Pretoria - Does it annoy you when you’re subjected to a bag search at the exit of a store you’ve just bought goods from, or do you accept it as the store’s right to protect itself against theft?

I asked that question on Twitter not too long ago, and most of those who responded fell into the first camp.

They objected to being stopped by a security guard and made to produce their receipt and then, wait while, the guard rummaged through their bag or trolley in order to check that all their purchases were all recorded on the receipt.

It mostly happens at warehouse-type stores such as Makro, builders’ supply stores and electronic goods retailers.

Apparently it’s done mainly in an attempt to thwart corrupt cashiers from failing to scan certain products put through the tills by friends or family members.

I’d never heard of it happening at a supermarket until I received Ordain Riba of Pretoria’s e-mail last week.

“At my local Spar, I am subjected to a security check which involves a guard demanding to see my slip and going through my grocery bags each time I shop there,” he wrote.

“I read the Consumer Protection Act, but I find nothing relating to this practice.

“Is it legal, and what would happen if I refuse? What are my rights?”

Jo’burg attorney Michael Sun feels strongly that stores do not have the right to conduct such searches.

“The principle of law of contract says that the sale is concluded when goods and purchase price are exchanged, so I as the purchaser immediately become the owner the goods I have bought.

“Why then am I subjected to checks and searches when I depart the store with my lawful possessions?

“Unless there is a legible notice that is displayed prominently at the time of my entry to the store declaring such conditions of entry, sale and checks at the exit, I am under no obligation to subject myself to a queue and humiliating check.”

The stores’ internal policies are not binding on a customer who does not wish to be subjected to them, Sun argues.

“One does not break any law by refusing to be checked and is free to leave the store with the goods one had paid for. South African consumers are polite and not used to complaining, however, we must desist this kind of invasion of our constitutional right of integrity by the very people who we are giving business to.”

I asked Advocate Neville Melville, the Ombudsman for Consumer Goods and Services, for his view on the issue.

“It is not a question that I have researched,” he said, “but on the face of it, a store is private property and the owner can make bag checking a condition of entry by expressly informing customers before entry onto the premises.

“All constitutional rights are subject to reasonable limitation. It’s up to Constitutional Court to make a call on this.”

Sun said no store he’d visited displayed a notice at the entrance, advising customers about the bag searches at the exit.

“The bag check is based on the assumption that the customer has stolen, otherwise there would not be a necessity to check the bag to see whether the number of items corresponds with the receipt, it is this assumption by the retailers that is an invasion of right to dignity.”

Even in a court of law, he said, a suspect caught stealing red-handed is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty, but in the eyes of the retailers, customers are presumed guilty until proven innocent, after the bag check.

This is a contravention of the Constitution’s right to have their dignity respected and protected, he argued.

The searches also denied customers their right to privacy, which included not having their purchases searched.

It’s a very interesting issue.

For my part, it’s an intrusion which I mostly tolerate with the same resignation as when forced to put my bags through those airport security machines or being patted down by a security guard because my belt set off the walk-through scanner.

But there have been occasions, when I’ve spent a small fortune in a store, and then been made to wait in a queue to have my bag searched by a guard with a surly demeanour, that I’ve resented the practice.

Clearly, stores which employ this practice are ethically, if not legally, obliged to warn customers about it at the entrance to their stores.

They should also ensure that the searches are conducted with the utmost respect and that the intrusion is minimised by having the appropriate number of security personnel on duty to avoid exit queues. - Pretoria News