Call it irony. Call it self-fulfilling prophecy. I call it pure probability — it was just my turn.
The night after posting an 800-word screed on this very blog about the insulting prevalence of retail store receipt checks — those cursory and altogether voluntary searches of our private property — I was confronted, prevented from leaving and followed out of a Wal-Mart Supercenter for refusing to show my receipt.
A store greeter forced this standoff in the Wal-Mart at 3000 E. Franklin Blvd. in Gastonia, N.C.
Since merchants in North Carolina must have probable cause to detain a suspected shoplifter, and since I was briefly — but nonetheless illegally — prevented from leaving the store, I have complained to store management and asked for a written, signed apology to include a promise that employees will be retrained.
No shopper should be treated like a criminal because he doesn’t want his property pawed through less than a minute after he bought it.
I’m also contacting Wal-Mart corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. and the chain’s Southeast vice president for communications, with whom I’m acquainted through my position as a newspaper reporter.
Updates will be posted after I speak to Wal-Mart’s high mucketymucks. Below is the detail-packed narrative that I scrawled on three and a half sheets of notebook paper when I returned home from the store. It’s in many places clunky and stilted, but I wanted to be as precise as possible in recording the chain of events.
I went to Franklin Square to shop early Saturday evening, leaving home around 8:20 p.m. I bought two shirts from Ross, a discount designer clothing store, and ate a meal at burger joint Five Guys in the Franklin Square plaza. I then moved my car into the parking lot of Wal-Mart Supercenter at 3000 E. Franklin Blvd. in Gastonia.
I took a shopping cart and selected 17 assorted grocery and household items to purchase. I waited behind one shopper in the checkout lane and and had my purchases scanned by a friendly cashier who noticed that my bag of scoopable cat litter was leaking litter granules on the conveyor belt. After she scanned it, she asked me if I would like to exchange it for another bag. She had me place the litter on an adjacent unmanned cash register and walk back to the pet supplies department to replace the litter. I returned with an identical bag of litter as the cashier loaded the last couple bags into my cart.
I asked the cashier if she needed to scan the new bag of cat litter, she said that wouldn’t be necessary, the original bag had already been scanned. I placed the litter on the raised top shelf of the shopping cart and walked toward the store exit, slipping my receipt in my left front pocket.
Passing the store greeter, a stout white woman whose name I didn’t notice or record, I walked through the first set of glass exit doors. Something in my cart — I assume it was the bag of cat litter that had not been scanned — activated the electronic alarm. The greeter shouted “Sir, sir!” in a loud voice. I slowed and looked back to see the woman walking swiftly toward me.
“You set off the alarm,” she said.
“I’m sorry to hear that, but I didn’t steal anything,” I replied. “Have a nice night.”
“I need to see your receipt,” she said, placing her hand on my shopping cart.
“No, thank you,” I replied, and began pushing the cart. The greeter then stepped in front of me to block my exit and demanded I show my receipt. Again, I declined.
As I pivoted the shopping cart to bypass the insistent greeter, she told me I needed to show her my receipt. Flustered, I told her that I had not stolen anything and North Carolina law prevented her from detaining me. I cited the shoplifting statute — N.C. General Statute 14-72.
I succeeded in pushing my cart past the greeter and left the store. My face red and heart racing, I walked down the row of cars parallel to the exit, though my car was parked one or two rows to the right. I crossed to my row between two parked cars, opened the rear passenger side door of my 1989 Buick Park Avenue and began to load my purchases from the cart into my car.
As I was loading groceries, several Wal-Mart employees — I counted at least four — arrived at my car. The women and men formed a loose semicircle around me, which I believe was an intentional intimidation tactic. A woman in a light blue shirt with a white lanyard whose name I did not notice or record approached me and asked for my receipt.
I replied that I had not stolen anything and did not have to show anyone my receipt.
She said I had set off the alarm, and it was store policy that I had to show my receipt. If I didn’t steal anything, she asked, why wouldn’t I just show her my receipt?
The groceries were my personal property, I answered, and I didn’t have to let anyone search my property. The woman said that the merchandise is not my property until I leave the store and that Wal-Mart has every right to insist I show a receipt, it’s the store policy.
“Store policy doesn’t trump North Carolina law,” I responded, very nearly parroting blog entries and newspaper columns I’d written about retail store receipt checking.
One of the Wal-Mart employees wrote down my license plate number. As I got in my car, a woman walking back toward the store said, “Oh, I know who you are. You’re that dude from The Gazette.” (I work as a reporter at The Gaston Gazette and wrote a July column encouraging shoppers to decline receipt checks because they’re confrontational, rude and anticonsumer).
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied. “You all have a good night.”
The same woman or another one said, “You need to get yourself a job here,” and walked off.
When I returned to my apartment, I refrigerated my perishable groceries and immediately sat down to write my full account of the incident in a spiral-bound notebook. At 10:52 p.m., I called Gaston County Communications to advise the dispatcher that my license plate number had been taken and Wal-Mart may have filed a false police report against me.
The dispatcher, who identified herself as Operator 125, told me that Wal-Mart had not reported me. I gave her the description of my car, my license plate number and my name and phone number in the event that a report was filed. The dispatcher said she would call me if the incident was reported.
I then found my crumpled sales slip from Wal-Mart, dialed the store number and asked to speak to the manager. I described the incident in full detail to Assistant Manager Tina (in Wal-Mart parlance, employees are identified by title and first name only), again citing the North Carolina shoplifting law requiring probable cause to detain a customer,
Tina was friendly and polite. “They shouldn’t be doing that,” she said. “They shouldn’t even be going out that door.”
I told her I had been detained — briefly, but illegally — by the store greeter and surrounded by numerous employees who recorded my license plate number, an implied threat to call police.
Wal-Mart needed to retrain its employees, I told her. The woman who mistakenly believed the store still owned the groceries I just bought needs to be told that merchandise changes ownership at the point of sale.
The greeter needs a lesson on keeping her hands to herself. Any attempt to detain someone without meeting the standard of probable cause is illegal. False alarm activations are commonplace in big-box stores; setting off the buzzer has never been and never will be proof-positive of theft.
I asked for a written apology from Yvonne Crawford, the store manager, which Crawford and the greeter would sign. I said the apology should include a promise that store employees will be retrained so that future customers are not intimidated, bullied or harassed for declining a voluntary receipt check.
Tina said she would investigate the incident at once. Loss prevention employees would review the surveillance camera footage and help identify the employees I described.
“They can’t treat you that way,” she said, later adding, “When the bell goes off, it is your choice [to show your receipt].”
Crawford wouldn’t return to work until Monday, Tina said. She or a store co-manager (the second-highest boss in the Wal-Mart chain of command, each store has two) would call me on Monday.
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