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Customer searches are humiliating

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Security tools are as common in retail as downlighting and background music.

Johannesburg - Just before Christmas, as I walked out of a packed store with my purchases, the security apparatus at the exit let rip with its “Stop, thief!” alarm.

All eyes turned to me. The security guard told me to wait, calmly took the packet from me, returned to the till point, pinpointed the security sticker which had not been successfully de-activated, and sent me on my way with a “sorry”.

It was a little mortifying, given the commotion, albeit brief, but more concerning to me was that the response of the staff suggested that such system failure was a regular occurrence, at the expense of their customers.

Clearly, stores suffer major losses through shoplifting and have a right to take steps to minimise those losses. Such as tagging goods with security tags or stickers, which trigger sensors at store exits if not removed at the tills.

The assumption, of course, is that if the sensor is triggered, an item has not been paid for, which means that staff who operate tills have a special responsibility to ensure that the tags or stickers are properly removed or deactivated, to avoid paying customers being made to feel embarrassed or humiliated.

Which brings me to the story of Sharna Caledon of Ottery, Cape Town, who triggered the alarm of the security system at the exit of the Edgars in Maynard Mall, Wynberg, in December. She had just bought a cellphone from the store.

Having eliminated her handbag and Edgars plastic bag as the trigger, she was asked to walk through again, and again the alarm sounded.

She refused to be searched, and, offended, said she wanted to cancel the purchase of the phone and get a refund. This was done, and then she was escorted to an office where she was searched by a woman security guard, in the presence of a female manager.

“The security guard promptly, without warning, lifted up both layers of my top, searched in the elastic of the top below my breast and found nothing.

“Not satisfied, her hands went all around the inside strap of my bra, front and back. I felt violated and helpless.”

Caledon says she was then told to remove her jeans and was left standing in her bra and panties, “with two strangers looking at my body”.

The security guard found a security sticker in the waist area of the jeans, and concluded that that was what had triggered the alarm.

Caledon says she’d bought the jeans some time previously, and they had been washed several times.

“I was fobbed off with a very lame, casual ‘I am so sorry’, without any display of authenticity or realisation of the trauma I had been subjected to, while standing before two strangers, barefoot in my bra and panties in a back room,” she said.

She says the incident left her so traumatised that she had to seek counselling. She was told afterwards that there was no camera footage of the search.

Interestingly, she says she had visited several other stores earlier that day, including that same store, to choose a cellphone.

“I didn’t buy it during that first visit, because the consultant was busy with another client and I was on my lunch break. The jeans I was wearing did not trigger the store’s security apparatus on my way out the first time.”

Initially Edcon’s customer experience relationship manager responded to Caledon, sympathising with her, and asking her what she wanted in compensation.

When Caledon came up with a figure of R350 000 – for infringement of her human rights, plus “emotional pain and suffering and humiliation” – Edcon’s legal adviser took over, advising her that the company had investigated her claims and “found no evidence to support any of the allegations contained in your above-mentioned e-mails”.

She was then offered R5 000 as a token of goodwill.

I took up the case with Edcon. Responding, the company confirmed that Caledon was escorted to the manager’s office after the activation of the store’s alarm on that day, where she was searched by a female security officer.

“After completing a detailed investigation into the incident, Edgars confirms that the customer was never strip searched. Edcon has a policy in respect of suspected store theft and the search was carried out in terms of that policy.

“Edgars has been communicating with Ms Caledon and has made an apology for her inconvenience.

“Edgars does on occasion offer a token of goodwill for any inconvenience experienced by customers. In this case, R5 000 was offered to Ms Caledon, which was rejected. Ms Caledon has requested R350 000 and has advised her intention to take legal action, which Edgars will challenge.”

Caledon has since told Consumer Watch that she will not be taking legal action, nor will she accept Edcon’s offer of R5 000. “I’d rather do without the money than to accept it from them as ‘goodwill’ after what they had done to me,” she said.

The incident got me thinking about what best practice is when it comes to searching shoppers – I’ll stick with women – who trigger store alarms, and their bags are eliminated as the source.

So I posed this question to Edcon, as well as other retail groups.

Here are their responses:

* EDCON (Edgars, Jet, Legit)

Edcon staff do not have a right to conduct a body search on a customer as this may only be done by the SAPS or on instruction by the SAPS, and it should be ensured that a female customer is searched by a female staff member and male customers by male staff members.

A customer’s personal belongings may only be searched with the customer’s express consent; and in cases where a customer gives his/her consent to be searched, a third party must be present as a witness while the search is undertaken.

Under no circumstances may a customer be “strip” searched, only a “pat down” search may be conducted with the customer’s approval.

* WOOLWORTHS

Woolworths will conduct a body search under exceptional circumstances when threatened by violence and if we have reason to believe that a suspect may be concealing a dangerous weapon, in order to protect customers, employees and the individual concerned.

Body searches are only conducted by members of the same sex, off the store floor.

Every effort is made to maintain privacy, human dignity and to spare the suspect unnecessary embarrassment. Such incidents are rare at Woolworths.

* THE FOSCHINI GROUP (Foschini, Donna Claire, Fashionexpress, Totalsports)

When responding to a store alarm, our policy states clearly that staff must respond discreetly, respectfully and courteously. The policy sets out a step-by-step procedure to ensure that our staff are trained in handling sensitive situations should they arise.

Should an alarm be triggered by a customer leaving the store, staff need to determine what caused the alarm to go off, starting with a shopping bag check to ensure that all tags were removed during the sale process. Should these be the cause, the garments are taken back to the point of sale for a thorough search of any tags that may not have been removed during the sale.

If the bags do not trigger the alarm, the customer will be asked to escort the member of staff to the back of the store to resolve the matter discreetly. Should the store manager deem it necessary to perform a search of the customer’s handbag or person, the customer will be asked for permission first. Searches are conducted in the presence of a second member of staff, both staff members being the same gender as the customer.

It seems to me that installing cameras in the areas where such searches are undertaken should be mandatory.

* Wendy Knowler is Independent Newspapers' consumer editor. Her column Consumer Watch is published twice a week in The Star, Pretoria News, Cape Times and Daily News. Email her at consumer@knowler.co.za


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