Scan your receipt to exit? Loblaw facing backlash as it tests receipt scanners at self-checkout

Grocery giant says organized crime is driving retail theft

A shopper discovered this receipt scanner at an Superstore location in Oakville, Ont., and posted the photo on online. It is one of four Loblaw-owned stores testing the scanners as a way to prevent theft. (twinstar/RedFlagDeals)

In an attempt to combat theft at its stores, Loblaw is testing receipt scanners at four of its locations, the grocery giant told CBC News.

Customers who go through self-checkout must use the device to scan their receipt's barcode — confirming that they paid something — which opens a metal gate, letting them leave.

Loblaw didn't provide any further details, but CBC discovered the devices in a Loblaw-owned Zehrs and two Superstore supermarkets in southern Ontario.

Several shoppers were unhappy about them.

"It's very intrusive. It makes you feel like a thief," said Paul Zemaitis, who recently discovered a scanner at his local Zehrs in Woodstock, Ont., some 70 kilometres west of Hamilton.

He said when leaving the self-checkout area, he didn't notice the scanner, so he pushed open the exit gate, prompting a loud alarm to go off.

"I said, 'What the hell's going on? I paid already.'"

Zemaitis said a store employee helped him scan his receipt so he could leave without setting off the alarm again.

"It's just not a customer-friendly tactic," he said.

Jonathan Hayes says he also had a bad experience with the receipt scanner at the same store.

"It just introduced so much extra chaos," he said.

"You had some people, especially a lot of elderly folks, were completely unaware this was a new thing, and were just pushing their carts through the closed gate," said Hayes. "It would trigger alarms. There were alarms going off maybe every one to two minutes."

'Organized retail crime'

Many major retailers in Canada and the U.S. have beefed up security to combat theft even as some add more self-checkout machines to stores.

Over the past year, the Retail Council of Canada has repeatedly said that shoplifting is on the rise, driven in part by inflation.

Some studies also suggest self-checkout theft is a growing problem because customers scan their own goods, sometimes far from the watchful eye of staff.

But in an email to CBC News, Loblaw suggested organized crime is largely driving retail theft.

"Organized retail crime across the entire industry is a serious issue, and has only gotten worse," said spokesperson Catherine Thomas. She did not provide data to back up the claim.

She said Loblaw is exploring ways to curb the theft, including trying out receipt scanners in four stores.

"We are working hard to balance a need for enhanced security while at the same time preserving a welcoming and convenient customer experience," said Thomas.

Loblaw also faced customer backlash last year when it introduced receipt checks by staff in several stores.

Toronto-based consumer advocate Daniel Tsai says receipt scanners will inevitably generate the same response.

"Customers already feel imprisoned enough by high prices," he said. "The fact that you make regular shoppers feel like criminals, that takes it a step too far."

Other major grocers — Sainsbury's in the U.K. and Safeway in the U.S. — have put receipt scanners in stores to combat theft. Both have also faced customer criticism.

Legal issues?

Last week, Marshall Irwin discovered a not-yet-active receipt scanner when exiting his local Superstore in Georgetown, about 50 kilometres west of Toronto. He said a store manager told him it would soon be operational.

Marshall said he hopes Loblaw's test-run doesn't pan out, claiming the retailer doesn't have the right to prevent shoppers from leaving the store.

"I pay for my goods, I have a receipt," he said. "You can't be detained against your will for no reason."

Marshall Irwin discovered an idle receipt scanner at his local Superstore in Georgeton, Ont. He says he was told it would be in operation soon. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)
Marshall Irwin discovered an idle receipt scanner at his local Superstore in Georgeton, Ont. He says he was told it would be in operation soon. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)

Tsai, who is also a business lawyer, says retailers can't enforce receipt checks unless they witnessed a shopper stealing, or their customers have signed up for a store membership, such as at Costco, where they agreed to the checks.

He also said retailers can't prevent shoppers from leaving the store unless they have evidence of wrongdoing.

"If they're stopping you and you feel like you don't have an ability to leave, and there is no basis for them to detain you, that qualifies as false imprisonment," he said.

CBC News asked Loblaw what happens to shoppers who refuse to scan their receipt. The retailer did not respond.

Marshall suggests that if Loblaw wants to reduce self-checkout theft, it should open more cashier lanes.

"Bring back the cashiers. They're your first line of loss prevention," he said.