About one-fourth of the prices in Woolco's going-out-of-business sale, which began Nov. 22, weren't cut as much as the discount department store chain claimed, Fairfax County consumer officials said yesterday.
The issue in the Woolco inquiry is whether the company's advertised offer of 30 percent off is being computed from the regular merchandise price, which is allowed under laws regulating sales, or from some higher price, which is not allowed.
Woolco's 30 percent across-the-board discounts are supposed to be based on the regular price that was in effect for at least 30 days prior to their going-out-of-business sale, according to Anthony J. Provine, supervisor of investigations for the Fairfax consumer agency. But instead the investigators found that the regular prices on one-fourth of the 60 items checked in the stores were higher than regular prices listed in pre-sale advertisements.
In one instance, for example, the discount on a microwave oven should have been based on a regular price of $229.95, Provine said. But two of the three Fairfax County stores surveyed had the oven's regular price marked as $249.95 -- or $20 more than the regular price actually had been, he said. The third store didn't have that oven in stock.
Provine said that the discrepancies apparently resulted from store management policy that permitted each manager to determine what regular prices should be for that particular store based on competition in the area. "There was no conspiracy as far as we can determine," he said.
The agency's report, which was submitted to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors yesterday, said Woolco, while admitting no wrongdoing, has agreed verbally to make any price revisions necessary to comply with local and state laws and "to provide remedies for those consumers who may have purchased items that were incorrectly priced."
However, James J. Pirretti, assistant general counsel for Woolco, said yesterday that while there is a verbal agreement with the county to deal with complaints, there is no agreement that would provide compensation to anyone allegedly overcharged. He denied that the chain's going-out-of-business prices exceeded advertised claims. "I don't know anything about that [alleged overpricing]" he said.
Corporate officials announced earlier this year that Woolco stores are being shut down nationally because of financial problems.
Meanwhile, the investigation into Woolco's going-out-of-business sale continues in Maryland, where officials from the consumer agencies in Montgomery County and Prince George's County are coordinating their probes with the Maryland Attorney General's office. A meeting has been called for 11 a.m. today in Baltimore to discuss complaints about overpricing with company representatives, according to the attorney general's office.
One item on the agenda is Montgomery County's contention that Woolco failed to acquire a going-out-of-business sale permit for its store in that county. Permits were obtained for the sales in Prince George's and Fairfax counties, according to officials there.
Prince George's officials said yesterday that their preliminary findings showed in two stores surveyed that regular prices for at least one-third of the items checked were too high. Jennifer Dean, spokeswoman for the Prince George's Office of Consumer Affairs, said yesterday that regular prices were 11 to 29 percent higher than they should have been.
Pirretti has said that Woolco is in compliance with all local regulations.