At first glance, the bright orange tags taped along the supermarket aisle resemble those ubiquitous mark-down stickers, flagging shoppers to bargains.
But, on closer inspection, the Day Glo tags carry a different message: "As a customer service, we feel it necessary to inform you that this product exceeds the voluntary freeze guidelines."
The tags, posted by Co-op Consumers Supermarkets in its six area stores, are part of a campaign by the chain and its owner, Greenbelt Consumer Services, Inc., to force manufacturers to adhere to President Carter's voluntary program to hold down wages and prices.
While the Co-ops clearly are not alone in coping with some wholesale price increase of 10 or even 20 percent, no large supermarket chain like Safeway or Giant has followed their lead and set out to point a finger at offending items.
The first salvo in the price fight was fired by Boston's Star Supermarkets, which began tagging items in January. Co-op Consumers Supermarkets joined in last March, tagging their first four items. Tags subsequently went up on 90 more items.
Some manufacturers are fighting back, arguing that, while prices on some items have jumped, their total profits figure has not.
The Co-op campaign, says the cooperative's chief executive officer, Roy Bryant, applies the 7 percent wage increase guideline as a way to simplify a very complicated federal formula.
However, according to a spokesman for the federal Council on Wage and Price Stability, "There is no set limit for price increases of all products."
Michael M. Penny, supermarket division manager, said the sign campaign is not an effort to keep consumers from buying such items as Mug Lunch Macaroni-N-Cheese, Trix, Aunt Sue Raw Honey, Chore Girl Pot Cleaners, Jif Peanut Butter and the other foods and household items on Co-op's list. "We're saying that the consumer should be aware of it,' he said.
The only problem at the moment is that Co-op is able to tag packaged goods, they have no system yet for tagging such items as meats, produce, and dairy products.
After almost three months, however, the tags are bringing mixed reactions from Co-op shoppers.
"I don't buy anything that says it's overpriced," said Linda Creizinger of Greenbelt, as she pushed her cart down the aisles of Co-op's Greenbelt store. "I've done without things several times [because of the tags]. I consciously didn't buy Quaker Oats."
Another shopper, Margaret Reardon of Greenbelt, echoed this view, adding: "I think enough is being done to consumers. We might as well heed these things."
But Ruby Gunther of College Park said she hadn't noticed the signs. Even if she did, she said, "I go ahead and buy what I want."
Herb Houser, manager of Co-op's Kensington store, said shoppers ignore the tags if they want the item badly enough. "If a customer wants to bake a raisin pie, she'll still buy raisins," he said. "But sales of the tagged sauces have really slowed up." He had no price figures to chart any drop-off in the sales of tagged items, however.
When they decided to join the guideline campaign, Co-op officials asked their wholesale supplier, P A & S Small of York, Pa., to monitor manufacturer prices, and notify them when a product crept over the 5.5 percent cap, set last October. Some prices according to the cooperative's lists have risen as much as 26 percent, in the case of Armour Corned Beef. Co-op began posting the tags, and telling sales representatives that if they objected, they should write a letter explaining the increase.
To date, Penny said, only one company has written a protest. "Sun Maid Raisins notified us their prices had gone up because of crop failures, and that they had gone through the administration and explained it was within the realm of the guidelines. We took the tags off and did back off," he said.
Co-op also took tags off Sunsweet prunes.
Tags came off another product last week after an error was discovered in supplier Sall's price computations. The product, Post's Alpha Bits cereal, was listed as having gone up 30 percent since November. Responding to inquiries, Small and General Foods officials found that the unusual increase resulted from an increased box size; the unit price was within the guidelines.
No other tags have been withdrawn.
Penny said the few sales representatives he'd talked to argued that the combined price increases for their product line were within federal guidelines.
"We're within the guidelines set for our company," a spokesman for Procter & Gamble said last week. She said prices on the company's Duncan Hines cake mix and Crisco oil - both tagged items - had gone up because of the increased cost of raw materials.
Dean Belbas, a spokesman for General Mills whose Mug Lunch and Cheerios are tagged said, "All of our pricing actions have received substantial scrutiny and are subject to specific internal control to assure compliance."
Belbas added, "so long as you don't exceed your previous gross margins," individual product increases are acceptable. The Mug Lunch price boost resulted from "increases in packaging, labor and transportation costs," Belbas explained. The price increase, he said, complies with federal guidelines.
The said General Mills hadn't yet heard from Co-op and would explain its increases when it did.
Officials at McCormick Co., seven of whose spices or sauces are tagged, refused to comment.
While Co-op officials are generally proud of their tagging campaign, it has occasionally left them in an awkward situation. When a manufacturer offers discount coupons, Co-op may wind up promoting in advertisements a "bargain" product that has been tagged as overpriced. Despite the awkwardness, Penny said, Co-op goes ahead with the promotion.
Penny says he has received an inquiry from a store in Palo Alto, Calif., seeking information on how to set up a program similar to Co-op's.
The idea apparently has yet to catch fire here. A spot check of area supermarket chains turned up no similar price-watch.
"Giant has its own internal [price] monitoring," said Barry Scher, director of public affairs for the Giant Food chain. "We haven't noticed any exorbitant price increases that are out of line."
Tony Statom, public relations manager for Safeway Stores, said the chain views price increases within the context of a manufacturer's entire line of products. "We don't even carry their whole lines, so we have no way of knowing if they exceed [guidelines] or not."
A manufacturer, Statom said, could raise the price of one item above the guidelines, and still stay below them on other products. "We monitor our prices to whether we exceed the guidelines throughout the operation," he said, adding that Safeway has no plans to change its monitoring methods.
Penny said Co-op - which, in addition to Greenbelt and Kensington, has stores in Farlington, Rockville, Takoma Park and Westminster - is looking for ways to expand its price watch. Tags are conspicuously absent, for example, at the meat counter.
"We haven't set up a system there," he said. "If we did it on meat, we could have a whole case with tags on it."
The price watchdogs also may be bucking a trend that has shoppers favoring convenience over cost. Penny pointed to figures that show supermarket sales down 3.4 percent last year, while fast-food sales rose 2.2 percent.
"The consumer really doesn't seem to care very much," he said, comparing the situation to people who are willing to pay $1 a gallon for gasoline. "They say, 'If it's going to go up, it's going to go up.'" CAPTION: Chart, This partial listing of tagged items was compiled from Co-op data by Regina Fraind.