Thursday, January 6, 2011

Super-Bad Supermarkets

By David J. Harvey

New York’s supermarkets seem to have gotten worse for customers over the last four months, racking up hundreds of violations during Department of Consumer Affairs inspections.

According to Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) Commissioner Jonathan Mintz, the frequency of violations at the city’s supermarkets has increased since the last investigative report was compiled in August 2010; markets dropped from a compliance rate of 48 percent to a meager 33 percent.

“Supermarkets are clearly not getting the message that New Yorkers demand that they get it right at the check out counter,” Mintz said.

After a yearlong series of investigations concluded in August, the DCA announced that supermarkets were failing consumers by overcharging, shelving goods without prices and taxing non-taxable items. In response, the city levied fines totaling $381,750 citywide, ranging from $50 to $150 per violation.

Additionally, the DCA announced in August that it would double the number of inspections, from a total of 983 in the previous fiscal year. In the past four months, the DCA has conducted 491 inspections, and has issued nearly 750 citations. The city expects these violations to accumulate $310,000 in fines.

Out of the 122 inspections in Queens since August, 79 led to violations. The compliancy rate in the borough dropped from 55 to 35 percent.

Just over one quarter of all the inspections citywide were conducted in Queens, and though the borough saw a significant increase in cited violations, it was behind only the Bronx in compliance. In Brooklyn, 30 percent of supermarkets were compliant with city regulations, and in both Staten Island and Manhattan, the rate was below 25 percent.

Mintz said the increase in violations wasn’t likely a result of improved DCA method, but evidence of dismal customer service prevalent throughout the city’s markets.

DCA inspectors don’t comb through a store item by item, but aim to replicate the “typical shopping experience,” Mintz said. “Supermarkets make choices about the emphasis and resources they provide for quality control.”

All boroughs dropped in compliance from the last round of inspections except the Bronx, which had the five neighborhoods with the most violations in the last fiscal year. Nevertheless, a DCA spokesperson said no comparison has been done yet to determine whether fines or other factors were responsible for reforming Bronx stores.

Mintz said he is hopeful supermarkets can be brought up to code, noting that New York has some of the strongest consumer protection laws.

“We are going to keep turning up the heat,” Mintz said. “We hope a combination of public awareness and a higher cost of doing business will bring supermarkets into compliance.”

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