Smart SpendingSmart Spending

Do receipt checks violate your rights?

You don't have to show your receipt before you leave most stores. So why do they get so upset if you refuse?

By Money Staff Dec 22, 2010 6:07PM

This post comes from MSN Money's Liz Pulliam Weston.


Liz Pulliam Weston on MSN MoneyReceipt checks -- where store employees review your receipt at the exit to make sure you've paid for everything in your cart or bags -- are typically voluntary.


Somebody needs to let the store employees know that.

For a few years now, The Consumerist has been documenting skirmishes between customers and employees who refuse to take "no thank you" for an answer. Shoppers reported being physically detained, having their paid-for items taken away, and being threatened with arrest (although sometimes it was the shopper who called the cops, as one guy did after a manager took his merchandise).


The Consumerist makes the argument that this is a civil liberties issue. Indeed, while the law varies from place to place, U.S. retailers generally aren't allowed to detain you unless they have good reason to believe you've stolen something -- and refusing to present your receipt doesn’t constitute probable cause.


"In general, the store can't force someone to show their receipt," says Joseph LaRocca, senior asset protection advisor for the National Retail Foundation, which calls itself the world's largest retail trade association. "The checks at the door are really designed to be a preventative measure and a customer service measure."


Say what? La Rocca says receipt checkers may spot overcharges and help customers save money that way. But stores mainly use the checks to combat the $12.5 billion they lose to shoplifting annually, as well as miscellaneous losses from clueless customers who wander out without paying for, say, that case of beer in the bottom of their cart.


Less theft and loss can translate into lower prices for consumers, LaRocca says. There's also the matter of sales taxes. Thieves, you see, are taking merchandise that could otherwise generate revenues for state and local governments.


Which is all well and good, but if you want to say no to a receipt check, you're not supposed to be accosted, detained, harassed or -- in one extreme case in China -- beaten to death.


The exception -- to being detained, not killed -- is if you've signed an agreement that makes receipt checks part of the package, as is the case at membership warehouses like Costco. (Costco's policy on receipt checks and other searches is outlined here, on page 29. Oh, and you're also supposed to mind your kids and not leave them unattended. I’m talking to you, clueless mom on the cell phone.)


Costco Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti says he gets only one or two complaints a year about receipt checks. Members understand that the reviews help prevent shoplifting, which in turn helps Costco keep prices down, he says. For its part, Costco tries to make the process fast, adding a second receipt-checker at peak times to reduce the wait.

"It's our job to make sure it's expeditious," Galanti said. "Nobody wants to be kept waiting."


True enough. And some people have no problem waiving their rights for a big corporation's benefit. The receipt-checking horror stories on Consumerist usually feature comments from readers annoyed that a shopper might slow down the line by asserting his or her right to say no.


But personally, I don't like being treated like a criminal. So I generally shop at places that don't treat me that way.


And I think the stores that keep showing up in the Consumerist -- especially Wal-Mart -- need to do a better job of familiarizing their receipt-checking employees with the reality that receipt checks are voluntary. The chain should probably work on its media relations, as well -- Wal-Mart didn't return a call or e-mail requesting comment for this column.


Liz Pulliam Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "Your Credit Score: Your Money & What's at Stake." Weston's award-winning columns appear twice weekly, exclusively on MSN Money. She also helps middle-class families cope at Building a Brighter Future.


More from MSN Money:

Dec 27, 2010 2:24PM
I was at a local store a few months back, one that does everything, groceries, electronics, furniture, house wares ect... They also have a coffee bar. I had run in for a coffee and as I stood in line a woman was trying to leave and kept setting off the sensor the store had placed at the door. The sensor would go off and the woman stood there and waited for someone from the store to come check her bag. No one showed up so she went to leave again, off goes the sensor. This went on for over 20 min. and still no one from the store came to check. Everyone else just watched, I'm sure this shows at least one person who was going in and out during that time that it would have been very easy to take something and not have it noticed.
Dec 23, 2010 10:48PM
Wow Liz just let them check.  Who cares if they check or not.  The only theft it cuts down on is large item theft(with and without receipts).  But I'd rather stop for 10 seconds to help prevent it. 

You can tell the people who have never worked in retail.  They get up in arms over stuff like this.  You worried about your rights?  Then worry about your government and not wal-mart.  The government does a lot more then a simply receipt check.

Dec 23, 2010 10:43AM
The Walmart in my area used to do that, but not anymore.  That, or I just don't get asked.  What I don't understand is how the employee checks the receipt against a cart full of items.  They literally glance at it and gave it back.   What are they checking for and how can they do it so quickly?
Dec 23, 2010 3:20AM
Funny, WalMart does receipt checks but when my husband, daughter and I witnessed an entire family stealing shoes & wearing them out the door (old shoes in the boxes & back on shelf), they refused to act.  Despite having 3 witnesses willing to testify in court & the thieves still on site, the manager refused to call the cops & maintained they could do nothing unless Security personnel witnessed the theft. 
Dec 22, 2010 6:35PM

Stores have taken theft protection to new limits.


One area I'd like to see covered like this article is bags.  A growing number of places are making you leave any outside bag (save for small purses) at the front with a less than stellar bag check system.  Either it's just leave it and trust it'll still be there when you're done, or leave it with a casheer that may not be the one you get it back from.


Being viewed as a potential criminal for the crime of being a pedestrian aside, it raises questions of liability if any items of mine are lost, stolen or broken while in the store's care.  I try to avoid such places, especially if I'm carrying things from work, but it isn't always feasible.


Please help us to maintain a healthy and vibrant community by reporting any illegal or inappropriate behavior. If you believe a message violates theCode of Conductplease use this form to notify the moderators. They will investigate your report and take appropriate action. If necessary, they report all illegal activity to the proper authorities.
100 character limit
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?


Copyright © 2014 Microsoft. All rights reserved.

Fundamental company data and historical chart data provided by Morningstar Inc. Real-time index quotes and delayed quotes supplied by Morningstar Inc. Quotes delayed by up to 15 minutes, except where indicated otherwise. Fund summary, fund performance and dividend data provided by Morningstar Inc. Analyst recommendations provided by Zacks Investment Research. StockScouter data provided by Verus Analytics. IPO data provided by Hoover's Inc. Index membership data provided by Morningstar Inc.


Smart Spending brings you the best money-saving tips from MSN Money and the rest of the Web. Join the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.