THE SLOVAK Trade Inspection agency is waging a war against what it sees as deficiencies in retail chains all over Slovakia.
Driving the crusade is a wave of unsatisfied customers, many of whom feel cheated and misled in the aftermath of huge sales that promised significant price reductions.
During January and February of this year, the agency inspected 135 stores a total of 229 times. Some chains were checked repeatedly, as the inspection agency wanted to make sure original breaches of consumer law had been rectified.
At the end of the inspection operation, the agency initiated 92 proceedings against several retail chain stores. Based on its findings, the agency said that breaches in law occurred most often around price, discount percentages and the availability of goods advertised in sale leaflets.
The aim of the inspections, according to the agency, is to stop retail chains from misleading customers about unrealistic savings.
Danuša Krkšová, spokeswoman for the Trade Inspection agency, told The Slovak Spectator that Slovak customers are vulnerable to store promises since the retail chain phenomenon is new to the country. She says customers are trusting and assume that superstores will act in a trustworthy and moral way.
"The Slovak Trade Inspection is limited in what it can achieve. It is impossible to have an inspector checking every single purchase made. Consumers must require good quality-of-sale conditions," she said.
During the course of its inspections, the agency found that customer complaints were justified. Some goods were not in stock, even though they were advertised for sale. Other items were in warehouses but would not be placed on store shelves until after the sale. Some goods were sold out before sale day.
The Trade Inspection agency also said that superstore advertisements lied to customers about discount percentages. Several stores published discounts based on the original price of the goods, not the last suggested price as the consumer law regulates. Thus, some sales advertised as a 29-percent discount really represented only a 9 percent reduction in price.
Customers therefore had an illusion of huge savings on goods that were already discounted several months before. In some cases, the inspection agency found that some sale prices [of Ahold Retail Slovakia] "were actually higher than the last registered price before the sale commenced," according to the agency report.
Several retail chains charged more money for goods at check out than indicated on the label. Buy one get one free deals often resulted in customers being charged twice for the item instead of once.
Once the trade agency proves that a store has broken the consumer protection law, it can issue a fine for up to three years, depending on the case.
The agency can repeatedly fine a store if the breach is not put right. In dire cases, the Trade Inspection agency can propose to close the store down.
According to Krkošová, threatening stores with closure is rare even if it is justified. The bottom line, she says, is that the legislation allows the agency to take drastic measures if necessary.
Jana Havlíčková, the spokeswoman for Carrefour, told The Slovak Spectator at the end of January that these clearance sales, in which the store tries to get rid of last season's goods, are a commonplace practice.
During its clearance sales, Carrefour cannot guarantee that all its stores will carry all items. She told the SME daily that the case is different for promotions, in which "the store always prepares enough supplies. If it becomes evident that the interest is higher than previously expected, the store reorders the stock to satisfy all customers."
Tesco's spokeswoman Oľga Hrnčiarová would not comment except to tell the SME daily that the store "did all it could to put things right and avoid similar situations in future". Tesco will comment on findings only when it receives an official report from the Slovak Trade Inspection agency. Inspectors at Tesco found 50 incorrect price tags; moreover, 25 types of goods advertised at discount prices were not available.
Diana Stanková from Hypernova also refused to comment until the store receives an official report.
Despite all the unfair tactics, Slovaks are embracing superstores. The new discount supermarket chain Lidl, introduced in September 2004, is expected to increase its number of stores to sixty.
The Ahold corporation plans to open three supermarket chains in Bratislava called Albert, which will compete directly with Lidl. The Billa supermarket chain is also mobilizing, having bought 11 stores from Delvita supermarket.
Superstore's discounted prices on food and clothing are already pushing the average price for those items down. Even market analysts were surprised that winter prices for fruits and vegetables fell by around 1.60 percent compared to last year.
Experts say that customers should benefit from superstores at the end of the day.
As far as changing the behaviour of superstores in Slovakia, Krkošová from the Slovak Trade Inspection agency believes that only customers can change the current situation.
21. Mar 2005 at 0:00 | Magdalena MacLeod