Receipt Checks

23:17 Sun 26 Aug 2007
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I came across a story the other day about a store refusing to allow a customer to leave when the customer declined to allow them to check his receipt. The reactions to this story have been interesting, with many people making the claim that the customer was at fault by being unreasonable.

I’ve never refused a request to check my receipt when I’m leaving a store, although I do find them annoying, and am often tempted to refuse.

It should be noted that, in the US at least, stores have no right to insist on a receipt check (that is, to not allow you to leave until you submit to it) unless they have probable cause that you’re shoplifting. Refusal of a receipt check itself is unlikely to count as probable cause (although conceivably the wrong judge might rule that way).

In other words, you have the legal right to refuse a receipt check. They can then detain you if they think you’re shoplifting, but detaining people in such fashion is legally actionable if you’re not shoplifting or acting in a suspicious manner.

But why not just accede to their request (or demand) and let them check your receipt?

It’s certainly easier to do so. Saves trouble for most people. But it feels like an encroachment; it also feels like death by a thousand cuts. The stores have made the receipt check an institutional routine, and by making it more convenient for you to submit to it, they are exerting pressure on you.

Bucking that pressure is in itself a good reason, on a personal level, to refuse. I think it’s good to exercise your rights at least every once in a while, to remind yourself that you don’t have to accede to whatever petty demands are placed upon you.

More broadly, by refusing you’re pushing against the cultural trends that make demands like this more common. The more people refuse, the less likely stores are to keep the practice around, and the more likely it is to disappear (which is a good thing, because it’s annoying).

Finally, there are occasionally practical reasons to refuse—at busy periods, this additional piece of bureacracy slows down the entire shopping process, leading to long lines and more waiting. Your time is probably valuable enough that it’s not worth it to wait in line in a store that you’ve already given money to so that they can follow their bureaucratic procedures. Certainly I would skip such a line, and refuse to show my receipt, if I found myself in that particular situation.

As for the argument that it helps prevent theft and hence ultimately helps the consumer by keeping costs down, I’m completely unconvinced. Partly because this method for saving on their costs imposes that cost on the consumer in the form of wasted time.

It’s a small thing, yes. But refusing it is also a small thing, and if the store escalates the situation from there, it’s the fault of the store, not the individual, that the situation becomes a bigger deal than it should be. The opposite viewpoint privileges the institution in a bizarre way, simultaneously denying it agency (by assuming it cannot changes its ways) and granting it the right to create social norms (by granting it the right to impose new procedures on customers).

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4 Responses to “Receipt Checks”

  1. Alex Says:

    Tadhg, it is worth bearing in mind that this is not necessarily directed at customers, but frequently at employees to make sure all transactions are going through the till. It is was very common it Italy ,for example, for the checkout person to simply take your money and give you the item while never actually ringing up the sale. It is now illegal to leave the shop without a receipt and police regularly check that there is a accurate receipt.

  2. StewLG Says:

    A sane and thoughtful post, but one that would carry a lot more weight if you’d actually refused to be searched at least once. I have, more than once. Your turn.

  3. BobS Says:

    Alex, the Italian example you cite has absolutely nothing to do with loss prevention and everything to do with the Italian national pasttime of tax evasion. The Agenzie delle Entrate (the italian version of the IRS) instituted that law years ago although it was rarely enforced.

  4. Tadhg Says:

    Bob and Alex–thanks for that info, but it’s quite different when this is being done for the customer’s protection (or for tax purposes), as opposed to being a security measure imposed by the store.

    StewLG–you have a point, and I was considering that when I wrote the post, but didn’t want to hold off on posting it until the next time I had a chance to refuse a receipt check. Since then I’ve tried it, and it was pretty easy, a polite but firm refusal worked fine.

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