Wendy Knowler says a warning explaining the procedure for searching customers handbags must be visible in stores.

‘The fact that I carry a Nine West handbag should be enough to tell them that I can afford to pay for stuff.”

I must admit, it was that line in a reader’s opening paragraph which got my attention and heightened my interest in her gripe.

And it’s becoming an increasingly common gripe in my inbox – bag searching at store exits.

It’s a practice which gets up a lot of consumers’ noses, especially when it inconveniences shoppers – having to queue to have what is now their property searched – or is done in a disrespectful manner.

That reader, who clearly feels her expensive handbag is an indication not only of her elevated social standing and wealth, but unquestionable integrity, too, objects to the fact that while the searches are not carried out in upmarket malls, they are routine in the branches of the same national chain stores, in other, less-affluent areas.

In the KwaZulu-Natal town of KwaDukuza (formerly known as Stanger), she says, her Nine West handbag gets rummaged about by security people, often not in uniform and with no identification, and sometimes with a bad attitude.

“At one chain store in that town, the security guard removes purchased items from the bag, including underwear, right in the doorway, for the world to see what you’ve bought.

“Surely chain stores should have uniform procedures to ensure customers get the same service and respect at all branches of the same brand. I don’t like being treated like a suspected thief.”

When I investigated the issue of bag searching about six months ago, I was told by stores that it was done mainly in an attempt to thwart corrupt cashiers from failing to scan certain products put through the tills by friends or family members.

The chain store head offices will no doubt argue that the practice is introduced at stores in which such stock losses have become a problem.

Bag searches used to happen mainly at warehouse-type stores, builders’ supply stores and electronic goods retailers, but I’m getting regular reports of it being introduced in supermarkets and major clothing stores, in certain areas.

And those who are complaining to me about it, feel the same as the designer handbag owner.

They object to being stopped by a security guard, made to produce their receipt and then wait while he or she rummages through their bags in order to check that all their purchases are all recorded on the receipt.

As I’ve reported before, Joburg 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 of 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. On the other hand, advocate Neville Melville, the Ombudsman for Consumer Goods and Services, said that a store was private property and the owner could, therefore, make bag checking a condition of entry.

But he agreed with Sun in that customers had to be “expressly informed” of this at the store entrance.

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

Sun said no store he had 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.”

It’s a fascinating issue.

Numerous people, myself included, tolerate the intrusion with resignation. But if you object and there’s no notice at the store entrance, you would be committing no crime if you refused to have your newly acquired possessions searched at a store exit.

Clearly, stores which employ this practice are 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.

The Star