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Buyers Beware

Buyers Beware

The city’s Department of Consumer Affairs is calling on the public to report instances of suspected price gouging while shopping for Passover goods.
"We will be ready to respond to any complaints we receive about vendors who may be taking advantage of the holiday," DCA Commissioner Gretchen Dykstra announced Sunday.
Shoppers who feel that prices have been inflated at a particular venue may call the cityís new citizen service hotline at 311. DCA inspectors will investigate through April 24, the last day of Passover.
Jacking up prices of Passover items as demand increases, though widely considered unethical, is not against the law. But investigators who visit stores suspected of price gouging may find other violations, such as improper or missing labels, or inaccurately calibrated scales, that may result in fines ranging from $25 to $100, said an assistant DCA commissioner, Pauline Toole.
"The pattern of enforcement has indicated that the chances are good there will be a violation of some sort," said Toole.
This is the second consecutive year that DCA has suspended the annual Passover price survey of food items it had conducted since 1990.
The survey, initiated by former Commissioner Mark Green in response to consumer complaints, compared prices for a sample basket of Passover staples such as matzah, grape juice and gefilte fish, providing consumers with a baseline. It also compared prices by borough, as well as between supermarkets and independent grocers.
At one point, the agency even distributed palm cards bearing median prices.
In recent years, the surveys showed that while costs increased each year, there was no significant increase immediately before or during the holiday. That finding has caused DCA to reconsider the survey.
"It took an enormous amount of staff," said Toole. "We decided it was more important to have our inspectors out there doing enforcement."
Green, who served as DCA commissioner under Mayor David Dinkins from 1990 to 1994, said that without an available comparison, kosher shoppers may find it difficult to determine if a price is exorbitant.
"Unless there is some kind of representative sampling before and during the seders, it’s hard to know if there is price gouging going on," he told The Jewish Week. "Prices were stabilized for several years. But if you don’t take price surveys, it’s hard to know if that’s still true. Resources willing, it would be great if they can continue it."
Toole said regular shoppers would know if they were being exploited.
"If you are observant, chances are you are doing your shopping every week," she said. "You know if prices are going up."
Another former DCA commissioner, Jules Polonetsky, said the Passover survey, which he oversaw during the second administration of Rudolph Giuliani from 1998 to 2000, had "lost much of its value."
Polonetsky noted that increased competition had prompted most merchants to offer matzah and other staples as "loss leaders" to lure shoppers with prices below cost.
"Often you can get matzah free or very cheap if you spend $100," said Polonetsky. "Prices always drop in the days before Passover, so people may want to wait until the last minute to do their shopping."
Queens City Councilman David Weprin, who joined Dykstra at her announcement Sunday, later suggested that the agency continue the survey in the future by utilizing volunteers.
"They could always use pro bono services from the Jewish community councils to help [gather the data]," said Weprin.
But he added that the agency "honestly believes this is the best way to deal with the issue."
"The survey was more of a spot check, not as accurate as it could have been," he said. "They are probably in a better position to do a detailed investigation if they come out to a store [in response to complaints] as opposed to doing a blanket survey."

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