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5 Brazen Examples of Price Fixing

After Steven Soderbergh's adaptation of Kurt Eichenwald's nonfiction book The Informant debuted to largely positive reviews last weekend, price fixing is all the conversational rage again. Okay, that statement is not even remotely true, but Soderbergh's film, which details a mid-1990s scheme to rig the price of the animal feed additive lysine, at least brought the anti-competitive practice to the big screen.

Just how common is price fixing, though? That's tough to say, but let's have a look at a few notable examples from business history.

1. Roche Doesn't Learn Its Lesson

In 1973, Stanley Adams was an executive at the Swiss pharmaceutical firm Hoffman-LaRoche when he uncovered some rather incriminating documents about his employer. It turned out that the company was part of a price-fixing scam in the international market for vitamins. Adams decided to pass his findings on to the European Economic Commission in a confidential memo detailing how Roche manipulated the bulk vitamin market.

rocheAdams kept his end of the deal with the EEC, but the Commission did a lousy job with the whole "confidential" thing. It accidentally gave Roche copies of documents that included the whistleblower's name, and under Swiss law, that meant Adams could be arrested for industrial espionage and theft. Adams spent months in solitary confinement in a Swiss prison; his wife was so distraught that she committed suicide.

Eventually Adams got out of jail, and Roche somehow managed to avoid taking a hard hit for its role in the price fixing. Getting off the hook for this offense may have just made the company more brazen, though. From 1990 to 1999, it engaged in an illegal price-fixing cartel for vitamins again, and this time Roche and its co-conspirators got nabbed. In 1999, the company pled guilty to price fixing in the U.S. and paid a $500 million fine. Within two years, the European Union had also taken Roche to task for its nefarious pricing and fined the company to the tune of 462 million euros.

2. Heavy Equipment Gets Heavy Prices

If you needed to buy heavy equipment in the 1950s, you were probably going to pay too much thanks to a price-fixing cartel headed by General Electric and Westinghouse.

The biggest players in the equipment market met secretly to fix prices on items like turbines and switch gear.

So who blew the whistle on this cartel? Nobody. The Tennessee Valley Authority actually caught the companies red-handed. When reviewing its financial records, the TVA found something strange: for the previous three years, 47 manufacturers had been submitting identical bids for projects. Since the bids were supposedly a secret, something seemed amiss; for example, it was a bit fishy that the TVA would get eight identical bids of $12,936 for an order of 4200 insulators.

How did the scam work? The heads of these companies would meet at public locations like golf courses and restaurants and pick out both a winning bid and a separate set of identical losing bids for each project or order.

Companies got the right to submit the winning bid by a rotation system based on - no joke - the phases of the moon. The system bilked taxpayers out of nearly $175 million each year.

When the government unraveled this plot in 1960, it dropped the hammer on the price fixing executives. Nearly 50 execs paid large fines, and nine employees of GE and Westinghouse spent a month or more in jail.

3. British Dairies Milk the Customers' Wallets

In late 2007, British fans of milk and cheese got some bad news: their supermarkets and milk suppliers had been illegally rigging the prices of dairy products since 2002. The Office of Fair Trade learned that many of the U.K.'s largest supermarket chains had been colluding to raise the prices of dairy products, and their milk distributors, namely Dairy Crest and Robert Wiseman Dairies, had been the go-betweens for the ostensibly secret pricing decisions.

The anti-competitive behavior supposedly cost customers close to 270 million pounds over the course of the scam, and the companies involved faced fines that maxed out at a combined 116 million pounds.

4. Flat Glass Gets a Flat Price

In 2007, the European Commission undermined a price-fixing scheme among the makers of flat glass, the variety that is used to make windows, doors and mirrors. In 2004 and 2005, four major makers of flat glass—Asahi, Guardian, Pilkington, and Saint-Gobain—secretly met to discuss artificially raising their prices.

As a result, the 1.7-billion-euro flat glass industry got a nice little bump in its revenues, or at least it did until the European Commission got to the bottom of the strange pricing. The Commission didn't take it easy on the offending parties, either. It fined the four companies a total of nearly 487 million euros for violating the ban on cartel behavior and price fixing.

5. British Airways Gives Fuel Prices a Hike

baRemember the soaring fuel prices that gripped the travel industry a few years ago? British Airways found a less-than-scrupulous way for the rising prices to help pad its bottom line. When airlines started tacking fuel surcharges onto passengers' flight costs, someone at BA apparently saw a way to make some quick cash.

In 2004, the airline entered into secret talks with its rival Virgin Atlantic to simultaneously bump up their fuel surcharges, a practice that continued into 2006. Over the course of the collusion, fuel surcharges rose from an average of five pounds a ticket to over 60 pounds a fare.

When Virgin Atlantic's lawyers realized what the company had done, they did the only thing they could do: they ratted out British Airways. Virgin ended up getting immunity for providing the goods on its former partner in collusion, while BA got walloped with record fines. The British Office of Fair Trading nailed the airline for 121.5 million pounds, while the American Department of Justice smacked it with an additional $300 million fine. Ouch.

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The Top Excuses Employees Give for Being Late to Work
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Expecting staff to just get out of bed and show up on time seems like a low bar for an employer to set, but some workers have trouble meeting this bare-minimum obligation. Their stated reasons can almost sound believable.

Job placement site CareerBuilder.com recently conducted a survey and asked 800 respondents in various age brackets how often they were late for work, as well as over 1000 human resource managers for data on missing workers. Overall, one in four employees admitted to being tardy at least once a month. Those aged 18 to 34 were the most frequently late, with 38 percent clocking in past their expected arrival. Only 14 percent of workers 45 and older were less-than-punctual.

As for excuses: 51 percent said traffic was the most common reason they straggled in. Around 31 percent said oversleeping was an issue, while bad weather (28 percent) and forgetting something and having to return home (13 percent) plagued others.

According to human resources managers, some workers claimed that they were late because their coffee was too hot; that they fell asleep in the parking lot; that it was too cold outside to travel; or that their false eyelashes were stuck together.

Not surprisingly, CareerBuilder also found that 88 percent of workers were in favor of a flexible work schedule.

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14 Secrets of Costco Employees
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Costco has become something of a unicorn in the brick-and-mortar industry. While employees at other chains express concerns over low wages and questionable management choices, the 200,000-plus ground troops at Costco’s massive shopping centers rave about generous pay ($13 to $22.50 hourly, depending on seniority), comprehensive benefits, and pension plans. After one year of employment, the turnover rate is only 6 percent, compared to an average of 16 percent across the retail industry. Not having to incur costs of training replacements is just one reason the company keeps prices low.

It’s no secret that Costco employees are a relatively happy bunch. But we wanted a little more information, so we’ve asked several current Costco workers about everything from pet peeves to nail polish bans to revoking memberships. (All requested we use only their first names to preserve anonymity.) Here’s what they had to tell us about life in the pallets.

1. WORKING THERE IS BETTER THAN GOING TO THE GYM.

Turns out that navigating a warehouse full of goods stacked to the ceiling is kind of like getting an all-day gym pass. “I walk about five to eight miles a day on average, and that's all within the confines of the store,” says Rachael, a Costco employee in Colorado. “When you see pallets stacked with 50-pound bags of flour or sugar or dog food or cat litter, a lot of that stuff had to be stacked by hand by employees before the store opens. Ditto for those giant stacks of shoes and bottles of salsa or five-gallon jugs of cooking oil. It's a lot of hard work.”

2. THEY CAN DO THEIR SHOPPING AFTER HOURS.

Costco shopping carts are arranged together
Brendan Smialowski, Getty Images

While employees typically don’t get shopping discounts, they have something that’s arguably better: the opportunity to shop in a near-empty store. “You can shop after hours, and a lot of employees do that,” says Kathleen, a Costco employee in Washington state. “You just bring your cart to the front register.” The store will keep the member service counter open so workers can check out after other registers have closed.

3. THE GENEROUS RETURN POLICY CAN GET MESSY.

Costco infamously places very few restrictions on returns. Most anything purchased there can be brought back for a refund as part of the company’s overall emphasis on exceptional customer service. Naturally, some members are willing to abuse the privilege. “Members return couches that are over five years old, and interestingly enough, they still have the receipt,” Rachael says. “My guess is that they buy that couch with the intention of returning it someday, so they tape the receipt to the bottom of the couch so they don't lose it. Then, when they've worn it out and want something new, they bring it back and get a full refund.”

Rachael has also seen a member return a freezer that was allegedly no longer working. The store refunded both the cost of the appliance and the spoiled meat inside. “The meat smelled like death,” she says.

4. THEY CAN ALSO TELL WHEN YOU’RE A SERIAL RETURNER.

A shopper at Costco looks at the computer display
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Costco purchase records typically date back 10 years or so, but employees working the return counter don’t always need to reference your account to know that you're making a habit of getting refunds. “When someone comes in to return something without a receipt and they go, ‘Oh, you can look it up on my account,’ that’s a tell,” says Thomas, an employee in California. “It tells me you return so much stuff that you know what we can find on the computer.”

5. THERE’S A CONVENIENCE STORE-WITHIN-A-STORE.

While employees are generally allowed to eat their lunch or dinner meals in the food court, not all of them are crazy about pizza and hot dogs as part of their daily diet. Many opt for the employee break room, which—in some warehouse locations—looks more like a highway rest stop. Rows of vending machines offer fresh meals, snacks, and sodas, along with a complete kitchen for preparing food brought from home. “[It’s a] relatively new addition that is being implemented at more warehouses,” says Steve, an employee in California. “It's basically like a gas station's convenience store, with both frozen and fresh meals and snacks. The only difference is the prices are more reasonable.”

6. THERE’S A GOOD REASON THERE ISN’T AN EXPRESS CHECKOUT LANE.

A Costco shopper goes through the checkout lane
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Walk into a Costco and you’ll probably notice an employee with a click counter taking inventory of incoming members. According to Rachael, that head count gets relayed to the supervisor in charge of opening registers. “They know that for a certain amount of people entering the store, within a certain amount of time, there should be a certain amount of registers open to accommodate those shoppers who are ready to check out,” she says. If there aren’t enough cashiers on hand, the supervisor can pull from other departments: Most employees are “cross-trained” to help out when areas are understaffed.

7. THERE’S A METHOD TO THE RECEIPT CHECK.

Customers sometimes feel offended when they’re met at the exit by an employee scanning their receipt, but it’s all in an effort to mitigate loss prevention and keep prices low. “We’re looking for items on the bottom of the cart, big items like TVs, or alcohol,” Thomas says. Typically, the value of these items might make it worth the risk for a customer who's trying to shoplift—and they're worth the double-check.

8. THEY TAKE SAFE FOOD HANDLING TO A NEW LEVEL ...

A Costco employee works in food preparation
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

At Costco, employees are expected to exercise extreme caution when preparing and serving hot dogs, pizza, chicken and other food to members. “If an employee forgets to remove their apron before exiting the department, they must remove that apron, toss it into the hamper, and put on a fresh apron because now it's contaminated,” Rachael says. “Or, let's say a member asks for a slice of cheese pizza. We place that piece onto a plate, with tongs, of course, then place the plate onto the counter. If the member says, ‘Oh darn, I've changed my mind, I'd rather have pepperoni pizza,’ then we have to toss the pizza that they didn't want into the trash. Once it hits the counter, it can't come back.” Some store protocols even prohibit employees from wearing nail polish in food prep areas—it could chip and get into the food.

9. ... BUT WORKING AT THE FOOD COURT CAN PREPARE THEM FOR ANYTHING.

Costco employees who find themselves behind the counter at the chain’s food court say it's one of the few less-than-pleasant experiences of working there. For some members, the dynamic of waiting on food and peering over a service counter can make them forget their manners. “Usually members are rude when they are waiting on their pizza during a busy time,” Steve says. “If an employee can excel in the food court, any other position in the warehouse is pretty easy by comparison.”

10. THEY GET FREE TURKEYS.

Costco’s generous wages and benefits keep employment applications stacked high. What people don’t realize, Kathleen says, is that the company’s attention to employee satisfaction can result in getting gifted a giant bird. “We get free turkeys for Thanksgiving,” she says. “I didn’t even know that before I started working there. It’s a nice perk.”

11. THEY CAN REVOKE YOUR MEMBERSHIP.

Shoppers go down an aisle at Costco
Gabriel Buoys, AFP/Getty Images

But it’s got to be a pretty extreme situation. According to Thomas, memberships can be terminated if a member is caught stealing or having a physical altercation inside the store. For less severe infractions, employees can make notes under a “comments” section of your membership. They’ll do that for frequent returns, if you’re verbally aggressive, or if you like to rummage through pre-packaged produce looking for the best apples. (Don’t do that.)

12. MANAGERS GET THEIR HANDS DIRTY.

During peak business times on weekends and around holidays, the influx of customer traffic can get so formidable that managers jump in with employees to make sure everything gets taken care of. “Most people would be surprised if they realized that the person who just put all of their groceries into their cart at the registers or who helped load that huge mattress into their car was actually the store's general manager,” Rachael says.

13. EVERY DAILY STORE OPENING IS CONTROLLED CHAOS …

Shoppers appear in front of a Costco store
Scott Olsen, Getty Images

Like most any retail store, Costco prides itself on presenting a clean, efficient, and organized layout that holds little trace of the labor that went into overnight stocking or display preparation. But if a customer ever happened to see the store in the last hour before opening each day, they’d witness a flurry of activity. “It's controlled chaos with loud music along with the blaring of the forklift sirens,” Steve says. “Employees are rushing to finish and clean up, drivers are rushing to put merchandising in the steel [shelving], and the floor scrubber slowly but surely makes its way around the warehouse. It truly is a remarkable choreography that happens seven days a week.”

14. … AND EVERY CLOSING IS A SLOW MARCH.

To avoid stragglers, Costco employees form a line and walk down aisles to encourage customers to move toward the front of the store so they can check out before closing. Once the doors are locked, overnight stocking begins in anticipation of another day at the world’s coziest warehouse. “Our store has over 250 employees altogether,” Rachael says. “If all of us do our little bit, then it's a well-oiled machine that runs without a hitch.”

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