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Who Needs Customers Anyway
Published on June 27, 2010 By Phil Osborn In Consumer Issues

Some years back, Ralphs got busted big-time for systematic overcharges of its grocery customers.  As a legal consequence they had to offer all kinds of bonuses - free groceries, for example - for every overcharge that a customer caught on their receipt.  I had been checking my receipts for years by then and about half the time there would be an error of a few dollars.  I collected big-time when the penalty policies were implemented. 

Now Ralphs, Food-4-Less and the parent Kroger are being charged with similar practices, and, from my own experience, the charges are probably valid.  About one out of four of my receipts for the past several years at Food-4-Less had an overcharge.  I don't recall them ever undercharging, which one might expect if the problem was random error rather than deliberate.

While this new case is pending, I have some other minor bones to pick.  Please note that I went through the process of submitting complaints on these issues to Kroger, and I got phone calls back from their flac catchers, who assured me that I would be contacted by management.  That was several weeks ago, and I'm still waiting.

The original issue was reasonably trivial.  The Food-4-Less nearest to me at Grand and 17th in Santa Ana had a HUGE clearance selection, composed of about ten or twelve large, rolling, multi-level racks of merchandize.  Unfortunately, very little of it had pricing.  I would take an item to the checkout to discover the price and then find that it was showing at full price, as often as not.  I asked the manager about this, and he informed me that the problem was that the computers had not been updated.  Right - blame the computers. 

There was one rack with dozens of large bottles of detergent which sat there, unpriced and showing up as full price, even though under a sign saying "Clearance: 50% off" for at least a couple months.  A cashier advised me to fill out and mail in their complaint form, as she was also tired of irate customers who relied upon the clearance sign.  Of course it was also costing Food-4-Less as the merchandize sat there unsold.

I took the complaint form, but then I found the Kroger website and submitted my complaint on line.  Someone eventually called me and gave me the assurance that I would be contacted.  Then I got a call from the store manager with whom I had spoken on site before.  He assured me that they were "working on the problem."

The next time I went to that store, where I have spent most of my grocery dollars for several years, that same manager was hanging out near the entrance and informed me that I would have to leave my backpack (I ride a motorcycle) with the cashier.  I objected that not only do I have a need to stay close to my backpack, in which I typically carry my MP3 player and all its tunes, as well as legal documents, library books, a digital video camera and, occasionally, my laptop.  It is also highly inconvenient for me to make a separate trip from home just to go to the grocery, which is near the midpoint for my library and gym visits.  I told the manager that I had no objection to having the pack searched as well.

My objections were ignored.  I asked if there would be any security and was told that there would be none.  I left and went to the other Food-4-Less on 1st Street in Santa Ana, an increase in my round trip of a couple miles.  Here is the email I sent Kroger after the backpack incident:

Dear Ms. *****;

Unfortunately, the problem concerning which I wrote you earlier this month (unpriced or full-priced clearance merchandise) has escalated.  I spoke to a representative via phone (888.437.3496) last week, and was told that someone would follow up, but no one has contacted me since then.

On the night of April 23rd I decided to do my shopping.  My particular incentives for using the Kroger (Food-4-Less) store at 17th & Grand in Santa Ana included the easy proximity to my office, the large variety and good prices, the fact that only Kroger, of all the groceries in the area, offers a genuine East Coast style yogurt (Kroger brand), and that I was interested in checking out the resolution of an issue that I had raised with Kroger about this store a couple weeks ago.

Basically, my problem now is that the manager is apparently retaliating against me in response to my original complaint, and now I am effectively barred from using the store.

This was my first visit to the store since the manager of this store called me at work to discuss my concerns.  He was very polite in his call, and seemed to really want to fix the problem I had noticed.

I spend $10~$20 per week at this store on a regular basis, typically once a week for the past five or more years.  I was hoping that perhaps now, after my email, the situation with unpriced "clearance" items might be resolved.

Please note that that email was the 3rd incident* that I have had in connection with that store in the past year.  Although I mostly shop Food-4-Less, since Kroger bought the chain and has upgraded their cleanliness and overall organization, I do shop at several other stores, and have never had any similar incidents at other stores, nor any similar incidents prior to about a year ago at this store.

As I mentioned, I returned to the store on the 23rd of April to purchase groceries and was confronted by the manager, who told me that I would have to leave my backpack at the checkout before entering the store proper. On checking the bagging area, I did not notice any other backpacks.

And, despite shopping at this store at least 200 times, often with this same manager present, I have never had this demand before, although I always have my backpack with me, as I ride a motorcycle and need to keep my road tools, camera, notebooks, laptop computer, MP3 player, books, magazines, bank statements, etc., with me as I go to the gym, the library, Starbucks, the post office, etc.  The main reason that I shop at this store, in fact, is that it fits right into my regular routes to do three or four other chores.

I pointed out that I was carrying a large quantity of valuable material and asked the manager if I would get a receipt or if Kroger was prepared to take responsibility for any missing or damaged items, and he responded that Kroger would not provide any kind of guaranteed security, and, no, I would not get any receipt - and, of course, the video cameras had already been established as useless (see below*).  So, faced with the security hazard, I left the store without purchasing anything. 

I have no problem with bag checks, BTW, and I know that California law allows for checking of bags, including packs or purses, both on entrance and on leaving a store. In addition, the Food-4-Less already has a security system that is supposed to detect merchandise being smuggled out of the store.  So, what was the point?  Other than to harass me?

The manager made a big point of the idea that he could only follow orders and had no personal discretion.  Although he did not laugh while stating this, I feel reasonably certain that he was enjoying his revenge after being chastised over the clearance items.  Probably he felt that this was the perfect response, as he was probably told by someone above him in the Kroger hierarchy that from now on, the clearance had better be priced.  I.e., do what you're told.  This is not a discretionary matter.  At least that's how I read it.

Note that the manager told me that this was simply Kroger policy and that he was NOT singling me out.  But, of course, it is a bit of a stretch to suddenly be hit with a policy that has never been enforced in the past several years, on the first occasion since I filed a complaint - just coincidentally.

Presumably, I could continue shopping at this store by making a special, separate trip from my office or home sans backpack.  That would cost me in valuable time a minimum of $500 per year.  Or, I could go to the downtown Santa Ana store (where I went after being unable to shop at the original store, and made all my purchases without ever having anyone mention the backpack) and also take a loss, due to increased distance and several more traffic lights, of perhaps $300.

Meanwhile, if I search out some other option for my shopping, Kroger will lose on the order of $1000 per year in my sales.  This seems like a lose-lose situation.

*The first incident, about a year ago, I believe, occurred when a heavy brown-paper towel roll in the men's room fell off the top of the dispensor onto my foot, leaving me limping and bruised.  In making that report about my slight injury to the lady who was managing that night I was less concerned about my own condition than of the possibility that some young child might try to pull paper off the roll, where it was precariously balanced at head height, and be seriously injured or even killed by the roll, which weighed about 20 pounds. Kroger sent me a $20 check, which I did not ask for, but was pleased to receive, as it showed that they were paying attention, and I have never seen that dangerous situation again.

The second occurred early this year, or late in 2009, when some of the merchandise that I had just purchased was taken by someone else in the bagging area before I left as I was bagging it.  I discovered the loss as I was loading the goods onto my motorcycle and rushed back into the store within a few minutes of the event, but it was too late, costing me about $20 for a bottle of Kamchatka vodca and a 5-liter box of Merlot. 

The manager told me at the time that the video security system would have a record of the incident and that I could check back the next day, as he had no access to the security system.  When I did check back, however, I was told that the cameras were focused on the checkout clerk and did not include the bagging area, so there was no recourse, although I did have the receipt. Admittedly I should have been more careful, but I let myself get distracted by the fact that someone else's groceries were coming down the conveyor on top of mine.

************************  End of my email to Kroger  ******************************

When I went to the other Food-4-Less in downtown Santa Ana, immediately after the backpack incident, I went to the men's room.  It was a DISASTER!  Not only were there no toilet seat covers, no toilet paper, no soap or towels, but the floor had obviously not been mopped in a LONG time.  There were LAYERS of filth on the floor.  It took an effort to lift ones shoes out of the muck, which featured a huge green and yellow gob of spittle right in the path to be tracked out of the restroom and back throughout the store. 

(For those who have never been to barrio stores here in SoCal or Mexico, this would be the norm in a typical public restroom there, so it should not be a major surprise to find it in a store managed by Hispanics and serving a largely lower income Hispanic clientelle.  However, I had faith that Kroger, a venerable giant Eastern corporation would be able to deal with this...)

I immediately exited this plague venue and brought this situation to the attention of one of the store personnel, who immediately called someone to fix the matter.  I only mentioned the toilet paper and covers being empty, as I never got far enough to notice that the soap and towels were also out.  Five minutes later the guy tracked me down and assured me that the situation had been taken care of.  I returned to discover that, yes, the toilet paper, etc., was now full, but then discovered that the soap and towels were still empty.

But, I also had to wait while a young Hispanic dad took his toddler girl into the Men's room, which had room only for one occupant.  I was seriously concerned for the little girl's safety, given the utter filth.

Enough is enough!

I can't find my first posting on this site but here is what I posted on the El Centro de Mexico Yahoo Group Messages after Kroger's reponse:

Actually, for me this was NOT a break from my cultural background. I grew up in
the deep South, N. Georgia, former slave country, VERY segregated when my family
moved down from Vermont in about 1953. We were treated at least as badly as
DAMNED YANKEES as what the darker skinned Hispanic learns no doubt to be
prepared for here in the OC, so I actually do know what you guys are going

In all the former slave states of the South, there are certain cultural
constants. In the slave states, a rich elite of large plantation owners ran
everything prior to the Civil War. (In fact, the same families STILL largely
run things there.) Those who were not rich plantation owners aspired to be one
and treated them like royalty. Someone who was a mere shopowner, on the other
hand, was considered shabby, mercantile, money-grubbing, and clearly inferior to
the faux aristocracy.

The cultural carryover is that even today, if you are a shopkeeper in the South,
then you are expected to treat your customers like royalty. If you walk into a
store there, you are instantly mobbed by clerks and salespeople, insisting on
smothering you with attention... The old motto "the customer is always right"
is taken seriously.

On the other hand, if you are a delivery person bringing the goods to stock the
store, then you are one rung lower than a shopkeeper, and will be treated like

Imagine my shock in coming to California in 1976.

How totally surprised I was in entering a store and watching all the salespeople
rushing to hide or suddenly getting very busy and ignoring my obvious need to
ask something about the merchandise. And this happened virtually EVERY time.

I finally figured out that in the Southern California culture there is a large
carryover from the Spanish era or from a Hispanic heritage in which someone who
has the financial and social clout to actually own a business is assumed to be a
"Jefe." He or she is a Big Man (or Woman) and you, the wretched customer are
there by special favor and permission and had better act accordingly. It would
be dishonorable for a store manager, or even a clerk, to defer to a mere

To people who grew up here, this is no doubt largely invisible, like the air you
breathe. For me, coming from exactly the opposite culture, it stuck out.

And then there are the store bathrooms. Why should store personnel demean
themselves to clean a bathroom that lower class customers will only make dirty
again? Why should there be free toilet paper? Soap? Towels? All this is taken
for granted in the South, of course.

So, I go to the Food-4-Less about a month ago - the downtown Santa Ana one over
on 1st street. I needed to use the mens room. There is only one and it can
only service one person at a time. I immediately noticed the filth. The floor
had LAYERS of dirt, with a huge green and orange glob of Phlem that someone had
hawked upt right where it could be tracked around and into the food area. Then
I noticed that there was no toilet paper or seat covers, at which point I left
and spotted a manager. As soon as I pointed this situation out to him, he got
right on it, sending someone to deal with the situation.

Five minutes later, I'm back and a young Hispanic father is leading his toddler
daughter into the mens' room. I seriously feared for the girl. The toilet
paper had been replaced and the seat covers, but whoever did it did not bother
to check the paper towels - which were out - or the soap, which was empty, and
certainly had not touched the muck on the floor.

So, I wrote about the situation on line, and the word clearly got back to
Kroger, which is a huge, ancient East Coast conglomorate that has in recent
years swallowed up Ralphs and Food-4-Less. I counted on their East Coast

Last week, I went back to the store and to the men's room. The management had
permanently stationed someone with a mop outside the men's and women's rooms,
where he waited for each person to come out and then dashed in to check
everything. The men's room was spotless and everything was there.

Then I went back this past weekend. Everything was stocked, but the floor was
pretty filthy. Not nearly as bad as the first time, but getting there.

This kind of situation, and also the habit that stores in the Santa Ana area
have of ripping off their customers, like not giving them a stated sale price,
or charging for something similar to what the customer actually bought (like
Brocolli crowns instead of heads) goes on because people let it go on. All it
takes is one person complaining and following up in most cases to get a

I'm not trying to single out Kroger/Ralphs/Food-4-Less, although I do notice
that they have recently been charged by the state with massively defrauding
their customers and I would estimate that about 1/4 of my purchases there have
had overcharges. I always check my receipt and then hold up the whole line to
get a refund.

These companies and stores do this sort of thing - filthy restrooms,
overcharges, and sometimes spoiled produce or milk, because they don't get
enough feedback.

Why? Why is it that I'm the only person in line to point out a mistake - always
in the store's favor? Why don't the parents with kids who use those restrooms
call the very real threat of disease and infections to the attention of the
store personnel?

I can only conclude that it's cultural. So, I'm going to suggest, that if you
really want to make a difference in the Santa Ana community, then it's time to
raise some Hell. You don't have to be IN someone's face. Just tell them what's
wrong and convey the idea that you EXPECT them to fix it. You, the customer are
really the Jefe, because YOU are paying for their salaries.

Start a trend. If people start standing up for their rights to store personnel,
then what about the cops, or ICE? You have to start somewhere. Why not invite
some friends and then pick a store and check it out. Carry clipboards if you
want to really throw a scare into them. Go back to verify and congratulate the
store guys when they turn things around.

So, does this seem like a good idea?

(What about a Santa Ana customer union? ... )

************************  End of Posting on El Centro site **********************************

After this message and Kroger's obvious response, I waited a week and went back again.  There was toilet paper and seat covers, but no towels, and the floor was beginning to recover its previous toxic ecology. 

So, still having not received an answer from Kroger on the backpack issue, I went back a few more times to the downtown Food-4-Less.  Each time until this last one, the security guard at the entrance waved me through, backpack, helmet, jacket and all.  However, this last time, the guard stopped me and told me that I would have to leave my pack at the checkout.  He insisted that he would be there to watch it, but that did not satisfy me, as I know something about criminal behavior, having lived in the Hispanic barrios for a couple decades. 

(Not that all or most Hispanic people are criminal, just more than you would like.  As in, if you leave any tool sitting out on your porch for five minutes, you will be congratulating yourself on your great good fortune if it is still there when you return.  And, women do not walk around the barrio after dark.  The gangbanger wannabees cruize the hood 24/7on their lowrider bicycles, watching for any chance to rip something off or otherwise establish their credibility with their peers.)

Serious criminals usually operate in pairs or teams.  A woman member of the team may do something - knock over a pile of merchandise, whatever - and that will distract store personnel, including security, while the other team members are grabbing the loot.  No one suspects a woman, and nothing is noticed missing until inventory - or until some guy is yelling about his lost backpack and laptop with the pending corporate patent applications and bank account info. 

A high tech backpack, of the kind that one might expect a techie to use to carry a laptop, is an obvious target.  As I mentioned above, someone stole one of my bags of merchandise right there at the checkout during this recent holidays at the other Food-4-Less.  And, at the same location, in the well-lit parking lot, someone emptied out my gym gear onto the blacktop and stole ONE sandal.  No WAY Jose am I leaving my pack at some checkout!

(I STILL don't understand how a one-legged man (or woman??) could have gotten far enough in the time I was shopping that I couldn't spot them...)

Still waiting to hear from Kroger...  And, I note that Food-4-Less is the ONLY store that I'm aware of that bans backpacks.  In the year following 9/11, many stores adopted this policy, presumeably to forstall possible terrorist incidents.  I recall one encounter at CVS, back when it was Sav-On, when I was told to leave my backpack at the cashiers, where there would be someone always present to watch it.  So, I left it and went shopping.  When I returned with my merchandise, my backpack was sitting out in the middle of the floor, surrounded by three Sav-On personnel, including the management, all wearing terror-stricken expressions.  Of course, the lady who was supposed to be there watching the pack had gone on break, never thinking to tell anyone about my pack.

I just googled around and guess how many backpack bombs have been captured or have exploded in U.S. supermarkets or drug stores???

Can you believe that I couldn't find even ONE!!!???  For the whole U.S.  What about in general for anywhere in the U.S.?   000000000000000000000000000000000000000!!!  This HAS TO BE an error!  Someone is hiding the real truth about lethal packpacks.  And, while we're at this, what about CARS?  Consider those huge PARKING LOTS in front of the Food-4-Less store, WITHOUT ANY CAR BOMB SHIELDS!!!

Now I do recall that for three or four years after 9/11, in spite of not one single incident that I could find, various drug stores, groceries and movie theaters would either check a pack on admission or require that it stay with the cashier.  However, the only store currently doing so now is Kroger's Food-4-Less.  So, how many terrorist attacks on Food-4-Less have been prevented.  Only GOD knows, I'm sure. 

The last stores until now locally to give up the backpack paranoia were those in the Hispanic low-income neighborhoods.  As we all know, those Hispanics are only a shade or two of skin pigmentation away from Muslim terrorists...  Right?  After all, they are Catholic, ,mostly, and isn't Catholicism a secret plot against our democracy, our "way of life," our "freedoms"?  (reference George W. Bush.)  How is it that seven out of nine justices on our Supreme Court are Catholic, anyway?  (And the other two are JEWISH!!!) 

So, we know that Afghanistan - oh wait, do I mean Iraq? - was behind 9/11, even though almost all of the terrorists were Saudis, right?  And here we have these crypto-aliens - Catholics and Jews - completely running ONE ENTIRE BRANCH of our government.  Is Food-4-Less aware of this?  Are they letting self-admitted CATHOLICS into their stores, without even running a check on ID?  And, what about CATHOLICS WITH BACKPACKS!!!   How have we survived til now?

Carry on.  

(Note to the health-conscious:  It might be just that one store at 17th and Grand in Santa Ana, but three times in the past year or so I bought gallon-sized lowfat chocolate milk that was already fermented and fizzy.  These were marked down clearance items, but that still doesn't justify selling tainted food.  The low-fat chocolate is especially attractive to me as I do hard workouts and chocolate milk has been found recently to be one of the very best things to drink after a heavy set with weights or machines for building muscle, which is a priority at my age. 

In every case and typically with all the gallon chocolate milk, I have noticed that there is always spilled chocolate milk stuck to the plastic bottles, and leaked around the shelf, which strongly suggests a very lax handling of the merchandise by store personnel.  That same laxness might also result in improper storage or handling - leaving the milk on the loading dock for extened periods, for example - that exposes the milk to unsafe temperatures, leading to the fermentation.  And, if it happens repeatedly with one product, chances are that the other temperature sensitive products, such as meats, are also at risk.  I think I'll give the inspectors a call on this one.)

on Jun 28, 2010

Kroger is one of the big 3 grocery store chains in my city. And the least flexible. so I rarely shop there.  But I guess I will be checking my receipts when I do!