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Take a quick glance at the price tags pictured above – which is the better deal? The name brand with the unit price of 4.5¢ per item, or the store brand with the unit price of $3.46 per box?

Wait – what kind of comparison is that, anyway?

In at least one state, Walmart won’t be able to display confusing price tags like that anymore. New Jersey’s Attorney General has announced that Walmart has agreed to pay $1.64 million in civil penalties and costs to resolve the state’s allegations that the retailer displayed unlawful, inaccurate and mismatched unit prices.

The dispute dates back to early last year, when the state’s Division of Consumer Affairs conducted routine inspections of Walmart’s 64 New Jersey locations. Inspectors reported finding more than 2,000 instances where “the incorrect unit of measurement was used” in displaying unit prices on the shelf.

New Jersey is one of nine states with mandatory unit pricing laws – the others being Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont. New Jersey’s law requires retailers to display the price of food, cleaning products and other items “using a standard unit of measurement set by regulation,” such as the cost per sheet, per pound or per quart. “Unit pricing makes it easier for consumers to compare prices among like products packaged in different sizes or quantities to determine which is the best value for their money,” the Attorney General’s office explains.

Among the more than 2,000 violations that inspectors found at Walmart were incorrect and sometimes mismatched units of measurement. In some cases, unit prices were calculated differently within the same category of products, as in the example above. Or, in the case of coffee products, different brands and different packages might have unit prices displayed “per can, per pound or per 100-count,” the Attorney General’s office explained, “making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for shoppers to compare prices,” unless they calculate it themselves – which defeats the purpose of having retailers display unit prices in the first place.

And this isn’t the first time Walmart has been penalized over the same issue. In the two years prior to 2023, New Jersey officials say Walmart has been fined nearly a quarter million dollars for unit pricing problems, which they say “reflect an ongoing pattern of pricing violations at Walmart stores in New Jersey.”

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Nor is this the first time a retailer has been penalized over its unit pricing practices. Back in 2018, Maryland’s Attorney General settled a similar dispute with Kmart, in which the retailer agreed to pay more than $100,000 in penalties and costs for “fail(ing) to provide consumers with required unit prices in its Maryland stores” (after which Kmart’s parent company Sears filed for bankruptcy and Kmart’s last Maryland store closed about two years later).

Walmart itself settled a similar case with Connecticut back in 2006, paying the state $37,150 over unit pricing violations.

Then, as now, Walmart has not admitted any wrongdoing. But as part of the New Jersey settlement, the retailer has agreed to improve training for its employees and to conduct regular audits of its unit price displays and report its findings to the state.

“As the price of grocery items continues to rise, it’s more important than ever to ensure consumers have all the information they need — and are entitled to by law — to make educated decisions on how to spend their money,” New Jersey’s Attorney General Matthew Platkin said in a statement. “The significant fine Walmart will pay as a result of this settlement sends a clear message that New Jersey will not allow retailers to engage in unlawful pricing practices that deny shoppers the ability to easily compare prices to figure out which product is a better buy.”

Platkin also pointed out that the $1.61 million civil penalty is the largest ever levied by the state. The rest of the money Walmart has agreed to pay – about $25,000 – will go toward reimbursing the state for investigative costs and attorney’s fees.

The image above, incidentally, comes from a Reddit thread in which Walmart shoppers discussed what they said was the retailer’s “inconsistent unit pricing,” long before New Jersey began investigating it.

“It’s so misleading because every other store does it in a consistent way, so most people just glance at it and don’t even think to do the math themselves,” one commenter wrote. “Some products are given per lb and some per oz and it is cumbersome to compare,” another observed. “For those who aren’t smart enough to catch this, they are being deceived by shady pricing tactics,” a third commenter stated.

So if you live in one of the states mentioned earlier that have unit pricing laws, your state just might be interested in hearing from you if you find discrepancies on the shelf the next time you shop. And if you live in a state without unit pricing regulations, it’s buyer beware – so keep your eyes peeled and your calculator handy, to make sure you really are getting the best price.

Image source: Beefster09/Reddit

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