Here’s some news about sweet potatoes that’s not very sweet. it turns out that one big box store is illegally charging its customers for the box. Wal-Mart’s latest corporate slogan is “Save money. Live better.” So it’s more than embarrassing that the retailer was nailed this week by the state of Wisconsin for charging consumers too much money for basic packaged food items. In at least nine Wal-Mart stores across Wisconsin, customers were being charged extra for the weight of the packaging for certain bulk items. Wal-Mart, according to the state, was overcharging its customers. Hard to “live better” with that kind of unfair pricing. As a result of state investigations, the Associated Press reported this week that Wal-Mart has been fined $90,000 by the state of Wisconsin for overcharging its customers for coffee and vegetables sold in bulk. In the case of coffee, shoppers were paying for the cost of the paper and wire packaging it came in. Inspectors for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), charged that Wal-Mart was guilty of 280 violations of the state’s weights and measures laws. The Department of Agriculture inspectors visited a total of 40 Wal-Mart stores, and found violations at stores in West Bend, Appleton, Oshkosh, Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls, Manitowoc, Prairie Du Chien, Platteville and Rice Lake. The stores were charging customers for the weight of packaging when they bought bulk items such as coffee, broccoli and sweet potatoes, the Department of Agriculture said. State law requires stores to subtract the weight of packaging material when weighing food. “In some cases, consumers were paying 21 cents too much for a bag of grind-it-yourself coffee,” a Wisconsin spokesman for the DATCP told the AP.
According to the Manitowoc Herald newspaper, the state tested one-pound bags of Cameron brand coffee beans, which were found to be 3/100ths of a pound over the actual bagged content. This translated into an overcharge of 21 cents per pound of coffee, state officials said. A five pound bag of coffee would therefore cost more than $1 too much. “This is something that’s difficult for the consumer to know it’s even going on,” the DATCP said. “How would someone know they were being overcharged? This is why weights and measures checks products to make sure consumers are getting what they paid for.” This is not the first time Wal-Mart has been caught overcharging its customers in Wisconsin. Wal-Mart was fined $25,000 in January 2006 for overcharging for bulk coffee. Wal-Mart quickly paid its fine, and has outlined plans to correct how it prices and weighs its products. The state inspectors began inspecting stores this week to verify that Wal-Mart is using the new procedures to protect shoppers. The larger question remains: in how many other states is Wal-Mart overcharging for its bulk products, and how much money has the retailer illegally charged its customers, so that the company can “live better?” Wal-Mart did not respond to media requests for comments on this story — but being nabbed by the state on a sensitive issue of pricing, certainly must have forced company officials to “wake up and smell the coffee.” Wisconsin consumers who believe they have been overcharged can call the DATCP at 1-800-422-7128 to get a refund.