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How Laws and Lawsuits Shape Our Society: Two Cents Changed Grocery Shopping for All of Us

February 1, 2012
On the Law

This column was originally published in the Grand Rapids Business Journal on January 29, 2012 and is republished with permission.

Back in the 1970s, I was a "pre law" Political Science major at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan.  And I had a great college job, when I wasn't editing the campus newspaper.

The people who make French's mustard paid me $2.75 an hour and 12 cents a mile to drive to six Meijer Supermarkets and put French's mustard and spices on store shelves.  Those stores closed long ago, but I hit each of them twice a week, on the way to or from Grand Valley.

I would go into the stockroom, open boxes of pepper, and stamp prices on the cans with an ink-filled metal price marker that made a "ker-chunk" sound when it hit the cans.  Then I would put the product on the store's spice racks.

That's $2.75 an hour and 12 cents a mile while trying to figure out how to get through college and into law school.

The best part of the job was seeing the clothes that some shoppers wore on hot summer days.  More about that in another column.  The worst part was PRICE CHANGES.

By PRICE CHANGES, I mean that every so often I would arrive at a store and the grocery manager would tell me that I had to scrub the ink price marks off the cans of spices that were already on the store shelves and replace them with new prices, typically slightly higher than what an item had been selling for.  I don't recall prices ever going down but, if they had, then I would have made those changes too.

The worst part was that what I expected to be a 90 minute stop at a supermarket quickly became an ink-stained four-hour session, which often made me late for class.

All of which brings me to Mary Bach, whom some describe as a "consumer activist," and who recently won a lawsuit against Wal-Mart over two cents.

Bach was shopping last summer at a Wal-Mart in Westmorland County, Pennsylvania.  She bought sausages listed at a price of 98 cents only to be charged $1.00 at checkout.  Bach pointed out the error.  The clerk refunded her two cents.

End of story?  Not quite.  Evidently, Bach wanted more sausages.

She returned to the store days later, bought more 98 cent sausages, and was again charged $1.00.  Bach then telephoned the store manager, who later testified that he offered another 2 cent refund and promised to correct the mistake.

Testified in Court?  Yes, there was testimony in Court.

See, Bach sued Wal-Mart, argued about unfair trade practices, and was awarded $100 in damages plus $80.00 in Court costs.

Asked by Wal-Mart's trial counsel why she refused the store manager's refund, Bach noted that she wanted time to "weigh my options."  She also said that she only takes merchants to Court "as a last resort."  Following her victory, Bach indicated that her 'last resort' tactic has so far produced five lawsuit victories against the very store that sold her the sausages.

Prior to the Court's decision, Wal-Mart's store manager indicated that his store makes approximately 6,000 price changes a week while serving about 30,000 customers a week.  The manager said that both old and new packages of sausages were evidently on the shelves and that the old sausages cost 98 cents while the new sausages cost a dollar.  He also indicated that Wal-Mart store employees regularly check prices.

Me?  My first reaction to the Mary Bach lawsuit was to think about rubbing the price off of 6,000 cans of pepper on my way to or from school each week.  Others may wonder whether Mary Bach v Wal-Mart is one more example of how laws and lawsuits change and shape our society.

Some would argue –- as did those who commented on internet reports related to the Bach story -- that 'Courts aren't supposed to waste their time on this trivial stuff. . .  The judge should have thrown her out of his courtroom for this nonsense.  . . .  She should have addressed her problem with the store manager and the discrepancy would have been corrected without an expensive lawsuit.'

Others would respond that laws like the one that Mary Bach used are among very few ways that the consumer has a chance to have his or her voice heard.  As in, 'if a 2% mistake in an adversary's favor is of little concern, then go ahead and send me 2% of your income from time to time. . . .  Or pay me 2% more at tax time.  And what could a merchant accumulate if it –- even accidentally -– picked up 2% here or there from hundreds of customers who visited a store on a weekly basis?'

Is Mary Bach a litigation-happy predator? Or is she a woman who chooses where to shop while hoping to save a penny here and a penny there and who exercised her legal rights upon not getting what she hoped to pay for?

Ms. Bach told the judge that her husband and grandchildren enjoy sausages on a regular basis.  She can hopefully buy more than 180 packages of sausage with her winnings.  And her litigation may be another example of an old adage that might be paraphrased as "to retain respect for sausages, laws –- and lawsuits –- one must not watch them in the making."

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