Erie County's scanner accuracy crusade is moving far beyond the supermarket checkout aisles.
A new law set to take effect Jan. 1 will expand the county's item-pricing requirements to include department stores, home centers, hardware and auto parts stores and most other retail establishments that use electronic scanners. Stores will either have to prove that their scanners are at least 98 percent accurate or affix individual price stickers on most merchandise.
Customers who are overcharged will be entitled to a "super refund" amounting to 10 times the error, up to $10.
The only exemption would involve smaller "mom-and-pop" retail outlets that have less than two full-time non-family employees.
While the law goes on the books this week, stores will have until May 1 to apply for waivers, so shoppers won't see a significant impact for up to four months.
Advocates are hailing the new law as a major boost for consumer protection, while critics in the private sector view it as unnecessary regulation.
Edwin E. Gonsiorek, director of Erie County's Division of Weights and Measures, said two new inspectors will be hired this month and more staffers could be requested if a large number of retailers apply for waivers.
"We're certainly not trying to drive businesses out of the county," Gonsiorek said. "We're just trying to make sure that the right prices are on the shelves and that consumers are being charged the right amounts."
He noted that some major department stores, including Kmart and Hills, already were included in the original item-pricing law because they sell many grocery items. Inspectors have been relatively pleased with the overall compliance rate. The new law will apply to all merchandise sold in these stores.
The new law also requires stores to display readable shelf labels for merchandise.
County officials have been hitting hard on the fact that the new legislation was drafted with extensive input from the retail industry. Elizabeth M. Pujolas, director of government relations for the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, was a key player in negotiations, serving as a link between elected officials and retailers.
While Ms. Pujolas credited government leaders for including the private sector in discussions, she said many retailers don't think the expanded item-pricing law is needed.
"Stores are already trying to maintain a fair shopping environment," she said. "They're not out to cheat consumers. But county officials felt strongly about expanding the regulations and we made every effort to negotiate a fair and reasonable approach."
She added that broadening a law designed to regulate supermarkets to include other stores posed some nagging problems. She cited the unique product mixes in hardware stores as one example, noting that forcing outlets to individually price items such as fencing, lumber and bulk electrical wire would be impractical.
"We were involved in day-to-day negotiations, trying to work out some of these issues," Ms. Pujolas said. "We managed to get a number of exemptions. Not everyone is happy, but this law is a good illustration what can happen when everyone works together."
Stores that apply for waivers to the item-pricing requirements will have to pay a fee. Gonsiorek said the exact amount has not been determined yet; officials are waiting to see how many outlets apply for waivers before setting the fee. But Gonsiorek said it's likely to be less than the $1,090 fee that previously was charged for large stores. In the past, smaller stores paid a $545 fee. Under the new law, there will be only one fee for all retail establishments.
Jane Wiercioch, president of the Depew-Cheektowaga Taxpayers Inc., was among the most vocal advocates for expanding the scanner accuracy law. She disagrees with critics who brand the new law over-regulation.
"Some of these stores do everything to confuse the shopper," she said. "You have signs that are placed so high on shelves that you can barely see them. And you still have a lot of people being charged too much at the registers."
Ms. Wiercioch said a growing number of shoppers are becoming attuned to the county's item-pricing law, which took effect four years ago.
And she said the interest goes beyond senior citizens and other consumers on fixed incomes. She urged shoppers to contact the county Bureau of Weights and Measures if they find stores that are not in compliance or are prone to over-charging.
"We have to help with the enforcement effort by reporting problems to county inspectors," Ms. Wiercioch said. "Even if a shopper catches a store and ends up with a refund, how do you know that the store actually changed the price?"
Meanwhile, champions of item-pricing claim Erie County has been a pioneer in the effort.
County Legislator Raymond Dusza, D-Cheektowaga, said other localities from across the country have contacted Erie County for information on the law.
Dusza noted that the regulations will be revisited on a year-to-year basis to see if any changes are warranted.
"We realize that many of the stores are not thrilled with the expanded law. But if their scanners are accurate, they have absolutely nothing to worry about," said Dusza, who played a pivotal role in passage of both item-pricing laws.
Stores that fail to comply with all the provisions of the new law could face fines of up to $15,000.