Cynical Synapse

Wed, 12 Sep 2007

Harass Customers—Makes Them Feel Better

Filed under: Behavior, Oppression, People, Rants — cynicalsynapse @ 10:53 pm

Maybe it’s a moon phase or something—there seems to be a lot of this going around lately. I’m talking about stores treating their customers like dishonest low-lifes in an effort to make somebody (who? the customers? the management?) feel they’ve got effective anti-shoplifting practices in place.

I don’t shop at Sam’s Club like Kavajuice did. And I haven’t experienced this at Circuit City like Michael Righi. But it is a common practice at Best Buy in my area. And I got almost as upset about it at Lowe’s last Thursday as Mr. Righi. Instead of declining, I asked why, then asked for the manager, and then shot of an email telling Lowe’s corporate what I thought of their short-sighted policy.

Without looking to see what the law actually says, I do know that retailers are not held to the same standards of probable cause that police officers are. But I seriously doubt simply being a customer constitutes enough reason to be suspected of retail fraud. In essence, that’s the message the store is sending by checking your receipt—”we think you stole something, so prove us wrong.” Where’s the harm in that, you wonder? That’s what the first two commenters Mr. Righi cites seem to feel. If you’re okay with that, then by all means continue to patronize those businesses.

In my mind, there are two fallacies with this. First, retail fraud (the fancy term for shoplifting and employee theft) accounts for only 1.61 percent of sales. Some stores ask every customer to show their receipt. Such a dragnet scoops up the non-criminal 98.39% of shoppers in addition to the guilty ones, assuming the shoplifters also went through the checkout. Here’s the other question in my mind: is the person looking at your receipt really checking to ensure what you have in hand is listed on the receipt? If not, what’s the point because the bag might include stolen goods anyway.

I applaud Mr. Righi for questioning ineffective polices and procedures that punish the rule-followers with an illusion of safety and security that actually accomplishes nothing. Kind of like the random checks they used to do just before boarding the plane. You know, the ones where more often than not the random person chosen was the little old lady. Kind of like we all have to take our shoes off even though there has only been one attempted shoe bomber. Kind of like when I took my kids to see the Liberty Bell in April 2002 and we had to go through a trailer to go through a metal detector; like the portable fair-ground style fencing would really keep a determined terrorist from assaulting the icon of freedom, but law-abiding citizens had to go through extra steps to see it.

Point is, none of those policies actually improve safety or security, but they make people think something’s being done. And nobody questions it. Except, apparently, Mr. Righi. And me. The employee at Lowe’s who watched me come through the U-scan under the watchful eye of two other employees told me they just randomly checked receipts. I guess there’s a big problem with fencing of stolen drain opener and compact florescent light bulbs, but I didn’t appreciate being stopped nor the answer I got, so I asked for the manager. Then I was told it was policy and maybe I was stopped because I didn’t have a bag (silly me for being able to carry my purchase and for not wanting to waste a plastic bag which actually saves Lowe’s that expense). Sorry, folks, that just doesn’t justify assuming your customers are thieves. Not when statistics show the problem is 1.61 percent. Home Depot’s right next door to the Lowe’s.



  1. Hey-

    Interesting blog post. As a retail worker, I will attempt to address a few things. First off, stores do have a right to detain you if they have “probable cause” that you have stolen something. Contrary to popular belief, they do NOT need to actually see it happen-while many stores have policies that require this, legally, they can detain you with probable cause.
    Secondly, you are right about requiring receipt checks. Legally, you are not required to show the receipt. However, stores DO have the right to ask. Some stores, Costco being one example, puts in in your membership agreement. However, this does not require you to show your receipt, but by refusing to do so, you break your membership agreement with them, giving them the right to terminate a membership that you have already paid for.
    Now, about other stores. “Probable cause” is a very broad term. It can be argued, however, that by refusing to show your receipt, you give the store probable cause to detain you for shoplifting.
    In the end, the store is trying to cut losses. Despite what most people think, customers are not always right. As a cashier, customers constantly claim that they were given a wrong price for an item, that it was supposed to be on sale, etc. I always take the time to verify an item’s price by looking on the shelf. The result? 90% of the time, the customer got the wrong item (Brand A of tuna fish was on sale, not Brand B). If retailers were to simply take customers at their word on everything, we would take losses, prices would increase, and then customers would be getting mad all over again. If you were to simply show your receipt, then we would not be having this issue, would we? If you end up waiting in line to leave the store, that is wrong, and it is a management problem that needs to be addressed.

    Comment by Retail Worker — Thu, 08 Jan 2009 @ 9:25 pm

  2. I appreciate your comments and the retail perspective. I’ve been one of those customers who thought they had the right brand of tuna but didn’t. I misread the sign. I have no problem with that. I know the customer isn’t always right and I try to be sympathetic to the front line worker.

    As for retail fraud and probable cause, I’m sure the definition and what’s permissible varies from state to state. I support stores detaining probable shoplifters within the parameters of state law and prosecuting them.

    I’ve never liked the receipt checking. I really don’t think it accomplishes anything in the way of deterrence or actual apprehension of shoplifters. Wal-Mart’s greeters are actually loss prevention and I suspect that’s more effective than the receipt checkers. I tolerate my local Best Buy’s receipt checking because I know they’re going to do that. I tend not to shop there, but when I do, I’ve made the choice to accept having my receipt checked. I don’t hassle the door guy over a policy they apply to everyone. I’m not a Costco member, but if I was, I would accept receipt checking because that’s part of the membership agreement, as you said.

    What really set me off at Lowe’s, however, was this was the first time they’d ever asked to see my receipt in dozens of visits to various stores, including many visits to this location. The woman who asked to see my receipt watched me go through the U-scan, which was staffed by two other Lowe’s employees. I had like only 3 or 4 items. I would have had another item or two except there were no Lowe’s people on the floor to help customers find things in the department that actually brought me to the store in the first place. This woman, however, had nothing better to do than ask me to show my receipt. For light bulbs and drain cleaner.

    I think my mistake was visiting the store on a day and time they weren’t very busy and this woman wanted to feel like she was doing something. But it totally alienated me and I’ve not set foot inside a Lowe’s since. I had them take me off their mailing list.

    For the record, much of my working career has been in the security field. So, I support honest, effective efforts to curtail retail fraud and catch and prosecute perpetrators. I just don’t believe receipt checking is one of those methods. I’ve also grown rather intolerant of “feel-good” measures that place a burden on all of us but don’t actually have any real effect. One day I might even get bold enough to tell the TSA guy that I’m not taking my shoes off.

    Comment by cynicalsynapse — Thu, 08 Jan 2009 @ 10:48 pm

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