Restaurants and shops accused of profiting from changeover confusion

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The Independent Online

Consumer groups across Europe have denounced widespread price increases one week after the introduction of euro notes and coins.

Consumer groups across Europe have denounced widespread price increases one week after the introduction of euro notes and coins.

Although most large stores have been scrupulous about price conversions, a pattern is emerging of smaller stores taking advantage of the confusion to put up prices.

In Germany, the first comprehensive survey of the year confirmed fears that shopkeepers would exploit the euro to raise their prices.

The Cologne-based Institute for Consumer Research checked prices of 1,200 goods in 100 shops in Cologne and Berlin. Their conclusion: the price of every third item has changed since last year. Only 28 per cent of those prices have fallen. The rest have risen, sometimes sharply.

In one Cologne department store, the researchers found three items whose prices had been rounded down, compared with 29 that were dearer.

An investigation published yesterday by the newspaper Lübecker Nachrichten checked restaurants in north Germany. Every one visited had become more expensive, some by 15 per cent. Restaurateurs blamed suppliers' price rises.

A survey by Belgium's consumer watchdog, Test-Achats, found that prices had increased almost 7 per cent in the past six months – more than five times the annual rate of inflation of 2.75 per cent.

It checked 1,516 prices in five Belgian cities. Big stores priced about 95 per cent of their products in both currencies, but researchers found that more than one in 10 conversions was inaccurate. In big stores overall increases were, on average, about 2 per cent.

McDonald's scored perfectly on conversion accuracy but had put up its prices by an average of 5 per cent. Almost four out of five petrol stations had failed to convert their pumps to the euro and there were widespread errors in calculation, mostly against the drivers' interests.

A spokeswoman for Spain's Consumers Union said public services had timed increases to coincide with the beginning of the year, which would have an impact on overall inflation. Nieves Perez Sinusia, said there was anecdotal evidence that bars and restaurants were taking advantage of the advent of the euro to increase prices. But she added: "Our perception is that in big stores with dual ticketing, they are respecting the exchange rate correctly."

Consumer groups in Italy recorded average increases of 14 per cent on products ranging from coffee to a leg wax to an insurance policy.

The four biggest consumer organisations said the rises would have increase the inflation rate by between 0.4 and 0.7 per cent, but Giulio Tremonti, the Treasury Minister, said the impact would be insignificant.

The retailers associations, Confcommercio and Confesercenti, said only the occasional unscrupulous retailer had rounded up unfairly.

* Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's Prime Minister, came in for his sharpest criticism yet over his handling of European policy and the resignation of Renato Ruggiero as the Foreign Minister. Their compatriot Mario Monti, the European commissioner for competition, described the resignation of Mr Ruggiero at the weekend as a "heavy loss for Europe and in particular for Italy, a country which is not well-endowed with big hitters who have credibility on the international stage".

He also criticised Mr Berlusconi's decision to take over as an interim Foreign Minister for up to six months, warning of a political crisis.