Legal experts say customers generally don't have to comply with receipt checks
John McCracken says he was shocked when he recently spotted a new sign at his local Loblaw-owned Superstore just outside Halifax, warning customers the store was conducting receipt checks when shoppers exit.
"I was really disgusted. I thought it was really adding insult to injury after all the price gouging," said McCracken, referring to claims Loblaw has inflated grocery prices — which the retailer denies.
Several shoppers complained to CBC News about receipt-check signs they spotted within the past two weeks at their Loblaw-owned grocer, including Loblaws and Zehrs stores in Ontario. Each of those signs has now disappeared, but Loblaw won't say if it has abandoned receipt checks, which can be unpopular with shoppers and difficult to enforce.
"I don't like the approach," said Zain Ismail, who says he was taken aback when he saw two receipt-check warning signs while shopping at a Zehrs in Windsor.
He said an employee checked shoppers' receipts — but not bags — as they left the store at a designated exit with gates on either side.
"It kind of makes you feel like a criminal," said Ismail. "I wasn't exactly sure what triggered Loblaws to do this."
Loblaw Companies Ltd. provided no details about the receipt checks, except to say in an email to CBC News that the signs were posted in select stores to inform customers about "a change in practice at the location."
According to wording on the signs, the purpose of the receipt checks is to "validate and maintain inventory accuracy."
"'Inventory accuracy' is a tongue-in-cheek way, I think, of saying, 'There's a lot of [theft] going on in the store,'" said criminal lawyer Kyla Lee.
She says retailers typically introducereceipt checks, along with accompanying bag searches, as a theft deterrent.
Although it has no hard data, the Retail Council of Canada says shoplifting is on the rise due to a growing resale market for stolen goods, an increase in organized crime, and escalating inflation.
According to Statistics Canada, grocery prices increased by 9.1 per cent in April compared to one year ago.
Receipt checks unwise?
Despite the reported rise in theft, industry experts told CBC News receipt checks may not be a wise solution. Lee said they generally aren't enforceable by law and can lead to legal issues for retailers, including human rights complaints.
And they can generate bad PR, said Toronto-based retail consultant Bruce Winder.
"It sends a really negative message to consumers that retailers don't trust their shoppers," he said.
Following complaints, including on social media, about the receipt-check signs, all shoppers CBC News interviewed said the signs and any evidence of receipt checks are now gone from their stores.
Loblaws knows we’re all out here stealing from them because they’re greedy <a href="https://t.co/HqTJKvf2Dm">pic.twitter.com/HqTJKvf2Dm</a>
McCracken said he complained to his Superstore's manager and, that same day, the sign vanished.
"It's a small victory," he said.
Rather than answering questions about whether it has abandoned receipt checks, Loblaw defended the policy, telling CBC News it's "not unusual throughout the retail industry."
Walmart Canada said it uses a variety of measures to manage and prevent theft "which can include receipt-checking," said spokesperson Felicia Fefer in an email.
Walmart also faced backlash from customers during an apparent step-up of receipt and shopping bag checks in 2019. The company did not say how widespread the practice is now.
When can you reject a receipt check?
Lee said a major problem with receipt checks is that law-abiding shoppers are under no legal obligation to comply.
"In Canadian law, store employees or staff are not allowed to physically stop you from leaving or search your belongings unless they actually witness you commit an offence," she said. "You are free to walk past a receipt check, out the store."
She said the exception is when people sign up for a membership with retailers requiring one, such as Costco. That company stipulates receipt and bag checks as a condition of membership.
Can a store demand to see your receipt?
The increased use of self-checkouts at stores like Walmart has led to customers’ bags and receipts being checked, but are they legally allowed to?
Lee said the practice is also problematic because of the potential for racial profiling.
"More vulnerable groups might be targeted for receipt checks, both because there are unfortunately biases, both conscious and unconscious, when it comes to racialized individuals," said Lee, who works with Acumen Law Corporation in Vancouver.
In the United States, Marshae Jackson is suing Walmart, claiming that, following a receipt check in 2021, she was wrongfully accused of shoplifting due to her race. She is Black.
"Walmart's [anti-theft] polices … were disproportionately applied against Ms. Jackson and other African Americans versus similarly situated white shoppers," alleges the suit which was filed this month in Ohio federal court.
U.S. Walmart did not respond to a request for comment.
Theft and self checkout
Customers McCracken and Ismail believe some Loblaw stores may have initiated receipt checks in response to a spike in intentional or unintentional theft caused by the expansion of self-checkout machines.
"Consumers aren't cashiers and these machines are actually not easy to use," said Ismail. "The barcodes don't always scan."
Studies suggest that stores adding self-checkouts can experience more theft because thieves (the intentional kind) believe the risk of getting caught is low.
"It's a lot easier to shoplift when you're checking out your products yourself," said Winder.
The Retail Council says it has no data on self-checkout theft and that it's working with retailers on loss prevention strategies. It didn't mention if those strategies include receipt checks.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Based in Toronto, Sophia Harris covers consumer and business for CBC News web, radio and TV. She previously worked as a CBC videojournalist in the Maritimes where she won an Atlantic Journalism Award for her work. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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