I often receive e-mails from retail store customers who were offended when they had to submit to having their purchases checked against the receipt at the door before exiting. Many felt it was a simple intrusion while others felt it was a total violation of their privacy or civil rights. Some customers even felt like they were being falsely detained, unjustly accused of theft, and wanted to file a lawsuit.

Not all of the complainants were from overly sensitive customers. I got similar complaints from seemingly intelligent and thoughtful persons with retail experience. Obviously, it was the bag checker’s mannerism that made them feel forced to submit to the search that was bothersome. It must be a widespread concern because I received several calls from the media inquiring about the appropriateness of this bag check process.

Bag Check Policy

What these consumers are complaining about is a local store policy where an employee or security guard will check customer purchases against their receipt. This radical loss prevention tactic is usually used in high-ticket specialty stores who have experienced large inventory losses. For example, stores that sell computer hardware and software products, small handheld electronics, music CDs, and videotapes might employ this method. This bag inspection applies to store purchases only and not to other items you might be carrying. The store management knows that the door bag check procedure is not consumer friendly, but must believe it is a necessary step.

Can Merchants Do This?

Yes, as long as the procedure is voluntary. The bag inspection should occur past the last point of payment solely for the purpose of verifying the sales transaction that just occurred. The door bag checker is looking to see that the cashier correctly charged for all items in the shopping bag or cart. Once this is done, the bag checker makes a distinctive mark on the receipt to indicate that it was checked.

A merchant is free to put procedures in place to help curb their losses due to theft. It is estimated that 11 billion of dollars are lost every year due to shoplifting alone. These unchecked losses will soon put many retailers out of business unless they take some proactive step. This bothersome procedure is very effective in preventing employee theft, shoplifting, and refund fraud.

So what’s all the fuss about? Merchants already have lots of anti-theft procedures in place that consumers endure. There are video surveillance cameras and undercover officers that watch you shop. There are little plastic devices attached to soft goods called electronic article surveillance tags (EAS) that must be removed by a salesperson to prevent an alarm from going off at the exit. There are items displayed under lock and key that you can’t access without assistance. There are items where you must take a paper ticket to the cashier to have the item brought to the checkout stand. None of these procedures are consumer friendly, but are deemed necessary by some retailers for survival. After reading this, if this procedure is still offensive to consumers they should shop elsewhere.

Are Door Bag Searches Legal?

Yes, as long as the inspection is voluntary. No, if the bag check is involuntary or coerced. This is a rather fine legal distinction that is subject to misunderstanding and abuse. Basically, nothing in the law gives the merchant the right to detain a customer for the purpose of searching a shopping bag unless there is a reasonable suspicion of retail theft. See my web page on Shoplifting: Detention & Arrest for more details

A customer can refuse to have their bag checked and simply walk out the door past the bag checker. Hopefully the bag checker has been trained to know that they cannot force anyone to submit to a bag search without cause. This is important because the expectation of the bag checker is that all bag contents have been purchased. The worst thing that could happen is that an aggressive bag checker would forcibly detain or threaten a customer who refused to comply with the voluntary search

How Should the Bag Check Proceed?

The bag check procedure should be routinely handled just like the checkout process. Most customers don’t give it another thought as long as there isn’t a long delay. It is helpful if the bag checker is non-threatening in manner and appearance. Many stores make the mistake of placing someone at the door that looks and acts like a bouncer with aggressive body language that sends the wrong message. Not only does the bag checker help catch mistakes and deter theft, but also aids in the return procedure. The special mark that is made on the receipt is a signal to the refund desk that the item passed by the door checker after being purchased. Unmarked receipts suggest that the items might be stolen or purchased at a different store. This could adversely hamper speedy refund processing.

My suggestion is to be patient with the store bag check procedure and understand that the store is trying to survive by preventing theft. If the bag check still offends you then I suggest shopping elsewhere.

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