Panasonic Co. will pay $16 million to reimburse hundreds of thousands of consumers who fell victim to a company scheme to fix prices on VCRs, cordless telephones and stereo equipment, officials said.
Panasonic forced retailers nationwide to charge certain fixed minimum prices and threatened to cut off dealers who would not comply, said state Attorney General Robert Abrams.Under the scheme, prices on 16 Panasonic and Technics brand products were hiked an average of 5 percent to 10 percent between March 1 and Aug. 31 last year, when the investigation halted the practice, Abrams said.
Under an agreement filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, Panasonic will offer refunds totaling $16 million to 748,000 consumers who bought VCRs, video cameras, cordless telephones, answering machines and stereo equipment, he said.
The company also will send letters and claim forms to consumers, advertise the settlement and notify retailers of their right to set their own prices, Abrams said.
Panasonic, a division of Matsushita Electric Corp. of America, based in Secaucus, N.J., agreed to the settlement without admitting any wrongdoing, the attorney general said.
"Panasonic has attempted to implement the largest vertical price-fixing scheme in this nation's history," Abrams told a Manhattan news conference. "In a few short months, over $15 million was extracted from consumers in the form of higher prices."
Abrams, a Democrat, blamed the Reagan administration for creating a climate that permitted the scheme.
"This administration completely abandoned enforcement against resale price maintenance systems," Abrams said. "Major corporations, such as electronics manufacturers, have gotten the message that practices which historically have been defined as clearly illegal will be winked at by federal regulators."
Under the scheme, Panasonic sales executives pressured retailers around the country to adhere to its suggested prices, which it called the "go" prices, Abrams said.
On several occasions, Panasonic President Akiya Imura personally and repeatedly pressured some dealers to comply, he said.
Dealers who resisted or violated the price-fixing policy were threatened with being cut off from Panasonic products, Abrams said.
For example, Florida retailer L. Luria and Sons advertised a cordless telephone for $127.97, undercutting the "go" price of $139.95 in April, Abrams said.
After the ad was published, Luria received four calls from four different Panasonic representatives threatening to cut off the company, he said.
The pressure succeeded and Luria stopped discounting the telephone, he said.
Investigations into possible price-fixing at other major electronics manufacturers are continuing, Abrams added.