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Newsmaker: Mary Bach's line is saving money for seniors

Monday, December 08, 2003

By Pohla Smith, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Mary Bach watched a TV consumer affairs reporter do a feature on comparison grocery shopping one day in the early '80s and was appalled by the bad advice.

  

Mary Bach

Age: 59
Residence: Murrysville
Occupation: Homemaker, volunteer consumer advocate and member of Franklin Regional school board.
In the news: Gov. Edward Rendell recently appointed Bach to the Senior Citizen Advisory Council.
Education: Two bachelor's degrees from Georgia Southern College (now University).
Quote: "I flat-out, strongly believe one person can make a difference, and I believe by giving consumers solid information, that can empower them to make a difference."
Family: Husband Len, grown children Jim and Alison, and one grandchild.

The reporter concluded Store A was cheaper than Store B without taking into account that Store B offered double coupon savings while Store A didn't.

A skilled, self-taught shopper who gave adult education classes on the subject, Bach sat down and wrote the reporter about her error. The reporter called back with a challenge.

"She said, 'If you think you can do better, we'll film you doing so,'" Bach recalled.

As she predicted, Bach out-shopped the reporter, and a new, nonpaying career as a consumer advocate was born.

Since then, she has made countless television appearances and speeches, and successfully lobbied for laws requiring consistent scanner inspections by the commonwealth's Bureau of Weights and Measures and establishing a do-not-call list. She also has won lawsuits for scanning violations by Eckerd, Ames, Kmart, Wal-Mart, CVS and the now-defunct Hechinger's.

She is working to defeat a measure on telephone deregulation she deems unfair to consumers and has just been elected to serve a second term on the Franklin Regional school board. She also is vice president of the Pennsylvania Certification Advisory Board, and chairwoman of the AARP Consumer Issues Task Force in Pennsylvania.

And now Gov. Ed Rendell has appointed the Murrysville resident to serve a four-year term on the Senior Citizen Advisory Committee. The panel works under the auspices of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, specifically dealing with all crimes against seniors.

"I treat my volunteerism as a full-time job," Bach said. "I also spend a lot of time being a school director. I think my consumerism leads to my being a good director."

That is particularly so, she said, when it comes to "pocketbook issues."

"I flat-out, strongly believe one person can make a difference, and I believe by giving consumers solid information, that can empower them to make a difference."

One who has been affected by Bach is radio talk show host Lynn Cullen, who got to know Bach as a source for consumer stories while a newscaster for WTAE-TV.

"I think the first time I did a TV story with her, it was about women who were coupon clippers," Cullen said. "She just amazed me.

"All I can tell you is after spending about an hour with her, from that day on, I have clipped coupons. I use them. In no way do I use them as incredibly wisely as she, but she taught me you're a fool if you don't.

"She would go shopping and have a whole cart full of groceries and when she checked out, they practically owed her money. I've never seen anybody like that."

Bach said she was forced to learn savvy shopping -- what she calls "playing the shopping game within the rules established by the marketplace" -- when she quit her job as a teacher to have children.

"There were no maternity leaves back then," she noted. "I became interested because we were going from two incomes to one. I became very adept at smart shopping tactics ... using coupons, matching coupons with sales."

Friends took her advice and then passed it on, leading to adult education classes on the subject. Then came the shopping-on-TV story, which led to more such television stories and interviews with the print media.

"She got wiser and wiser," Cullen said. "She called out if the scan didn't work right. She was always somebody who watched and felt if a business offered something at a certain price, it darn-well better give it at that price. Few of us check, and we're getting ripped off all the time."

Bach understands details of retail taxing that can save money, said Cullen. Most brands of mouthwash are taxed, for example, but some are not, because they are considered medicinal.

"All of this is insanity and there's no way clerks know this stuff. Only Mary Bach knows this stuff and holds retailers to it."

Apparently by a stranglehold. Dave McCork, president of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association and Pennsylvania Convenience Store Council, laughed when asked about Bach. The associations provide office support for the scanning advisory committee of which Bach is vice president.

"That's a loaded question," he said. Then he replied: "She's very persistent, which is important and provides a point of view that needs to be listened to by those whose job is satisfying customers," he said. "I appreciate her integrity."

A few years ago Bach began volunteering with AARP -- "and I want to very quickly point out that it starts at 50," she said.

"Telemarketing fraud was an issue in which AARP took a forefront position, and I jumped into that with both feet. I lobbied for Pennsylvania's do-not-call list," she said.

"Telemarketing nuisance issues involve anybody of any age with a phone, but telemarketing fraud particularly hits seniors. Over 60 percent of the victims of telemarketing fraud come from the senior population. AARP estimates it has cost us in excess of $40 billion of year. I think those are staggering amounts."

And so Bach is ready to do battle with charity scams, investment scams, telephone sweepstakes scams and the like, and most won't know what hit them.

"She looks like she'd be a quiet woman who knows her place, that's how she speaks, how she dresses," Cullen said. "But I mean she's a barracuda."


Pohla Smith can be reached at psmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1228.

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