The Kansas Legislature’s Division of Post Audit has uncovered surprising news that potentially affects every resident. That’s a bold statement, but it underscores the importance of what the nonpartisan division found recently in an inspection of 365 Kansas businesses.
The department found that roughly 60 percent of these retailers failed accuracy tests for their price scanners. That’s right, the ubiquitous laser scanners that peer at bar codes and flash prices at the cash register.
Or as The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Tim Carpenter wrote recently, “Of the retailers tested by the agriculture department, state auditors said, 215 of the businesses, or 59 percent, were red-flagged for too frequently charging customers something other than the advertised price.”
Such an multitude of errors are unfair to consumers, and they ultimately poses a threat to retailers. If customers can’t trust the prices they’re charged, they could well look elsewhere.
But what’s even more troubling is that we don’t know the full extent of the problem. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Kansas has 10,000 retailers, which means that fewer than 4 percent were audited for accuracy. The Department of Agriculture conducts the checks, and Legislative Post Audit officials say the results show the need for more folks to do inspections.
“They’re spread pretty thin and as a result they only allocate a small portion of their staff to conducting these electronic inspections,” lead auditor Justin Stowe told The Capitol Insider podcast.
Price accuracy isn’t of interest simply to retailers and consumers, of course. It also matters to the state government, which collects sales and other use taxes. If businesses are routinely undercharging customers, for example, that means that state coffers are missing sorely needed dollars. On the other hand, if businesses are routinely overcharging customers, then the state is taking more than its fair share.
In either case, we simply don’t know the extent or severity of the problem. It seems imperative that the agriculture department test more businesses this next fiscal year and find the staffing to do so. Legislators could well persuaded, given this report, to set aside resources for the department to do so.
No one likes feeling taken advantage of. Customers shouldn’t feel as though they’re playing roulette each time they buy a gallon of milk or gas. And businesses shouldn’t feel as though customers are getting away with something.
Above all, the state government should make sure that everyone is playing on a level field.