Before you check out, make sure you check the bill

Pushpa Girimaji

I never really check computer-generated long grocery bills, assuming that they would be accurate. But a couple of months ago, I scrutinised one after reaching home and, to my utter shock, found that I had been charged twice for the same item, a liquid detergent. As the amount was not small, I went the next day to the store and after a lot of argument, got a refund, but I had wasted half a day in the bargain. Now I check the bill diligently every time I shop and I always find some discrepancy or the other. For example, a litre of edible oil, with an MRP of Rs 180, but offered for Rs 160, was charged at Rs 200. How should one deal with this kind of exploitation?

You have raised a really important issue because consumers in several cities and towns have been complaining of this kind of overbilling at supermarkets. While the mistake may be inadvertent in some cases, in others, it could well be intentional — someone might actually be taking advantage of the fact that most consumers do not check the bill.

Certainly, consumer diligence will help in curbing such malpractices, but it is the duty of the retailer to ensure the accuracy of the bill. Failure to do so and overcharging the consumer constitutes unfair trade practice. Besides, charging more than the Maximum Retail Price indicated on a package is also a violation of the Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Rules. Whenever consumers come across such cases, they should not only bring it to the notice of the retailer in writing, but also lodge a complaint before the consumer court. In cases such as these, it is not just an individual consumer who is affected, but an entire class of consumers. And these days, consumers courts take a serious view of such unfair trade practices and award not just compensation, but also steep punitive damages, so that a retailer does not repeat such practice.

Having said that, I must mention that consumers should demand better and consumer-friendly format for these bills. First and foremost, the printing should be clear and legible and there should be adequate space between items to ensure the readability of the bill. Stores should avoid abbreviations that the consumer may not understand. It is also the responsibility of those who feed the prices of different items into the computer to cross-check the information for accuracy.

I also strongly feel that supermarkets should have two-way display panels, so that the consumer can also see the billing. This way, the consumer can detect any discrepancy immediately and point it out.

Has any consumer taken up such a case before the consumer court?

Well, I remember a case decided by the consumer forum way back in 2009, wherein even though the loss to the consumer was relatively small, he fought for justice and I really salute such consumers.

Here, the complainant, Durga Mohan, had found the store charging Rs 2 to Rs 3 more than the Maximum Retail Price (MRP) printed on the package, on a couple of occasions, and whenever this was pointed out, the excess amount was returned to him, saying that it was a ‘typographical error’. But the retail outlet made no effort to prevent recurrence.

On November 22, 2008, he bought some groceries, amounting to Rs 1,006. On cross-checking the bill after returning home, he found that he was charged Rs 84 for a packet of sugar whose MRP was only Rs 23. He immediately went back to the shop and pointed out the mistake, but the retail outlet, instead of apologising and returning the excess amount, said the concerned person was not available, and they would get back to him the next day. They even took his telephone number, but did not keep up the promise, forcing him to eventually lodge a complaint before the consumer forum.

Taking serious note of the behaviour of the store, the consumer forum pointed out that charging more than the MRP printed on the pack was an unfair trade practice. But here, even after this was brought to its notice, the store did not refund the money, but instead, harassed the consumer, forcing him to visit the store again and again. This constituted deficiency in service.

The Forum directed the store to pay a compensation of Rs 25,000 the consumer. It also imposed punitive damages of Rs 25,000 on the store. (Durga Mohan vs Smart Retail Pvt Ltd; complaint No 2659 of 2008, decided on May 29, 2009.)

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