Differential pricing of products in India: An analysis

1. Introduction

Maximum Retail Price (MRP) is a concept pertaining to sale/retail of products in specific markets, such as that of India, where merchandise is transferred from the manufacturer to the retailer with the highest retail price printed on the packaged/pre-packaged product.

The Department of Legal Metrology (DLM), Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) are the primary regulatory authorities of domestic/foreign packaged, pre-packaged, or food items in India. They set the parameters these products shall adhere to and are responsible for its compliance through manufacturers and relevant entities.

The labelling requirements for packaged commodities in India are governed by the aforementioned authorities under the following legislations/rules/regulations:

i. The Legal Metrology Act (LMA), 2009;

ii. The Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Rules (LMPCR), 2011;

iii. The Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006; and

iv. Food Safety and Standards (Packaging and Labelling) Regulations, 2011.

However, the labelling requirements in India vary in different states, such as certain states require specifying the statutory warning in the local language, etc., including differential requirements for retail and wholesale packages.

2. Dual Pricing Regulations under LMA / LMPCR

A. LMA, 2009 supersedes SWM Act, 1976

The LMA, 2009 came into effect from 1st April, 2011, and was introduced to replace the Standards of Weights and Measures Act (SWM), 1976 with the purpose of establishing and enforcing standards of weights and measures or incidental aspects in India. A vital branch of this Act is the LMPCR, 2011 that deal with packaged goods and provide inter alia the method in which declarations are to be made on a product in compliance of its provisions.

Section 3 of the LMA, 2009 provides for its overriding effect on any other law in force at the relevant time, thereby effectively superseding the SWM, 1976. In this regard, the Authority for Advance Rulings has further, in the case of M/s Xerox India Ltd. v. The Commissioner of Customs, reiterated that “the Standards of Weight and Measures Act, 1976 was being repealed and substituted by the Legal Metrology Act, 2009 with effect from 1st March, 2011”.

However, it has to be noted here that the provisions of the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 shall override the provisions of the LMPCR, 2016 in respect of the standard quantity and/or the retail price of any essential commodity.

B. Advisories issued in respect of dual pricing regulations in consonance with the LMA/LMPCR

Furthermore, in the interest of the consumers, an advisory was issued to the following entities:

The Controllers of Legal Metrology of all States/UTs to enforce provisions related to overcharging and dual MRP; and

To all State Governments to ensure all declarations, including MRP, on all medical devices, however, only the manufacturer/importer/packer has the right to decide the MRP and not the retail seller.

3. Dual / differential pricing via various locations/channels

A. Instances where Differential/Dual-pricing was prohibited:

i. The Ministry of Corporate Affairs proposed an amendment to the LMA in 2017 and added Section 18(2A), which strictly prohibited the manufacturers/packers/importers to declare different prices on identical pre-packaged commodities. It was found to be in consonance with Section 2(1)(c) of the Act, wherein, a consumer could report charges on products that are in excess of those fixed by law or displayed on the goods, i.e. the MRP.

ii. Further, Explanation (2) to Section 4A of the Central Excise Duty Act, 1944 holds differential retail pricing to be valid. However, the case of Solidaire India Ltd. v. Fairgrowth Financial Services effectively concurred the prohibition of dual-pricing while holding that “for all those acts which begin with a non-obstante clause are special acts… In the event of a conflict, the LMA, 2017 shall prevail.”

iii. The Consumer Forum, in a complaint against Pepsi Co filed by five students of NLSIU through their Legal Aid Cell, held in their order dated 1st April, 2011 that “differential pricing amounts to unfair practice,.. and is bad in law”. The forum reiterated that the printing of different MRPs for the same material without any modification in its contents/quantity by a manufacturer not only is an unfair trade practice but also amounts to deficiency in service thereby further providing the retailers to gain extravagant profits and curtailing the customer’s right to an informed choice.

B. Instances where dual-pricing was permitted

While there is no legal proposition to have different MRPs for the same product, there is no explicit prohibition to it under the LMA/LMPCR as well. The 2017 amendment to the LMA, no doubt, prohibits dual pricing, however, the same has been enforced in the light of various exit gates, such as, conformity with law, larger national interest, delivery of services, comfortable environment, etc. Other sufficient grounds for upholding the validity of dual-pricing have been evolved by the Courts of India through a series of judgments.

The controversial evolution of the law relating to dual-pricing can be seen as follows:

i. In Pallavi Refractories v. Singhreni Colleries (prior to the enactment of the LMA, 2009), dual-pricing was held to be in accordance with law, on the grounds of serving ‘larger public interest’.

ii. In Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages v. Siddarth Manchanda & Ors., it was observed that “the guilty party took the advantage of the said law, and hence justified its acts of selling the same commodity, under different MRPs, on the pretext that, Section 18(1) of Legal Metrology Act, 2009, mandated just the mention of MRP. Nowhere, was this mentioned that there cannot be a dual fixation of price on the commodity. The company here, justifies its very act of selling its Diet Coke Cane, and Rs. 60/- in Wave Cinema, which was available just for Rs.30/- at Easy Day. Holding that under LM rules of 2009, the only requirement was to have the MRP printed on every pre-packaged commodity, it was not at all prohibited to declare more than M.R.P. for the same Coca Cola Can, to be sold at different places, for different class of consumers. Hence, there was no unfair practice indulged, the suit being dismissed”.

iii. The Supreme Court of India, in a case has upheld dual pricing in hotels and restaurants. The Court relied on the rationale that a consumer prima facie enters the premises of hotels and restaurants, obviously not to purchase a commodity like a water bottle, but to enjoy the ambience, the environment of the said enterprise. Also, even if the consumer ends up buying a water bottle, it is not merely a sale of good, instead it is a combined sale of good and sale of service, which basically remains outside the scope of Legal Metrology Act, 2017.

iv. In pursuance of the above principle laid down by the Supreme Court, the Consumer Forum in the case of Vijay Gopal v. KFC Restaurants observed that:

“In view of the law laid down by the Supreme Court that there can be dual-pricing of the very same product to be sold at different outlets, the sale of water bottle and Frooti to the complainant for Rs.40 and s. 70 at KFC at Himayat Nagar branch as against Rs.20 and Rs. 35 sold in the general market cannot be said to be illegal”.

However, the Department of Legal Metrology, in pursuance of the forum’s order, clarified that ‘dual-pricing was permissible only in restaurants’, and that they considered food outlets in multiplexes as shops and not restaurants, wherefore, dual-pricing by shops which sell food items in multiplexes was not permissible.

Differential / Dual Pricing via E-commerce companies/websites

The retailers often via their online channels offer the goods at a discounted rate, as compared to the offline route. This may be done presuming that there might be a condition when, an online sale saves various costs of marketing and transportation, which have to be paid in an offline sale. Further, while dealing with different set of customers and durations of time, a commodity priced at Rs. X, may be sold to an affluent customer in summer, but the same price is reduced to Rs. X-20%, when no longer that affluent customer generates a demand in winter. Hence, a stock clearance sale is a perfect example to compliment this.

Regulatory Statutes/Rules and Compliances:

i. E-commerce has been brought under the ambit of the LMPCR vide its amendment rules dated 23rd June, 2017. The declarations under Rule 6(1) of the LMPCR have been made mandatory for all e-commerce websites to be made, except for the date of manufacture, on the digital and electronic media used for e-commerce transactions.

i. The responsibility of correctness of such declarations has been vested with the manufacturer, seller, dealer or importer and not on the e-commerce entity.

iii. A specific mention has been made in the rules that no person shall declare different MRPs (dual-MRP) on an identical pre-packaged commodity for different outlets.

iv. Among other declarations, e-commerce websites were mandatorily required to display the MRP inclusive of all taxes (only one MRP in accordance with the LMPCR, 2017).

The Rules shift the responsibility of compliance from the e-commerce entity to manufacturers and sellers, if the e-commerce entity fulfills the following conditions:

The function of the e-commerce entity is limited to providing access to a communication system over which information made available by the manufacturer or seller or dealer or importer is transmitted or temporarily stored or hosted;

The entity does not initiate the transmission or select the receiver of the transmission, or select or modify the information contained in the transmission; or

The entity observes due diligence while discharging its duty as an intermediary under the Information Technology Act, 2000, and also observes such other guidelines as the federal government may prescribe.

In Travel Agents Association of India v. Lufthansa German Airlines & Ors., the court completely upheld the dual pricing of the tickets, via the different channels, owing to the fact, that online sale doesn’t impose any additional charges of advertising and marketing, whereas the sale of tickets via agents, led to incurring of additional costs by the company, like payment of commission, advertising and marketing, the burden of which, ultimately fell on the shoulders of the consumer. The company was also free to decide, as to what channel of sale, it wanted to opt for.

Pricing & Labelling Regulations under FSSA, 2006

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is an autonomous body established under the Ministry of Health & Welfare, Government of India. It was constituted under the Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA), 2006, which is a consolidating statute in relation to food safety and regulation in India, and is responsible for the protection and promotion of public health through the regulation and supervision of food safety.

The Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Rules, 2011 (LMPCR) were prescribed in order to regulate pre-packaged commodities. Under the said rules, pre-packaged commodities are required to comply with certain mandatory labeling requirements with respect to net quantity, MRP and Customer care information. With a view to encourage ease of business operations, amendments in packaged commodity rules were further notified in 2017, harmonizing the labeling provisions related to Food products with the Regulations as laid down under the Food Safety & Standard Regulations (FSSR), 2017.

Registration, Licensing and Labelling under FSSA:

Registration and Licensing

Section 31(1) & (2) of the FSSA mandates (Navneet Jindal v. Akash Restaurants and Foods) the licensing/registration of every Food Business Operator with the FSSAI. The procedure and requirements of such licensing/registration is regulated by the Food Safety & Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Business) Regulations, 2011. A person not following this rule could be punished with imprisonment of 6 months or a penalty of upto Rs. 5 lacks.

Registration is meant for petty food manufacturers/businesses that include petty retailers, hawkers, itinerant vendors, a temporary stall holder, or a small/cottage scale industry with an annual turnover of upto Rs. 12 Lakhs, beyond which a license is to be acquired, depending on the size of the business operation. 

B. Labelling Guidelines

Certain information pertaining to the pre-packaged food is mandatorily to be mentioned on the product label, including for multi-piece packages, such as the list of ingredients; additives; manufacturer’s details; date of manufacture and expiration; etc. In addition to these labelling guidelines, food products falling under the category of health supplements, Nutraceuticals, food for special dietary use, food for special medical purpose, functional food and novel food are also required to comply with FSSAI (Health Supplements, Nutraceuticals, Food for Special Dietary Use, Food for Special Medical Purpose, Functional Food and Novel Food) Regulations, 2016.

Although the interplay between the FSSA and Legal Metrology Act is smooth, some rules under LMPCR are not applicable to certain packages even if they satisfy all other criteria. These conditions are:

The package is sold by weight or measure and amounts to less than 10 ml or 10 grams (provided the product is not tobacco);

Package contains fast food items and is packed by hotels/restaurant/similar body;

Contains scheduled drugs and non-scheduled drugs covered by the Drugs (Price Control) Order, 1995;

Agricultural farm produce in packages above 50 kgs; or

A thread which is sold in the form of the coil to handloom weavers.

Moreover, the declarations required to me made under the LMPCR, in case of food items, have been aligned with those to be made under FSSAI, except for those three required under Legal Metrology viz. MRP, Net-quantity, and Consumer Care details.

Dual Pricing/MRP under FSSAI

In the case of Navneet Jindal v. Akash Restaurants and Foods, the Court explicitly declared dual/excess pricing to be illegal and licensing to be mandatory. In this regard, it observed that“the intention of legislature to enact the FSSA 2006 and the Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Rules, 2011..Rule 18(2) makes it very clear that no retail dealer or any other person including manufacturer, packer, importer and whole-sale dealer shall make any sale of any commodity in packed form at a price exceeding the retail sale price thereof.” Thereby, since the eateries sold at a mall by the respondents in that case weren’t a hotel/restaurant, it was concurred that no commodity could be sold at a price exceeding the MRP or retail sale price, as defined under Rule 2(m) of the LMPCR, 2011, and that the respondents could not unethically thus derive the special benefits of service provided by restaurants. Printing of dual MRPs was thus deemed to be an unfair trade practice.

In the opinion of the Commission, the intention of the legislature from the very inception was to prohibit dual pricing and thereby to restrict pricing practices beyond the prescribed MRP. This intention deeply clarified by the amendment made in the Rules vide [no. GSR 629 (E) dated 23.06.2017 w.e.f. 01.01.2018] vide which Rule (2-A) as under:-

Unless otherwise specifically provided under any other law, no manufacturer or packer or importer shall declare different maximum retail prices on an identical pre-packaged commodity by adopting restrictive trade practices or unfair trade practices as defined under clause (nnn) or clause (r) of sub-section (1) of Section 2 of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 (68 of 1986). “

Moreover, a direction was issued by the Court to ensure that no food business is being run without a license under the provisions of Food Safety and Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Businesses), Regulations, 2011 and in case it is found that there is violation of the FSSA 2006 and Regulations, an appropriate action shall be taken under intimation to the Commission.

CONCLUSION

Herein, this article was sought to provide answers to a prominent issue of whether differential/dual pricing is a valid practice in furtherance of the Legal Metrology Act, 2009 and the Rules pertinent to it. It may be inferred from the above information and authorities that dual-pricing has neither been specifically prohibited nor held to be valid.

Identical commodities cannot be tagged with differential pricing at various locations, except when specifically permitted via the above judgments. Further, the registration of petty businesses has been mandated under the FSSA, 2006 and the rules corresponding to it, whereas a license is to be obtained depending upon the size of the business.

Dual pricing regulations have evolved through the LMPCR and various judgments, which is indicative of the fact that the intention of the legislature was to put a ban on dual pricing so as to protect the interests of the consumers. However, certain exemptions have been given to service providers such as restaurants and hotels via various judicial forums.

Finally, while noting that single-brand retailers have been statutorily exempted from making such declarations pertaining to MRPs, relying on the fundamental concept of MRP, e-commerce companies or retailers may charge any price which is not in excess of the declared MRP on the said packaged commodity.

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