By Elliot Podwill
Suckers beware. That’s the implicit warning when tourists and (even natives) buy a hotdog from street vendors in front of the Museum of Natural History or on Columbus Circle. The majority don’t list their prices, sometimes charging the ‘right’ person a staggering amount. Does this warning apply as well to Fairway, our bedrock supermarket? In one case at least, you betcha.
I did my Thanksgiving shopping at Fairway a few days before the holiday. On a stand of its own in the absolutely packed store, in a corner that receives lots of traffic, not far from the dairy and the deli counter, stood a pyramid of Eli’s Stuffing Mix. Like many other shoppers, I grabbed a couple of bags, assuming it might be better than standard brands since Eli’s carries the Zabar’s imprint. I looked near the stand, then on the bags themselves, for a price. None was to be found. But hey, how much can a bag of small crisp squares of bread cost?
Going through the checkout line, I was startled to see, as the items were rung up, that each bag cost $20 (ok, ok, I don’t want to exaggerate: $19.99). I was tempted to tell the cashier to remove the bags of mix (hardly a “mix”: the ingredients include only flour, water, yeast, and salt), but the line was long; I didn’t want to slow the cashier down, and if I returned the bags I’d have to go to another equally crowded store to buy the same product. The two bags cost almost $12 more than the substantial turkey I bought for $28.63.
Days later, online investigation and perusal of stuffing mixes in several stores revealed this to be a product that generally sells in the $6-$8 range. The same brand is for sale at Eli’s Manhattan on the UES for $12, a more upscale place to shop than a supermarket. That Fairway displayed the Eli’s Mix so prominently — without posting a price — a few days before a major food-buying holiday suggests they knew that many shoppers, just like me, would grab a bag or two and not make a fuss at checkout as we’d be more likely to do on a less hectic day.
I returned to Fairway a week later and spoke with a customer service representative, who told me Fairway regulations prohibit giving refunds for products that customers buy, and later feel are overpriced. However, she said I could return my remaining unopened bag for a refund. The product is not currently for sale. Let’s hope that remains true during the pre-Christmas shopping rush.
Most of us wish Fairway well. It’s not as good as it used to be, perhaps for reasons tied to its financial miseries. But it’s still valuable — well located for some, diversely stocked, just plain useful. Nevertheless, at least some of us will shop there less or boycott it entirely if we feel taken advantage of. That was my first response after ogling my receipt. But yes, I’ve been back, a matter of convenience. I’ll get individual items elsewhere when convenient. However much the place profits by overcharging for a product and not listing the price, the loss created by shoppers going elsewhere will more than offset the gain. Too bad. They need us and we need them, a partnership easily disrupted.