Whole Foods and New York City Consumer Affairs agree that Whole Foods is paying $500,000 to settle charges that it overcharged NYC customers for some items, but that's about all they agree on.
Far from settling a dispute that broke into the open last June, the combatants appear to be hardening their positions.
NYC Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) Commissioner Julie Menin said the agreement followed "the troubling and repeated mislabeling of pre-packaged goods at Whole Foods last year" and said her department would "continue its vigilance in making sure New Yorkers are protected every time they check out at the grocery.”
Whole Foods grumbled that "the DCA has misrepresented this agreement" and said there was never any indication that the over-pricing was intentional or that it extended beyond the borders of New York City.
"WFM has had in place preexisting pricing and weights/measures programs including a third party auditing and training program and a 100 percent pricing accuracy guarantee that gives customers a full refund on any item inadvertently mispriced. These are pre-existing programs that go above and beyond the DCA’s requirements," Whole Foods said.
But, Whole Foods' contentions notwithstanding, it's not just New York City consumers who are complaining about alleged overcharging.
"I make a point to review my receipts before loading groceries into the car. I keep checking because more often than not, I would find that I've been overcharged," said Nancy of San Francisco in a recent ConsumerAffairs review. "It started when I was charged $45 for a whole fryer chicken. The butcher labeled it as organic chicken breasts instead of an organic whole fryer chicken which should cost $12. I had to go back to the same store to get a refund which was inconvenient for a mother with 2 toddlers. That easily could have gone unnoticed."
Nancy said the chicken mispricing wasn't an isolated incident.
"My biggest concern is that accurate pricing at Whole Foods has become the customer's responsibility. That shouldn't be the case. On many occasions, I am double charged. Just recently, I was charged for 2 packs of hot dogs instead of one," she said.
Besides mislabeling, Whole Foods prices are just plain too high, many consumers argue. Ken of Scotch Plains, N.J., said he has stopped going to Whole Foods because of "stratospheric" prices.
"Our local high end grocery stores (Kings and Wegmans) are so superior in every way and at bargain prices compared to Whole Foods. Don't know how they will stay in business," Ken commented.
New York shakedown?
Whole Foods complained that Ms. Menin's department had initially demanded a $1.5 million penalty.
"While WFM refused to consider the DCA’s initial demands of $1.5 million, we agreed to $500,000 in order to put this issue behind us so that we can continue to focus our attention on providing our New York City customers with the highest level of quality and service," Whole Foods huffed.
Ms. Menin sounded a bit more pleased with the settlement.
"We are happy to have reached an agreement with Whole Foods that will help to ensure New Yorkers are better protected from overcharging,” she said. “Whether it’s a bodega in the Bronx or a national grocery store in Manhattan, we believe every business needs to treat its customers fairly and, with this agreement, we hope Whole Foods will deliver on its promise to its customers to correct their mistakes."
Besides the $500,000 penalty, Whole Foods swallowed a number of other requirements, including:
- quarterly in-store audits of at least 50 products from 10 different departments at all New York City stores to help ensure products are accurately weighed and labeled, and to correct all inaccuracies;
- in the event that DCA inspectors identify mislabeled pre-packaged foods at a Whole Foods Store, that store must immediately remove all mislabeled products and, within 15 days, Whole Foods must check the accuracy of that product’s pricing, as well as 20 additional products from the same department, at all New York City stores;
- implement and enforce policies and procedures that require employees not estimate the weight of a package but rather individually weigh each package and only label the package with a label that is based on the weight of the actual contents; and,
- conduct training sessions for all New York City employees who are involved in weighing and labeling products.