Two district attorneys in California have taken Leslie’s Poolmart to task over alleged product-packaging violations.
Without admitting to any wrongdoing, the Phoenix-based mega-retailer settled with district attorney’s offices in Yolo and Fresno counties, which jointly filed the complaint. In December, Leslie’s agreed as part of the settlement to pay nearly $80,000 in civil penalties and investigation costs.
At issue was an oxidizer bearing the chain store’s brand, Fresh N’ Clear. The DAs alleged that the 2-pound container (a cylindrical tube with screw-top lid) had “nonfunctional slack fill.” In other words, the void between the contents and the lid was too large. This, officials argued, gave the false impression that the package contained more product than was actually present.
To be clear, consumers got what they paid for – 2 pounds of oxidizer. But DAs objected to the appearance of the package.
Yolo and Fresno county prosecutors alleged that Leslie’s violated the state’s Business and Professions Code, Section 17500, which prohibits misleading or deceptive advertising. They also cited sections 12602 and 12606, which ban deceptively oversized packages and “nonfunctional slack fill.”
“A big package implies big contents,” said Larry Barlly, supervising deputy district attorney for Yolo County. Barlly was quoting a 1980 consumer protection case that called into question the hobby industry’s practice of oversized packaging.
In that case, California’s then-attorney general, Evelle J. Younger, argued that “slack filling” was an unlawful trade practice that made it difficult for the consumer to make true value comparisons.
Leslie’s has five stores and a commercial service center in Fresno, Calif., and one store in Davis, Calif.
Barlly declined to discuss how county authorities became aware of the supposedly slack-filled containers sold in the stores. But it’s clear Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig is on the lookout for this sort of thing.
In cooperation with DAs in Fresno, Shasta and Riverside, he fined Johnson & Johnson $506,000 for similar charges in January 2015. Then in June last year Reisig, along with other DAs in the region, fined Proctor & Gamble $850,000.
The case against Leslie’s could serve as a cautionary tale for mom-and-pop retailers that brand their own products. Once a retailer puts its label on a product, even if manufactured by another company, it assumes the responsibility to comply with laws in all states where the product is sold, said Ted Lawrence, corporate retail category manager for Covington, La.-based distributor PoolCorp.
“If anything, this is a warning to a lot of independent pool stores that are doing this on their own that they need to be aware of the legality,” he said.
This is especially true of retailers that operate across state lines.
“I feel their pain,” Lawrence said of Leslie’s. (PoolCorp has a customer/supplier relationship with the retailer.) “In my 25 years of being involved in retail product packaging and manufacturing, it’s the first I’ve ever heard of [such a case].”
As part of the settlement agreement, Leslie’s will donate $36,678 of the total settlement to purchase pool supplies and equipment for city and county swimming pools.
Leslie’s has more than 850 stores nationwide. It did not return calls for comment.