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Customer Confidential

A new Black & White consumer column helps you fight bad service, bad products, and bad ideas.

By David Pelfrey

November 16, 2006

Here’s a scenario that is familiar to anyone who has ever set foot in Wal-Mart, CVS, Rite-Aid, or any of a dozen other major retailers. After you have made a purchase, collected your bags, or packed everything into a shopping cart, you head for the exit. Just as you approach freedom an alarm sounds (usually a sequence of ugly, electronic grunts) and a robotic voice (always female) announces: “Please return to the checkout.” Other customers immediately look in your direction, and an employee begins to approach you. What’s your next move?

If you possess an ounce of personal pride or perhaps two ounces of fortitude, then the 100 percent correct move is to proceed immediately out the door. Why? There are many reasons, chief among them being that rational adults should not instantly obey mechanical voices (unless that voice instructs us to exit a burning aircraft). Also, if you haven’t stolen anything and therefore do not require interrogation, there is absolutely nothing that should compel you to linger post-transaction. It’s depressing enough simply being there in the first place. Another good reason to make a quick exit is that you aren’t being paid to assist some giant retailer with its security measures. You aren’t part of the team, and you didn’t clock in. The clearest reason for leaving the store, however, is that there exists absolutely no legal obligation to remain there, and the store has no right to detain you.

Because all of the above constitute my position on the matter, I have established a mildly adversarial relationship with many retail establishments with whom I continue to do business. I don’t mind too much, because so far I have won all the battles in this long and silly war. What does trouble me is that retailers who, as a matter of policy, routinely treat customers like criminals have not changed their attitude about the issue. In fact, some vehemently defend their policies. I began closely paying attention to this phenomenon several years ago. My story begins at Wal-Mart during the Christmas shopping season of 2000.

It’s an unpleasant fact of life that sometimes we must shop at Wal-Mart, but the selection and savings in the pharmacy and auto department are worth braving the depressing atmosphere if you can get in and out fast enough. A speedy departure is exactly what I was thinking about that December evening as I sped my cart, after paying for all nine items, toward one of the exits. I was stopped by a 60-something gentleman who said he needed to see my receipt and check what was in my cart. I smiled and said, “I’m in a hurry to get out of this madness. Can’t help you.”

The truth is that I had no idea where that receipt was, and I wasn’t keen to search for it. The gentleman moved in front of the cart and firmly gripped the sides, saying “Sir, I must see your receipt before you leave.”

“Oh, I see what you mean,” I replied. “I guess we better get one of your security people over here.”

That puzzled him for a second. “Will you wait here while I get somebody? he asked.

“No.” I said. “I’m out the door as soon as you get out of the way.”

This was a spontaneous answer on my part, but in all honesty I was delighted to have stumbled onto a perfect dilemma for this zealous worker. If he stood his ground, he couldn’t see my receipt. But if he went for assistance, he might lose an opportunity to nail the Tylenol/Windex/Aussie Moist Conditioner thief. He then began to work his way up the side of the cart toward me, his strategy apparently being to keep one hand on the side of the cart and one foot on the floor at all times. Finally, he took hold of my forearm, which surprised me, but not in a good way.

“Never mind security,” I said. “Now you better go find a real police officer.” My captor gave that notion a moment’s thought and then began sprinting toward the rear of the building, making a dash for help in an incident that, for him, must have been escalating toward Def-Con 1. He wasn’t scared; he was determined. I stood there for some time, partly because the whole ridiculous scenario had stunned me, but also because I was even more impressed by how fast the old guy could move. Two other employees and a few customers who were observing the scene were impressed in a different way, I concluded, because they were all laughing at the poor fellow. I proceeded to my car, and that was the end of that. I kept the incident in mind for future reference.

ï ï ï

In the spring, a man’s fancy lightly turns to lawn care, and I am therefore a frequent shopper in the gardening department at Wal-Mart, an area that in character and ambience stands in pleasant contrast to the rest of the store. I also have a habit of using the garden entrance and exit. But of course, that’s where the “greeter” invariably interrupts my reverie. “May I please see your receipt?” is the common request. The correct answer, which I also happened upon by accident, is “No, you may not.” What usually occurs next is that the greeter contacts security, because she or he never comprehends that they merely asked for permission that was subsequently not granted. There is nothing in that friendly exchange that hints of criminal activity, so what’s the point of hanging around?

If it sounds at this point as though I’m being an ornery crank about the whole matter, simply consider all those retail establishments at which customers spend vastly greater sums but are not interrogated before their departure. I’ve never been harassed at Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware, for example. I resent certain measures taken by retailers who don’t check bags or receipts, but who do, by implication, still manage to punish all shoppers for the deeds of a few criminals. A favorite means of combating that takes place at Banana Republic and Macy’s. Just for fun, I’ll browse through the leather jackets or expensive sport coats that are fastened together by a cable that holds an alarm sensor. When a clerk approaches and offers to unstrap the merchandise, I simply inform him that I don’t try on clothes in orange-alert, high-security areas. Yes, I’m being a jerk in a very technical sense, but I’m sending a message to management, I hope. Throughout my struggle, I have assumed that enough of these encounters will eventually work their way up through corporate levels to a decision maker who might implement change. That may be a flawed assumption.

The idea that small battles won might not lead to final victory first entered my mind at Costco. Costco is one of my favorite stores in the world, from a purely fiscal perspective. You do indeed save money there. Moreover, the employees at this well-organized, disturbingly efficient warehouse are consistently cheerful and helpful. The butcher shop is cleaner than those I see at the major grocers in town. You can get a case of Coke in glass bottles for just over $10. No way is anyone going to foul up that shopping experience. But Costco is apparently willing to make the effort.

When you check out at Costco, an employee takes your cart, places items on a conveyor, and then another employee rings up the items. There are no bags here (one of the many cost-saving measures) but you may gather empty boxes from a designated area and organize things yourself, once you have paid. It’s a warehouse, after all. In any event, at this point a customer is at least 20 feet from any merchandise, with no access to the store unless they return through the checkout line. There’s nothing between you and the exit, except another employee who must check your receipt and mark it with a highlighting marker. Never mind that all of the items in your cart, which have obviously been paid for, were also placed there by a Costco employee.

One problem with this receipt-checking system is that on busy days it forces customers to form long lines at the exit. On some of my visits, I decided to roll past this line with my items, now that I owned them, and head straight to my car. The first time I tried this, a woman shouted at me to return to the store. I believe she was still yelling “Sir! Sir!” as I departed Patton Creek and approached the interstate ramp. I wouldn’t know; I was listening to a CD I had just purchased at Costco. It was my CD, you understand. Why not enjoy it?

On another visit, I decided to get the lay of the land before attempting any more non-compliant exits. Perhaps there was a rule or policy about the Costco system that made sense. There on the wall at the exit, I discovered, is a huge sign that reads:

Why is my register receipt reviewed when I leave the warehouse?
To assure that you paid for and are not overcharged or undercharged for any item. Also, marking the receipt disallows its reuse.

The completely misleading nature of that message became obvious during my next encounter with Costco security enforcement. As I suspected, there were about a dozen customers in line for “receipt review” at the exit. That represented about six extra minutes that I wasn’t being paid for, and so I rolled toward freedom. The employee “reviewing” receipts left the line and cheerfully said, “I’m going to have to see your receipt first.”

Adopting her happy demeanor, I replied, “And you are going to have to chase me in order to do so.” Sometimes it’s worth being an ass just to see the response on people’s faces. Not only was the receipt lady registering total bewilderment, but several customers in line for the same hassle appeared equally baffled. One woman glanced at me with what looked like total contempt. Her response was invigorating, although I’m not sure why. I continued toward my vehicle, where I was greeted by a man who looked and sounded like “security.”

“Was there a problem at the checkout, sir?” he asked.
“No, actually, checkout was great,” I said. “Very efficient. But leaving the store was a little shaky. In fact, there’s definitely a problem there.”
“What’s wrong?”
“Well, for openers, I don’t like being treated like a shoplifter.”
“Sir,” he solemnly stated, “No one is treating you like a shoplifter.”
“Really? Then why, exactly, am I having a conversation with store security, who just happened to reach my vehicle at the same time I did?”

Minutes seemed to pass. I thought I noticed a funnel cloud moving toward Vestavia. A faint aroma of cotton candy was in the air. The forty-ish woman loading her purchase into a car two spaces down was wearing tight-fitting, corduroy jeans. She looked amazing. Finally the security guy responded. “Sir, our people checking receipts are doing their jobs. It’s a store policy that we inspect receipts. We’re trying to make sure you paid the right price.”

We get served a lob like that only so many times, and I wasn’t letting this one go. My research was finally paying off. I chose to be polite, because the security guy was actually quite calm and friendly about the whole incident. “This is a warehouse,” I replied. “There are no prices on those items in my cart, so how would they know if I were overcharged? Never mind, here’s another thing you should know. In my last five visits here, I allowed your staff to see my receipts, and they instantly marked them without so much as glancing at the totals. They were simply making certain that I had paid for something, and that I could not come back and use that receipt at a later date. In other words, to stop my attempts, present and future, at theft—you know, as though I were a potential shoplifter. Your sign with the message about ensuring that I wasn’t overcharged is what shoppers like me sometimes call bullshit. That’s Home Depot behind us. I spent a few hundred dollars there last year. Just to our right is Sears. I spent almost that much there last Christmas. No one reviewed my receipts at either store. Please tell me what I’m doing wrong.”

The security guy walked away, perhaps wondering if Costco had not fully explained to him all the details of “receipt review.” It’s also possible that he knew, without a doubt, that I was just one more jackass who “didn’t get it.” These are store policies, damn it.

ï ï ï

I contacted management at Wal-Mart, Costco, and other retailers to get some comments for this article about their respective policies. Long story short, no one is budging, and some retailers are downright proud of those policies. Wal-Mart has the most detached view of the issue, it seems. Their explanation of the process has to do with “security detection determining that sensors have not been deactivated; retraining transaction staff, etc.,” but nothing to do with human volition. For Wal-Mart, theft and theft prevention are natural phenomena, much like the weather. No one is being treated like a criminal, you see, it’s strictly a case of “devices detecting active sensors.” There’s really nothing Wal-Mart can do. Except have a greeter rummage through bags of items that legally belong to you. While you wait.

There are some things that shoppers can do, however. First, the deer-in-the-headlights response to security alarms must end. Smile and walk with confidence through the exit. Bear in mind that being suspected of theft is actually a reason to leave the store, not a reason to stay, in much the same way that no one remains at a party after they have been insulted by the host. If a particular retailer wants to play games by insisting that they are merely ensuring that you were not overcharged, then by all means let’s check all 74 items in the cart, poring over the receipt line by line while other customers wait. Another fun approach, if you are detained, is to inform the store that they may indeed inspect your bags or your receipt, if and only if all items are immediately returned for a full refund. That gets their attention. Or just tell them to call a cop. If you’re the theatrical type, adopt a German accent and repeat loudly that your papers are in order (with the same accent you can do the old Berlin Wall bit and say that you have friends at the central committee). The odds of a customer in the store getting the joke are very slim, but anyone who does get the reference will remember you forever. It will feel good to be someone’s hero.

Last fall, while I was waiting for a prescription to be filled, I stood near the exit of my local pharmacy reading a product description on a bottle of shampoo. Two elderly customers set off the sensor alarm as they walked out, but I told them to go ahead, because “that crazy thing had been going off all day, and we had not figured out how to stop it yet.” I also thanked them for shopping with us. When an employee arrived a few seconds later, I waved the bottle and apologized for getting too close to the sensors. All was well. I’m seldom that fast on my feet, but I was having a good week, apart from the sinus infection. With that in mind, as Thanksgiving approaches and the shopping season gains momentum, I hope that my story will be the catalyst for a quantum shift in consumer habits. &