Conscientious Shopper Banned from Grocery Store

Tonight’s “Ask Amy” segment was a follow-up to our November investigation into pricing errors at local grocery stores

While writing the follow-up, I found a great article from the Boston Globe about a woman who got really good about calling out errors.  Read the story below.

Her mission: Find price errors, get free stuff

Supermarket chains ban shopper who tests stores’ accuracy policies

CANTON — Alana Lipkin walked out of the Shaw’s Supermarket here last week with 12 items — everything from a Kodak disposable camera to Neutrogena hand cream — all for free.

She wasn’t shoplifting. She was taking advantage of the chain’s price accuracy guarantee, which gives shoppers a product for free if it scans at the register for a price higher than advertised. Lipkin is so good at finding mispriced items that she says she typically snags more than $200 worth of free merchandise per store visit.

But her days as the queen of supermarket pricing errors may be nearing an end. The region’s two largest supermarket chains have banned Lipkin from their stores, calling her a disruptive influence. Lipkin, a 45-year-old single mother of two from Framingham, says the stores are blaming her for their failure to accurately price their products.

Lipkin has been pursuing pricing errors and the free merchandise they yield at a variety of retailers for close to nine years, usually three to four times a week. She calls what she does a hobby, but others who know her describe her as a professional shopper.

At a Shaw’s in Ashland recently, Lipkin said she snared products worth more than $1,200. Her car is filled to the roof with shopping bags full of cups, sponges, toys, candles, and hand creams — all obtained for free.

Lipkin uses some of the products she gets, gives some away, barters some with friends, and stockpiles the rest. She said she has been training friends to do what she does.

“This is a way, in an ideal world, that I would get the stores to comply with the law,” she said. “If more people did it, there would be fewer problems at stores.”

Stop & Shop Supermarkets three years ago notified Lipkin she would be arrested for trespassing if she entered any of its stores. Shaw’s sent Lipkin a similar letter Aug. 10, which she received shortly after the Globe accompanied her on one of her shopping trips.

“We do that with any customer who becomes disruptive in our stores,” said Judy Chong , a spokeswoman for Shaw’s.

Faith Weiner , a spokeswoman for Stop & Shop, said she believes Lipkin is the only customer the store has ever banned. “We felt that she took unfair advantage of our price accuracy policy and tried to manipulate it to her advantage,” Weiner said.

Howard Friedman , a Boston civil rights lawyer, said retailers are entitled to bar customers from their stores, particularly if the customer is being disruptive, but he said there might be a public policy issue if a store used the trespass laws to exclude someone who was merely exercising his or her rights.

Lipkin insists she hasn’t been disruptive. The no-trespass letter she received from Shaw’s specifically mentions an incident at a store in Stow, but the evening manager of that store, Stephen Kavanagh , signed and dated a statement for Lipkin in which he said he was asking her to leave because “she was only looking for scan guarantee items and not shopping.”

Lipkin said the written statement is proof she is being banned for finding pricing errors and landing thousands of dollars of free merchandise — not for being disruptive.

“A saner person would have stopped doing this after being banned by Stop & Shop,” she said. “Maybe that’s why it’s pathological. But I’m the kind of person who knows when they’re right.”

State and local officials who regularly inspect stores for pricing errors said they were very familiar with Lipkin. They call her a professional shopper who has been a thorn in the side of supermarkets, but the officials say Lipkin knows her stuff.

“She’s one of a kind,” said Jack Walsh , the town of Framingham’s director of weights and measures. “They accuse her of switching labels, but I don’t think she does that. She spends a lot of time on her hands and knees searching for pricing errors.”

Colman Herman , a Dorchester consumer activist who has initiated a series of item-pricing lawsuits, said Lipkin is proving a claim he has repeatedly made. “People are walking out of these stores and are being overcharged all the time and don’t even know it,” he said.

Charles Carroll , assistant deputy director of the state’s Division of Standards, said pricing surveys by his department indicate most food stores in Massachusetts achieve 99 percent pricing accuracy.

In Massachusetts, which had food store sales of nearly $11 billion last year, according to industry figures, consumers were overcharged on $108 million of sales. The amount of the overcharges varies from item to item and estimates of total overcharges were unavailable.

Asked how Lipkin seems to find more pricing errors than state inspectors, Carroll said: “She’s a hunt and searcher. We don’t do it that way. We select products at random. She’s a professional shopper.”

Officials at both Stop & Shop and Shaw’s say they do internal audits to ensure their prices are accurate, but they declined to release any data.

Christopher Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association, which represents food stores, said many pricing errors help the consumer and hurt the retailer. “We don’t make money on pricing errors,” he said.

Lipkin invited me to join her last Monday on one of her shopping trips. We met at the Shaw’s in Canton, a store she couldn’t remember visiting before.

She explained that she looks for discrepancies between the price on the item, the shelf, and any advertising. The key to getting an item for free is being charged more than the lowest of any of those prices.

At the entrance to the store, Lipkin saw a sign offering discounts on several types of fish but no notation that a store card was required to get the sale price. It’s a common mistake, Lipkin said. A consumer could buy the items without using a store card, be charged a higher price, and then could allege a violation of the price accuracy guarantee because the posted price was not offered.

In the housewares and cosmetics aisles, we looked for price stickers and shelf labels that didn’t match. A store manager approached us and asked if there was a problem. Later, another store official asked the same thing.

Lipkin quickly sensed that she would net far fewer free products at this Shaw’s because most items were priced correctly. “This store is more on the ball than the others,” she said.

At the checkout aisle, she ran through 10 items that she believed were clearly mispriced. She asked the cashier to check the price of another 15 items that she thought might be mispriced. Only two were. Lipkin bought the items she would get for free and left the others at the register. The total value of her haul was about $65.

After checking out and getting a refund at the service desk, Lipkin called over assistant store manager Lee Bissonnette and complimented him and his staff on the accurate pricing.

“We do our best,” said Bissonnette, who said that his store has to deal with about 7,000 price changes each week.

Lipkin asked Bissonnette if they had met before. He told her she was in his store about three to four weeks ago and walked out with more than $200 of free products.

Bruce Mohl can be reached at mohl@globe.com.

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story in Sunday’s Business & Money section about a shopper banned by two supermarket chains incorrectly estimated the amount of total consumer overcharges at food stores in Massachusetts at $108 million last year. State officials say consumers were overcharged roughly 1 percent of the time, which would mean overcharges occurred on sales of $108 million, but the amount of the overcharges varies from item to item and cannot be estimated accurately.)

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