For the first time, Suffolk County is expanding enforcement of a law that requires retailers to individually price items on their shelves, from canned vegetables to cleaning products, upsetting some business owners and elected officials.
This year, the Suffolk County Department of Labor, Licensing and Consumer Affairs has sought to enforce the county’s item pricing law, originally applied only to supermarkets and drug stores, at a variety of retailers, including hardware, paint, beauty, and pet and office supply stores.
The law, enacted in 1993, requires stores in the county to price each individual product on a shelf, including food, paper goods, detergents, soaps, non-prescription drugs, and health and beauty aids. It does not apply to stores that are not part of a chain or network of affiliates, had less than $3 million in sales, or have no more than two full-time employees, excluding immediate family members. Those that fail to comply with the law can face fines from $50 to $1,000.
“It just seems like an old piece of legislation that is being brought out to unfairly tax businesses,” said Hank Brinkmann, owner of six Brinkmann True Value Hardware and VanKemenade Paint stores in Suffolk. “We don’t have any confusions with customers not being able to find the price . . . We carry loose bolts and nuts. Am I supposed to price each one?”
Charlie Gardner, who served as Suffolk’s consumer affairs commissioner from 1996 to 2008, said the law was aimed at supermarkets to address complaints from shoppers who felt they were overcharged. The enforcement of the law then expanded to drug stores because they started to expand their product selection.
“It was never the intent of the department to include the other stores,” said Gardner, who is also the immediate past president of the Kings Park Chamber of Commerce. “At smaller stores, people buy less items than at supermarkets. If there is a question about the price, it can be verified by store personnel while you are there.”
Eventually, supermarkets negotiated with the county to create a waiver program that allows retailers to apply to opt out of the requirement to label each item individually. Nassau County has a similar law and waiver option that applies to all stores, officials confirmed.
Under Suffolk’s voluntary program, stores can pay an annual waiver fee that ranges from $500 to $15,000, depending on the square footage of the store. Once the waiver is granted, a store must pass a pricing accuracy inspection of a minimum of 50 items, proving they scan at the register at the same price advertised on the shelf. Violations cannot exceed 2 percent of the items inspected. Each store must provide a price check scanner to allow customers to confirm the prices of items, agree not to charge customers more than an advertised price, and refund customers when an overcharge occurs.
Starting in January, consumer affairs department inspectors made visits to retailers to inform them about the item pricing law and give them waiver applications, Suffolk County spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said.
“We chose to aggressively enforce the . . . pricing laws because in the past two decades retailers have morphed” and many more now sell items included under the law, she said. “We chose to expand the enforcement to apply the law evenly and provide consumers protection in establishments other than supermarkets and grocery stores.”
Retailers notified included Brinkmann True Value Hardware, Costello’s Ace Hardware, Home Depot, Toys R Us, Family Dollar, Staples, Ulta Beauty and several other retailers, said Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-East Islip). Cilmi said he suspects the timing of the expanded enforcement, adding that the county is trying to close a budget deficit of more than $150 million.
“I firmly believe that the administration is looking for every opportunity to increase revenue in the county, without regard of the impact that it has on our residents,” said Cilmi, a former business owner and chamber of commerce president.
Michael Costello, chief executive of Costello’s Ace Hardware, said the family-owned business with 25 stores paid $16,000 to apply to the waiver program for its 11 stores in Suffolk.
“Let’s call it what it is: a tax,” Costello said. “If they are going to charge retailers, that is just going to raise the price of goods for consumers.”
Home Depot’s 15 stores in Suffolk County all pay a waiver fee, a spokesman for the chain said.
On Thursday, Cilmi filed legislation to exempt paint and hardware stores from the county’s item pricing law. The bill would also strip the authority of the consumer affairs department commissioner to expand the scope of the law.
“I am considering legislation to do away with the county’s item pricing law altogether,” Cilmi said. “New York State has pricing accuracy laws in place which would apply should the county eliminate our item pricing law.”
State law requires stores to display prices either on each item or on adjacent, easy to read shelf tags or signs.