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Supermarkets treat clients with suspicion

A woman buys groceries at a supermarket in Buenos Aires.
By Jayson McNamara
Herald Staff

Guards search customers’ bags, shoppers aren’t allowed to search prices with a mobile phone

Once the stomping ground of Tango legend Carlos Gardel, and for a long time now the sales territory of the City’s migrant merchants — from the Jewish community to Bolivians, and even West Africans —shopping in Buenos Aires’ Balvanera neighbourhood is about as porteño an activity as dealing with grinding traffic or, in recent years, summer power cuts. But can it be as frustrating?

The Herald chose Balvanera — often referred to as Once — to take a closer look at the shopping experience now that the government’s latest “Price Watch” programme at supermarkets has come into effect, hindered in part by reports from consumers and consumer rights groups about a number of abnormalities, including added security measures at stores and a lack of compliance on the part of some of the country’s largest chains.

In two examples that the times might be changing, the French-owned chain Carrefour was last week reported to have placed security tags on grated cheese and tuna items included in the government’s price deal, which caps prices on close to 200 basic goods, while in Corrientes a shopper was booted out of a Walmart store for using a mobile phone application designed to check prices. (Incidentally, the Corrientes province Consumer Defence unit had also found that Walmart in Corrientes City was not yet complying with the Price Watch programme.)

In Balvanera, the Herald was able to verify at a Coto supermarket that security guards were checking customers bags as they exited the check-out, an in-store policy that — while perhaps not surprising to witness — would appear to come very close to infringing on local security laws, since consumers are entitled to “a right to intimacy” that can only be overlooked when the police or any other state security force present a warrant, or when a consumer voluntarily agrees to open his or her bag.

The Herald was unable to verify if consumers were informed of their right to refuse bag checks, since security personnel were unwilling to provide any explanations other than that customers had slipped past the security entrance without sealing their belongings in the obligatory plastic bags offered by the store. There was also no signage about Coto’s bag-checking policy.

‘Arrogant culture’

President of the Argentine Consumers Union, Fernando Blanco Muiño, said an “arrogant corporate culture” within the supermarket sector was allowing security personnel at some stores to get away with treating shoppers with suspicion.

“Given the role supermarkets play in the economy, they also feel they’re beyond certain checks and balances,” he told the Herald. “There’s impunity.”

The consumer rights official also agreed that the government’s latest anti-inflationary measure, the “Price Watch” programme, was throwing a new spanner in the works when it came to the shopping experience.

“What’s clear is that supermarkets don’t like us monitoring their adherence. With the activities we undertake at stores, they (the security personnel) will regularly come up to check what’s happening.”

And shoppers can expect a similar deal, Blanco Muiño suggested.

“Supermarkets often create their own norms, like Walmart in Corrientes recently throwing a customer out of a store for using an price-monitoring (mobile phone) app, even though the company has signed a deal with the government precisely to control prices,” he explained. “Next thing you know is they ban the use of mobile phones in stores.”

Asked, finally, what supermarkets were strictly prohibited from doing, Blanco Muiño was frank: “They can’t stop you taking a list, your pen or paper, or that you monitor prices. They can’t limit the amount of a certain product you can buy. And they can’t harass you.”

@jaysonmcnamara

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