Business

'Treated as a criminal': Walmart receipt and bag checks anger customers. Your rights explained

An apparent step-up of receipt and shopping bag checks at Walmart has sparked customer complaints, raising concerns about shoppers’ rights.

Customers don't have to comply with routine receipt checks, civil rights expert says

Penny Rintoul of Vaughan, Ont., said she finds Walmart receipt checks 'angering and demeaning.' (Jacqueline Hansen/CBC)

An apparent step-up of receipt and shopping bag checks at Walmart has sparked customer complaints, raising concerns about shoppers' rights.

"It was not a request, it was a demand," said Penny Rintoul of Vaughan, Ont., about a recent receipt check just before she exited Walmart with her purchases. She said her local Walmart increased its checks in the spring.

"It's very angering and demeaning." 

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) said it's investigating the practice of retailers doing routine security checks at the exit, concerned that the way they're conducted may jeopardize customers' rights. 

Michael Bryant, CCLA's executive director and general counsel, said retailers should get consent before checking receipts or bags. And if no consent is provided, he said, customers are under no obligation to comply. 

"Their right is to say, 'Thanks, but no thanks,' and walk away," said Bryant.

"Some people feel strongly about their privacy and, in fact, the way our laws work, that privacy and liberty is protected."

Michael Bryant, executive director and general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says retailers should get consent before checking receipts or bags. (Jacqueline Hansen/CBC)

In a 2016 ruling on a case involving a suspected shoplifter, an Ontario Superior Court judge wrote that a retailer can detain a suspect if there are reasonable grounds, but — even then — it would have to get consent to do a search. 

Walmart didn't directly address questions from CBC News about customers' rights including what happens if shoppers refuse receipt checks. The retail giant also didn't say if it has stepped up its security checks.

"To assist in our efforts to manage costs and offer everyday low prices, customers may be asked to show their receipts as they exit our store to ensure the checkout process went smoothly," said Walmart Canada spokesperson Adam Grachnik in an email.

CBC News interviewed several customers who said they weren't "asked," and instead felt pressured to comply.

Walmart said customers may be asked to show their receipts as they exit to ensure the checkout process 'went smoothly.' (Sophia Harris/CBC)

Paula Fletcher of Renfrew County, Ont., said that in August, a Walmart employee watched as she scanned her groceries at self-checkout, and then insisted on inspecting her receipt and shopping bag. 

"She did not make it an option," said Fletcher. 

"I don't like being treated as a criminal," she said. "If they don't trust us, they shouldn't have self-checkout." 

Walmart's recent addition of self-checkout machines appears to be a driving force behind receipt checks. In response to customer complaints on social media, the retailer has replied repeatedly that it's doing the checks to ensure the self-checkout process "went smoothly" and that all items have been scanned. 

Studies suggest that stores adding self-checkouts can experience more theft because thieves believe the risk of getting caught not scanning items is low.

Amy Fraser of Sydney Mines, N.S., said she has experienced frequent receipt and occasional shopping bag inspections in the past five months at Walmart, both after using self-checkout and checking out with a cashier. 

She said she reached her limit last month when a Walmart employee demanded to check her receipt, just as she prepared to feed her baby before exiting. 

"He's like pouncing, 'You have your receipt?'" said Fraser. "I just [felt] like walking out and being like, 'No, no, call the cops on me.'"

Walmart has replied repeatedly to customers on social media that it’s doing the checks to ensure that all items have been scanned. (Sophia Harris/CBC)

So what happens if a retailer calls the cops? Toronto security consultant James Reese said a retailer needs to have evidence of theft for police to take action.

 "If they did not see you take something, they cannot come after you just for refusing to show your bags or receipt," he said. 

In the 2016 case involving the suspected shoplifter, the judge also wrote that "if a store owner is mistaken and no theft has occurred, their detention of a customer makes them liable for … false imprisonment."

However, shoppers rejecting receipt checks do risk being banned from the store, said Reese.

"That's within the merchant's prerogative."

What about Costco?

Retail giant Costco also checks customers' receipts. 

However, Costco customers are required to sign up for a membership, which means they may have provided consent — depending on how clearly the rules are laid out, said CCLA's Bryant.

"They need to tell people about it."

Costco didn't reply to requests for comment, but CBC News found its policy on its website in the "membership conditions" section. It says customers are required to show receipts to ensure that "you have been properly charged for your purchases" and to maintain accurate inventory control.

CBC News discovered signs at several Toronto-area Walmarts which stated, 'Please have Receipt ready for Proof of Purchase.' But 'Just because there's a sign doesn't mean that someone's read it or understood it,' says Toronto criminal lawyer Anthony Moustacalis. (Laura MacNaughton/CBC)

At Walmart, there's no membership requirement and customers interviewed said they saw no in-store warnings that they'd be checked. 

Last week, CBC News did discover signs at several Toronto-area Walmarts which stated, "Please have Receipt ready for Proof of Purchase." But a Toronto criminal lawyer argues that's not good enough. 

"Just because there's a sign doesn't mean that someone's read it or understood it," said Anthony Moustacalis.

"Consent does need to be fully informed," he said. "That generally means that you need to know that you have a right to refuse."

There's no question that shoplifting is a problem for retailers, especially when it comes to self-checkout. But retailers still need to play by the rules, even when tackling emerging technologies, said Bryant. 

"New technology should never mean giving up your rights."

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.