Herman Marmon knows 32 cents isn’t a lot of money, but it’s enough to teach a lesson in consumer rights.
Last month, the East Hanover man visited ShopRite in Livingston to purchase some items from the salad bar.
“The cashier stacked the small container on top of the large one and was going to ring it up,” said Marmon, 75. “I stopped her and asked her to ring the containers up separately. She asked me why. I asked her if she ever heard about tare weight. I got a blank stare.”
He said he asked the cashier again to weigh each container separately, and she did.
One container weighed 1.33 pounds and the second weighed 1.10 pounds for a total of 2.43 pounds of product.
Marmon said he paid for the purchase, but he was also ready to prove a point.
He said he went to a second check-out line as if he had never paid. The cashier weighed the two stacked containers at 2.35 pounds – a different amount from when the containers were weighed separately.
So what exactly is tare weight?
Virtually all items sold by weight are priced for the net weight — the actual weight of the item bring purchased, excluding any packaging.
It’s the law.
The weight of the container or packaging materials is called the tare weight, said the Division of Consumer Affairs, whose Office of Weights and Measures keeps tabs on such things.
Before an item is priced, the tare weight is subtracted from the gross weight –- the weight of the entire package altogether –- to determine the net weight that the consumer should actually be paying.
Armed with this knowledge, Marmon said he took his purchase and both receipts to the customer service desk and asked for one of the charges to be refunded. It was. He next asked for a manager.
“I showed him both receipts and asked for an explanation. None was forthcoming,” Marmon said. “I asked about cashier training on tare weight. Blank. Asked if it was built into the scales. Blank.”
Curious to see how widespread the tare weight issue might be, we visited a few other stores. At all the locations, we purchased two different-sized salad bar containers and laid them, stacked, on the conveyor belt. At the ShopRite in Freehold, the cashier separated the containers and weighed them separately — and correctly. One other chain supermarket, Wegman’s in Manalapan, did the same.
But at two of the chain stores we visited – neither of them a Shop Rite – our containers were weighed in their stacked fashion, which means the tare weight wasn’t properly subtracted from the sale price. Neither of those cashiers knew what tare weight was when we asked.
Seems the tare weight issue is more prevalent than we’d like to think.
A LESSON IN TARE WEIGHT
Tare weight is considered for more than just salad bar containers.
In the case of a package of chicken thighs you might find at the supermarket, for example, the tare weight includes the weight of the “boat” that holds the meat, and the “diaper,” the creative name for the pad that sits under the meat to collect moisture, said Bob Campanelli, acting superintendent of the state Office of Weights and Measures.
When testing to verify whether the tare weight has been properly subtracted from a package of chicken thighs, a Weights and Measures inspector would first weigh the entire package. The inspector will then ask the store to provide an unused boat and a partially damp diaper for separate testing, or, if that’s not available, the inspector may open the package and remove the boat and diaper. The inspector will then separately weigh the boat and diaper.
“If the gross weight of the entire package minus the tare weight of the boat and diaper matches the net weight printed on the package, then the tare weight has been calculated correctly,” Campanelli said.
In the case of metal sold to a junkyard, or landscaping stones bought in large quantities, the tare weight may include the weight of the truck.
All scales must be tested and certified annually by the state or one of the 21 county Weights and Measures offices.
Slight variations in weight, called “maximum allowable variations,” are permitted, and they vary by product.
Each package found to be in violation of the “maximum allowable variation” can result in a civil penalty of $50.
Much of the math for tare weight falls on the scales used to measure products.
Campanelli said there are many classes of scales, from pharmaceutical balances to truck scales, each of which performs a different function.
Many digital retail scales –- like the ones found in supermarkets -– can be pre-programmed with several tare weight numbers for several different types of packaging. In such cases, the employee using the scale should enter the proper code for the package, and it will automatically subtract the tare weight.
In fact, Campanelli said the most common tare weight errors occur with store-packaged items –- just like Marmon’s salad bar items -– when employees fail to account for the full tare weight of the packaging before they offer the package for sale.
That’s what Marmon said happened at ShopRite in Livingston.
We reported Marmon’s experience to Consumer Affairs, and it contacted both the owner of the Livingston ShopRite and the corporate offices of Wakefern, ShopRite’s parent company.
“They represented to us that they corrected the matter after speaking with us, and agreed to re-train all staff at the store to ensure employees properly subtract the tare weight from items when it is necessary to do so prior to sale,” said Consumer Affairs Director Eric Kanefsky. “Our Office of Weights and Measures will follow up, on an unannounced basis, to ensure this concern has indeed been corrected.”
We were glad to hear it, and so was Marmon.
We reached out to Wakefern to see what it had to say on the topic.
A rep reviewed the store security videos that corresponded with Marmon’s two purchases, confirming that the cashiers made errors both times.
The video of the first cashier showed that even though she weighed the containers separately at Marmon’s request, she never entered the tare weight for either container.
The video of the second transaction showed weighing of the stacked containers –- which ShopRite said were stacked by Marmon -– but the cashier only entered the tare weight of the larger container.
The cashier should have separated the containers and entered tare weights for both, said ShopRite spokesperson Karen Meleta.
“This was an unfortunate experience but I can assure you that I do not believe this is the standard experience,” Meleta said. “The associate made an error and when an associate makes an error, we’re happy to correct that error.”
She said the store is reviewing the proper tare weight procedures with the cashiers so that it won’t happen again.
When we told Marmon ShopRite was offering to refund the difference — $0.32 — Marmon laughed a good belly laugh. “It would cost me more to drive down there on gas,” he said. “They can mail me a check.”
If you suspect tare weight was not properly accounted for in your purchase, ask the store employee if and how the tare weight was calculated If you think there’s a miscalculation and you’ve been overcharged or shortchanged, you can file a complaint on the Consumer Affairs web site (NJConsumerAffairs.gov) or by calling 1-800-242-5846 or 973-504-6200.