Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Alleged cheating in SM stores

This was my column on the date indicated above.

There’s a tempest that’s been steadily brewing in quite a few E-mail groups since last week. It started when certain “concerned” individual consumers raised the alarm regarding what has been labeled as “cheating” purportedly being done in some–or many - SM stores. I know; it’s a very loaded accusation. SM happens to be the biggest retailer in the country with probably the biggest number of customers handled on an everyday basis so the repercussions can be potentially disastrous if the allegations are proven true and or if they aren’t resolved satisfactorily.

I actually received the E-mail thread a couple of weeks ago and I meant to write about it for three reasons: First, because I happened to have had three experiences that were quite similar to what was being complained about, which all happened in SM Harrison Plaza; second, because there is reason to believe that the incidents being complained about continue to happen in various SM stores and therefore deserve particular attention; and third, because SM should really do something concrete about the problem, and fast.

Let me tell you about my personal experience. Like I said, this happened in three different occasions and I have personally witnessed at least two other occasions where someone complained to a SM cashier about exactly the same thing. While I was paying for some purchases, it was discovered that there was a variance in the prices of the goods as written in the tags and what appeared in the cash register when my purchases were entered into their system. Obviously, there had been a price adjustment—either due to a recent sale or presumably because the price of the new inventory was higher—and the correction in terms of the corresponding new prices were not yet reflected in the actual price tags attached to the merchandise. Thus, the prices as written in the tags were significantly lower compared to what appeared in the cash registers.

In fairness to SM, the cashiers did point out the variance to me. In all the three occasions, the cashiers asked me if I was willing to pay what they told me were the “correct” prices, which they said were the ones that appeared in their cash registers. On all three occasions, I flatly refused and told them that I happened to be aware of the pertinent laws that applied in such situations, which is that the price that appears on display is what customers should pay for. And on all three occasions, they relented. The problem was that they had to call some supervisor to approve the transaction and there had to be some waiting time, which annoyed other customers who were waiting in line. I had the distinct feeling that most probably saw me as an incorrigible miser who terrorized hapless cashiers with penny-pinching antics.

Based on the various E-mails of other complainants in the various E-mail groups, what happened to me did not happen to them—in most cases, the cashiers simply ignored the price variance and rung up the purchases. The “victims” simply discovered the difference much later on when they bothered to inventory their purchases against what appeared in the official receipts. The question that is in everyone’s mind of course is: How many people actually bother to inventory purchases, much more check if the prices they paid for were the actual prices as indicated in the tags?

Naturally, more questions cropped up. Is this a normal, regular occurrence in SM stores nationwide? How many people fall “victim” to this trap everyday? What is SM doing to effectively correct this problem?

I must admit that prior to the three incidents I mentioned above, I never really paid close attention to how SM cashiers did their jobs every time they rung up purchases particularly when I paid using a credit card. I have always trusted that the automated system was foolproof. There was very minimal direct human intervention after all - the cashiers simply pointed a laser gun that read the bar code of the product containing the price and other details, and the cash registers computed the purchases. I think I am representative of many consumers—people who believe that establishments like SM have sophisticated systems in place that protect consumers.

The allegations are hitting a raw nerve because it makes people wonder if they too have been victims of the same “incidents” being complained about by many people. There’s nothing quite like mass-scale victimization of innocent people that gets at one’s goat. Suddenly, everyone is wondering if he was also victimized by the set up or not. Could it be that they have paid more than what they should have for their purchases at SM stores? If it happened to some other people, surely there is the possibility that it also happened to us at some point or another without our knowledge.

To be fair to SM, the implied accusation of cheating and massive swindling is probably uncalled for. I don’t think a conglomerate as big as SM would actually sink so low. I really don’t think that it would be willing to make money fleecing people when they could get so much more by just doing business straight up without the monkey business. SM may have had a reputation in the past for not being such an ideal employer particularly in its dealings with contractual employees but I know for a fact that it has really been putting in place more proactive measures designed to become a more responsible corporate citizen. Its rapid growth would not have happened otherwise.

In some of the E-mails from complainants that I have read, they’ve acknowledged that people from SM did call them up to explain the situation and explore solutions. I’ve read that problems in the system have been cited as the culprit as well as human errors which were deemed very likely given the levels of competencies of those hired to do the manual work of changing price tags in the goods displayed in the stores. And then there was the matter of concessionaires who employed their own merchandisers and who were not technically under the employ and supervision of SM. Other possible reasons were cited, all of which, unfortunately, do not really address the problem or appease consumers a bit. The justifications being offered do not fly because what people expect from giant retail chains like SM is not only shopping comfort and quality goods but also security and protection from all kinds of threats including being swindled and cheated not only within the premises but also by the establishment itself.

As can be expected, the issue has become saddled with even more static that adds further complication. For example, some people have raised the issue of SM stores not giving out loose change to customers. Actually, this is a problem that is not specific to SM stores although it just seems more pronounced in SM because it is the biggest retail chain in the country. Someone raised the issue of the rather steep fees SM charges for parking in its malls (quite a number thought parking should be free). And then there are the environmental issues—waste management, pollution, traffic congestion, etc.

SM is no longer just a store that sells goods. It has evolved into becoming a lot of things for a lot of people—I know quite a number of people who see SM as the center of their whole universe they go there for everything, for shopping, for eating, for their laundry needs, for entertainment, even for exercise. Soon, people will actually reside within SM malls. The issues being raised are no longer just about consumer rights, but really about stakeholder interests. Let’s all hope SM rises to the challenge.

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