Retailing: Customers are guilty until proven innocent 19 Oct 2005

64 comments Latest by Angelina

What’s with the trend of stores checking your bag and scribbling on your receipt before you walk out the door? I mean I get it — they’re trying to quell shoplifters — but wow, assuming everyone is a shoplifter and forcing them to prove they aren’t does not make for a good customer experience. And seeing that these folks at the door barely care about what they’re doing (I saw one half-asleep checker miss the receipt and draw on his hand instead) I wonder how many people they actually catch. Isn’t there a better way?

64 comments so far (Jump to latest)

SH 19 Oct 05

I’ve always been under the impression that those box store door checkers are there to make sure everything on your cart was charged, since most of the time when you’re at those stores you’re buying multiples of the same bulk item. I never assumed that they were there to “quell shoplifters”, because why would a shoplifter have a receipt?

Adam Vandenberg 19 Oct 05

This is Yet Another Reason why I don’t like going into Best Buy. Sell me overpriced stuff then make me prove I bought it, nice way to treat customers there.

JF 19 Oct 05

SH, those people aren’t there for the customer’s benefit.

Stores that care about the customer experience (Apple Store, Wholefoods, etc) don’t do this. It’s the stores like Best Buy and Circuit City and other big box vendors who blockade the door with checkers (sometimes even wearing mock-security uniforms).

If this behavior was for the customer’s benefit the best in the business would be doing it. They aren’t. And for good reason.

Brian Sweeting 19 Oct 05

They should do it like all the other stores, just have anti-theft electronic gateways at the doors. There will be occasional false alarms, but it seems cheaper than paying someone to stand guard at the door. It would make customers happier because once they’ve waited in a long checkout line, they wouldn’t have to wait in line for a second time to be able to leave the building.

David F 19 Oct 05

Just recently, whilst contracting at a large retail company here in Australia, I found out why they do this - it’s not to quell the initial act of shoplifting, but rather the more organised groups.

The scam works as such - the shoplifter goes into a store (typically a large department store) and _buys_ (yes buys) a high value item, but something with no unique identifier. They then take it out of the store (with their valid receipt) then come back into the store (typically through a different entrance) with their valid receipt. They then just go up to the shelf, grab another one of those items, and walks out with it - with a valid receipt for that item! Then… rinse and repeat.

The ones with real balls do all this, then take the original item back and get a refund. I heard instances of one store here in Melbourne being hit up by organised shoplifters using this scam for tens of thousands (around $60K from memory?) of dollars in a single day during the Christmas rush.

JF 19 Oct 05

Interesting, David… So the mark on the receipt prevents them from using it again. I see. Low tech and I like it. Still a huge shame that they have to put everyone through the paces.

David F 19 Oct 05

JF - exactly. And it’s sort of a catch-22 for the business - if they tell the customers why they’re doing it, then they expose the mechanics of the scam to the general public and expose themselves to even greater risks. If they don’t tell you why they’re doing it - well, the results are evident :)

Dave G. 19 Oct 05

It seems that they could have the cashiers take care of that at check out. A quick swipe of a highlighter before handing over the receipt.

Jim Jeffers 19 Oct 05

This is almost as bad as the experience we face at some of the bars out here in Tempe, AZ. Since the university is nearby many bars have new ‘high tech’ ways of checking your ID. The worst has to be a local bar that actually takes your Photo along side a digital photo of your ID. It used to take 10 minutes at most to get in on a busy night now it takes 45 minutes to an hour… can this really be good for business? And isn’t it an invasion of privacy? I honestly don’t know what some business owners are thinking.

JF 19 Oct 05

It seems that they could have the cashiers take care of that at check out. A quick swipe of a highlighter before handing over the receipt.

No, that wouldn’t work. Someone could just walk through the line and towards the door. If the cashier marked it the person at the door wouldn’t know if it was just marked or marked before.

Dr_God 19 Oct 05

It’s fun if you make a game out of it. While you’re waiting in line to have your receipt checked, rifle through your pocket and come up with anything that looks like a receipt. Give that to the doorman instead. I had a guy stare at my Starbucks receipt once, look at my cart, nod, and then let me pass.

Glenn Davies 19 Oct 05

What about a perforated tab at the bottom of your receipt that would simply be torn off. No tab, no exit with goodies ;-) Kind of like how concert or sporting event tickets used to work.

Josh 19 Oct 05

Seems like a little redesign of the space-between-checkout-and-exit would solve a lot of these issues, no? there are lots of stores where, once you go through the checkout, you are on a one-way track to an exit. (Like home depots, but they are less so now than in the past) So, if you are walking out the in-door with expensive merchandise, you can be stopped (by the greeter?), but if you have run the checkout gantlet, they can assume you are ok.

of course, this cuts into the “hang out and wait for glasses and Rx’s and buying pretzels and hot dogs”.

Matt Grommes 19 Oct 05

Once at Costco (one of the stores that checks your cart and reciept) my wife and I got out to the car and realized that we had 2 large-ish flats of breakfast rolls and a box of something else that weren’t in our cart when we went to the checkout and that we didn’t pay for but the reciept checker never noticed. It used to be a line-inducing hassle that I lived with because I figured it would stop some theft at least but after that experience even the pretense that it was an effective shop-lifting preventative was shattered. I’m sure it makes the management feel like they’re _Doing Something About Theft_ though which is why it’s still used.

Sam 19 Oct 05

I think of all the problems Best Buy and Circuit City have with customer experience, what they do on the way *out* the door is the least of their problems. First, lets take those sales reps off commission so they give you *correct* information instead of what’s going to get you to buy the most expensive camcorder. Second, let’s not have floor models out that you *don’t* have in stock. Jeesh that bugs me to no end!

Don Wilson 19 Oct 05

Stores that care about the customer experience (Apple Store, Wholefoods, etc) don�t do this.
They don’t have anything out in the open that is worth stealing, where as Bestbuy and other stores do.

Eric 19 Oct 05

There seem to be two related issues here. 1) Assuming an individual is a shoplifter. 2) The time taken to present your receipt upon exiting.

If you object to the first issue, then you would also object to the the electronic tagging and the detector at the door, the ink tagging, the video cameras, the one-way glass, the mirrors in the far corners, the plain-clothes security personnel, etc. Furthermore, every time you have to sign for a package at your front door it is to create evidence so you cannot later claim you never received the item. Understanding the reality of the world, as much as I wish it were otherwise, these assumptions don’t offend me.

The second issue can be alleviated by the electronic detectors at the door, but they require that an item be electronically neutered (passed over some surface) at the check-out register. But consumer electronic stores sell many bulky items (e.g., PCs and monitors) that are difficult to lift onto the counter to be marked as OK. Furthermore it may not be obvious where within the box the tag is if this could be done with a wand (although it seems the tags are usually under the serial number label).

If you object to either, you always have the option of not purchasing from these businesses.

George 19 Oct 05

are eff eye dee, but big brother and all that yada yada

JF 19 Oct 05

Eric, I think there’s a distinction between standard, passive security measures such as RFID tags and cameras, and active measures which include waiting in a line to exit the store so someone can look through my bag and make sure I didn’t toss anything else in there. Passive = OK, active = NOT.

I actually have cut way down on shopping at stores that are active about security. loves me now.

Mark 19 Oct 05

There are many more customer irratating things that retailers do in the name of loss prevention than that of having a usually frail senior citizen with a happy face on the back of his vest swiping my receipt with a sharpie.

They include -

- Having to explain to the item return clerk why you’re returning an item — even though you’re at the originating purchase location and have the original receipt

- Still having to surrender a credit card to a cashier after using the swipe yourself device yourself

- Being asked your phone number or forced to enter your zipcode after using a credit card

- Not being able to try on a jacket or coat because it is cable locked through the sleeve to the display rack

…and quite possibly the worst retail customer experience (although not related to security at all) is standing and waiting in a cattle line (single row, cordened off rows like at an amusement park or theatre ticket line) only to wait for the next available cashier, then being given the extended warranty pitch, the “you’ve qualified for a discounted magazine of your choice” pitch and then the return policy at checkout only to face the discount cop at the door.

I’m looking at you, Best Buy.

plasman 19 Oct 05

I would have to agree with what Mark said. But i have found ways to get BB back (or other stores) for what they do or to go around the things you complained about.

For the number or zip code ask from the cashier, just say its unlisted. For the return of item and being asked why, i pull the i dont know anything about techology routine. I also blame broken stuff on “a friend that was helping me”. That way they are less likely to deny the return of the stuff you are trying to bring back. BB also likes to check upc’s, so make sure they are on nicely or they will deny…not that anyone would remove them or anything…but sometimes that sticker isnt sticky enough and comes off a little bit.

my main advice is that if these companies wanna try and play games with us, do it right back. Make a fun time out of it. Screw with their minds or whatever. I enjoy it everytime.

bryanj 19 Oct 05

Did I actually read that someone thought this was for the customers benefit? Either someone’s brainwashed or they work for Best Buy.

Don Wilson 19 Oct 05

Either someone�s brainwashed or they work for Best Buy.

Don’t you think that’s, in itself, the same thing?

Geoff Litwack 19 Oct 05

I’m under the impression that you don’t have to surrender your receipt to these people - in effect, they’re asking you to volunteer it, but they don’t have the right to search your bags. I always make a point of walking past receipt-checkers and I’ve never been stopped.

Arnaud 19 Oct 05

This practice can also make some people a little uneasy about walking out of the store without buying anything, they will have a little less incentive to go to the store when they aren’t sure they’ll buy something.

Troy Brumley 19 Oct 05

The checkers at my Costco are looking for some missed merchandise. If I buy the 100 stamp pack, sometimes the real stamps don’t get in the cart. I’m sure they are looking for theft as well, but it seems like a good thing for both customer and store.

Mark 19 Oct 05

“…i have found ways to get BB back…”

See, that’s just the thing plasman. It might be fun to give the retailer the run around like that, but in the big picture the experience is forcing you to lie. How can any customer experience where the customer is burdened to lie to avoid the hassle a good experience?

If I was going shopping with the intention on lying, I might as well shoplift — right?

jeff 19 Oct 05

My wife and I once walked out of Costco with a kids book that we had looked at, wanted to buy and then placed in the cart, but it slipped in behind the box of cat litter and didn’t get noticed at checkout. The receipt checker didn’t notice it either. We found it when we were loading the stuff into the car. The cashier didn’t seem surprised that we had gotten past the checker, she was more surprised that we had bothered to bring it back in to pay for it.

Matt Brubeck 19 Oct 05

The receipt checker is probably trained to scan specifically for the high-value items (TVs, DVD players, bicycles…) that are targets of the theft/fraud described above. That’s why they probably won’t count every children’s book or box of cereal.

The store can provide a better customer experience by using better technology (security gates at the exit) or design (don’t provide a path to the exit without going past the registers). However, the low-tech method of marking receipts with a pen at the exit may stll be the cheapest solution.

Stores that use the cheapest available method will always win out over ones that don’t, as long as most customers value low prices more than “customer experience.”

John Y. 19 Oct 05

I’m actually a fan of the “cattle line” — it eliminates the “guess which line will be fastest” game. That said, I could do without the assorted upsell pitches at the cashier.

Manys 19 Oct 05

You people stop for those idiots? I don’t even acknowledge them and walk right past, because they can’t do anything. They don’t have probable cause to detain you for shoplifting, they aren’t the police, and (at least here in California) your receipt constitutes a contract by which your business with them is finalized. “You are free to go” in a commercial sense. They put those people there to intimidate you, but they’re just flunkies who can be safely ignored. I did have one guy at Best Buy follow me out but he didn’t go past the sidewalk. Basically, it’s illegal for them to touch you, and if you listen closely you’ll notice that they *ask* to check your stuff. You just say “no” and keep walking. Heck, I wedge my way past people who *are* allowing themselves to be checked. Nobody (besides the aforementioned guy) ever does anything. They can’t.

Anonymous Coward 19 Oct 05

Wow yet again you guys prove you aren’t Seinfeld. This is neither insightful or funny.

Maybe you should go back acting like making wikis and todo lists is really hard and you have to be some brilliant guru who understands simplicity to write a AJAX wiki.

Jamie 19 Oct 05

It sounds like you’re describing your experience at Worst Buy. I hate that place!

Jay 19 Oct 05

_”I always make a point of walking past receipt-checkers and I�ve never been stopped.”_

That’s probably because your complexion is lighter than mine. I am always checked—and the checker is pretty through too!

One time I was in a hurry and the line was too long so I just walked out. The checker stopped checking at the front of line and accosted me outside to ask for a receipt. (This was at a BB as well, I made complaint and got the standard, �we�re terribly sorry, but this is store policy crap.�)

Adam C 19 Oct 05

Why the attitude against the person at the door? I know it’s annoying policy but there’s more productive things you can do about it then being an asshole to someone who has nothing to do with creating or modifying store policy.

The Apple Store is a good example of retail design but it’s apples (no pun intended) and oranges. The Apple Stores aren’t in 100-200K square feet buildings and they have a much smaller foot traffic level. Security is much different in buildings like that.

However I’m confused about the “why this is done” explanation. Signing a receipt doesn’t offer more or less evidence then checking the timestamp on the receipt. But honestly there’s few stores that seem to do this. My local Circuit City doesn’t. Also, I think it’s a good idea for large purchases, TVs etc, that you pay for it at the register and you pick it up at a counter which has it’s own entrance and short-term parking area. This can cut down on register lines and awkward carriage driving. Of course maybe not when it gets extremely busy. Comments?

andrew 19 Oct 05

I figured at least part of the reason for receipt checkers was the rise of the self-checkout, which to me is yet another downward slide in the decline of any pretense of customer experience or service. Eh, you want some stuff? Ring it up yourself.

Those kiosks have the ultimate built-in Guilt-O-Meter in the form of the microgram-sensitive bagging area scale. Just put the goddamned Pringles BACK in the bagging area and no one gets hurt, sir.

And then they “enhance” the experience by tacking up 14 different notes about how to use their f’ed up interfaces, or how to look up your produce. Funny, I thought that’s why you trained cashiers.

As for receipt checkers, I’ve never felt too inconvenienced by them. The ones at our Costco are particularly friendly; sort of like a post-shopping greeter. The guys at Home Depot are a joke, though. I was just there the other day, and I swear the guy was drunk.

Dave Simon 19 Oct 05

I’m a Costco addict. I’ll admit it. And it doesn’t offend me in the least that they have someone at the door to look over my reciept, compare it to the content of my cart, and mark it off.

First, marking the reciept prevents the “go back in, grab the same item, rinse, repeat” type crime.

Second, there have been a couple of times where the Costco guy has noticed that I didn’t have something in the cart that I paid for. Just left it at the register.

MH 19 Oct 05

@Anonymous: Maybe you should go back acting like making wikis and todo lists is really hard and you have to be some brilliant guru who understands simplicity to write a AJAX wiki.

Why are you here?

SF 19 Oct 05

I recently went out the Costco exit with a friend who had checked out in front of me (and not aware of the door check). He had purchased some clothing and placed it in my cart. I had only purchased 3 other items, so the clothing was pretty obvious in my opinion. I expected the receipt checker to ask about the clothing, but he just glanced at my cart, put a smiley face on my receipt, and we were on our way. So much for theft prevention.

vishi 19 Oct 05

Walmart solved it:

Don’t check all items, check only items not in bags. Bags are given only by the cashier and they make sure that all items are put in bags.

Simple isnt it?

Karsten Schneider 20 Oct 05

Worse than the stores that check receipts on the way out are the ones that demand you leave any bags you have in their “care” when you go into the store. Some minimum wage kid dumps them behind the counter and hands them to the first person who asks for them.

Last time that happened to me I walked right back out. They wanted me to leave my laptop with a ton of expensive software on it, and even more valuable data. The bag wasn’t big enough to walk out with more than a pair of socks. To make up for the cost of my bag, I would have had to show up with a truck to get even.

No point arguing though. “Rules are rules,” I was told.

Denis 20 Oct 05

First off, Don Wilson has a point: Apple has every single piece of hardware locked down and behind counters. Expensive software is, often but not always, not on the sales floor and only the empty display boxes are shown. BestBuy & Circuit City have more open air, unlocked, merchandise and parts that can be taken vs. an Apple Store. That being said, I know for a fact Soho Apple has non-uniform security patrolling the floor and rightfully so.

And ultimately, the more merchandise gets stolen, the higher the markup towards us the customer to compensate for lost sales. That goes for Best Buy as well. They’re just different in their visual deterrent to shoplifters and would be thieves. Ultimately, they can not stop every thief, only prevent the more casual ones from actually committing a crime.

Though, Costco’s receipt checkers seem to be a joke and only look for the big ticket items.

yetAnotherRyan 20 Oct 05

I always assumed that the door people were checking the receipt to make sure the person at the register wasn’t a friend who was passing you through with a high ticket item.

Uwe Keim 20 Oct 05

Just came through a MSDN link ( to your website and want to say congratulations :-).

Well done!

Ged Byrne 20 Oct 05

The checkers don’t really have to be very effective.

They just have to be seen as a deterrent, so that the shoplifters will carry on to the store without the checker.

For this to work, it has to be high profile and in your face.

Gordy 20 Oct 05

I have been irritated by this for years. Walmart treats every person who walks into the store as a potential criminal. THe “greeters” inspect every bag carried in to ensure it is tightly tied. With the increase in gas prices, most places require you to pay first - again treating customers as potential criminals.

It’s been my experience that people act the way you treat them. If a boss treats employees like children, the employees act like children. If a place of business treats potential customers as criminals, those people will act like criminals.

Adam C 20 Oct 05

Criminals are going to be there wether or not you act nice to them. Unfortunately some stores can’t find more effective ways to combat theft.

Craig 20 Oct 05

I think my local B&Q store handles this kind of problem perfectly. No electronic tagging, no marking receipts etc.

They simply have one way for coming in and the only way to get out is by going through the checkout desks where you’re either going to pay for your items or be questioned on why you are leaving the store without paying for anything you have which looks suspect.

Of course they tie in the usual CCTV as should every store.

Chris Woods 20 Oct 05

yetAnotherRyan’s comment is right on. That is a large component of retail store shrink. Preventing the other stuff is also a benefit.

Darrel 20 Oct 05

We’re customers. We’re all criminals. That’s why we have DRM, software registration, door checkers, spy cams, non-existent return policies, shitty warranties, etc, etc.

8500 20 Oct 05

National Retail Security Survey from 2000

Where Inventory Shrinkage Happens:
46% Employee Theft
30.6% Shoplifting
17.6% Administrative Error
5.8% Vendor Fraud

Dan Boland 20 Oct 05

It’s interesting so many people keep bringing up Best Buy… I’ve never had to go through that at a Best Buy. Maybe some stores have their own policy not to do that.

The only place I can remember getting regularly checked was at Sam’s Club, and I only cared when the line to get checked was just as long as the lines at the registers. That’s annoying.

One time, though, the cashier fucked up and didn’t charge me for one of my items. Then I felt like a criminal, because the woman checking my receipt became a little nastier than she was a minute before, and I had to waste a half an hour getting everything straightened out. Very obnoxious.

I don’t think a solution will be on the horizon unless the cost of staffing a checker outweighs the amount of shrink prevented. Sorry.

Mike G 20 Oct 05

Something else that annoys me is when grocery stores close off the checkout aisles using the candy shelves to force arriving customers to follow their strategic path. If I want to buy toothpaste on the left side of the store, I shouldn’t have to walk to the right side of the store when I arrive.

While I greatly admire the science behind retail design, I think they cross the line with this technique. If a certain technique causes a noticeable experiential pain point, I think you end up losing more than you gain.

BTW - If you haven’t read Why We Buy by Paco Underhill, I highly suggest you do. Definitely in my top 5. A must for experience designers of any nature.


dmr 20 Oct 05

Why not just mark receipts on the way IN for a return? If the only point is to mark the receipt by hand, do it for the 3% that come back in rather than the 100% that leave…

Daniel Honig 20 Oct 05

I’m not sure where you are located Mike G. But you raised a very good point. Take for example the Virgin Megastore in Times Square. I’m not sure what the average customer purchase dollar point is, but I can’t ever seem to make it out without finding tons of music, movies or whatever hence I;m a few hundred and change lighter after checking out. So then I have to stop and be “checked”. And worse they may forget to desensitize the security devices resulting in major embarassment for me. I think its unnacceptable to treat your good customers just like common criminals. For any NYC’ers Virgin is particularily bad, I’m sure there is a virgin in SF and CHI and I would bet it is just the same….

Kirk Wylie 20 Oct 05

Apparently I’m the only person reading this from across the pond (US expat in London).

In the London Apple Store (the one on Regent Street), they have a checker when you exit, and it’s pretty thorough. When I brought in a US-bought Mac Mini (international arbitrage) to add the Airport Extreme/Bluetooth kit, when I left with it I was stopped by a chap who actually not only checked everything I had, but actually checked the serial numbers to make sure they matched the work order.

Perhaps this is because they do have some small, high-value items on the floor which you can just grab and walk away with, but they were doing this on pretty large, behind-the-counter items such as apple studio displays (on another occasion I had those checked, S/N and all), which you would have to have someone working at the store hand you.

I don’t know what the legality is on this here, but I can confirm that at least here in Merry Olde Englande, at the famous Apple Store that everybody’s talking about, they do in fact check what you’ve got with a pretty fine-toothed-comb.

Ted Drake 20 Oct 05

I can tell you that they can be good for the consumer as well. I was at the price club once and the door checker stopped us because we bought a pillow and it should have been a two-piece set. She sent a runner to grab us a complete set instead of the half-set. After that experience, I’ve never complained about the rigamaroll.

Anonymous Coward 20 Oct 05

Mark above - for this one:

>>> - Still having to surrender a credit card to a cashier after using the swipe yourself device yourself

Durn tootin’ you should have to surrender your card, and a good cashier will check your signature too! Not that many do…but they are supposed to…

My mother-in-law writes in the signature section of her credit cards “Ask for ID” and you would be surprised how many cashiers do NOT. They assume you are the cardholder if you have the card and you swipe it. How ludicrous.


Dan Boland 20 Oct 05

My mother-in-law writes in the signature section of her credit cards �Ask for ID� and you would be surprised how many cashiers do NOT. They assume you are the cardholder if you have the card and you swipe it. How ludicrous.

Actually, that isn’t universally the case. My mother used to work at a Williams-Sonoma, and their store policy was to avoid asking for an ID, even if it specifically says so. The reason? They didn’t want to piss anybody off by asking them for identification. That is ludicrous.

Bruno Figueiredo 20 Oct 05

Actually, in Portugal, where I live, is even worse. When you enter any large retailer (not small stores) they seal the bags that you come in with with heat (we use plastic bags here). If you have a paper bag they put in a large plastic bag and seal it. In electronics stores, apart from this, when you buy stuff the security guy on the entrance has to stamp and sign your receipt before you leave. For me, I feel like I’m treated like a burglar and this is just gonna be getting worse.

I have a friend that worked on the management team in the largest retail chain and he told me stories you wouldn’t believe. Store clerks are the worse shoplifters. For example, they get a refrigerator, and they pack a tv, stereo, dvds in it and then someone who has an arrangement with them buys the whole deal for the price of the refrigerator. In hypermarkets people walk away with new shoes all the time (the store clerks find old shoes hidden in the most unbelievable spaces every morning).

It’s a fact: a lot of people shoplift and this has a serious economic impact on retail companies. But is this the right way to treat a costumer?

Darrel 20 Oct 05

It�s a fact: a lot of people shoplift and this has a serious economic impact on retail companies.

You’d think that’d be a good argument for companies to make better web site shopping experiences.

Brian Spaid 25 Oct 05

Kinda makes you wonder what the definition of ownership is. I mean if you just bought something and now it’s in your possession what right do they really have to search you without cause. Which is what this essentially is.

I think this is more along the lines of security at the airport: “Because we can just check the people we feel are suspicious, we’ll check all of them.”

Angelina 11 Mar 06

Shoplifting affects the prices of the merchandise that’s actually being bought so those antitheft devices, the checkers, and the hassle IS for the benefit of the customer.

Also, Circuit City employees aren’t payed by commission thankyouverymuch.