, even change-of-heart ones (which the Consumer Protection Act doesn’t allow for).

Don’t want it any more? If you have cancelled an online transaction and received the goods, you must return them at your own cost. The retailer must refund all your money.

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