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Shopping carts that lock and security gates? Shoppers sound off on retailers’ anti-theft tactics

Mark Barrey says a recent shopping trip to his neighbourhood Zehrs in Waterloo, Ont., was humiliating. 

He said just before leaving Zehrs, a grocery chain owned by Loblaw, a “ridiculously loud” alarm went off and the wheels on his shopping cart locked.

“I’m standing there, my neighbours walking past me, looking at me like I’ve done something wrong,” said Barrey. “It was incredibly embarrassing.”

He says a store security employee checked his customer receipt, which proved he hadn’t stolen anything. Even though he was now in the clear, Barrey said he had to wait with the immobile cart — with the alarm still blaring — until the employee found the remote device used to deactivate its wheel lock.

“There was no explanation … no apology,” said Barrey. “If you’re going to treat me like I am a criminal, I am not going to patronize your establishments.”

Shopping cart wheels.
CBC News interviewed several customers who said, when exiting a Loblaw-owned store recently, the wheels on their shopping cart locked and they had to show their receipts. (Keith Burgess/CBC)

According to the Retail Council of Canada, retail theft is on the rise, fuelled in part by organized crime and inflation. Although Canada’s inflation rate declined last month, food, and mortgage costs remain stubbornly high. 

Several retailers, such as Loblaw and Walmart, have stepped up security. However, some tactics have sparked customer backlash, such as receipt checks and Loblaw locking wheels on customers’ carts.

“It pissed me off,” said Yvette Ogle of Kitchener, Ont. She says, last month, her cart’s wheels suddenly locked when leaving her local Zehrs, and she had to show her receipt to get them unlocked. 

“I did absolutely nothing wrong that day and it was just, I feel, very heavy-handed.”

Rebecca Lawrence said, two weeks ago, she endured the same experience at a Loblaw-owned Superstore in Dartmouth, N.S. 

“Why am I being singled out?'” she said. “It doesn’t feel great given the fact that we’re in a food insecurity crisis and prices are going up and up.”

Loblaw responds

Loblaw told CBC News that organized retail crime is growing, with thieves stealing large amounts of pricey items such as cosmetics and baby formula, which they resell online. 

“We’ve had to make some changes in how our stores operate to stop this crime … while at the same time maintaining a welcoming and convenient customer experience,” said spokesperson Catherine Thomas in an email. 

WATCH | Loblaw shoppers frustrated by receipt checks: 

shopping carts that lock and security gates shoppers sound off on retailers anti theft tactics 1

Loblaw customers angry about receipt checks

1 month ago

Duration 1:54

Loblaw customers are disgusted by signs posted in stores that say customers must be prepared to show their receipts to validate their purchases. Some say it adds insult to injury with inflated prices and call the search of bags an invasion of privacy.

She did not answer questions about the company’s cart wheel locking system, or explain why certain shoppers are targeted. 

However, Thomas did say that Loblaw is “working to find the right balance” with its security measures and welcomes customer input.

Barrey says he complained to Loblaw about his experience on social media, but never heard back. 

Gates in stores

Shoppers are also complaining about metal security gates recently installed in some stores with designated entry and exit points.

Tristan Capacchione of Montreal says his local Loblaw-owned Provigo has put up barriers throughout the grocery store, including gates at self-checkout that employees open as shoppers exit. 

“It’s just frustrating. It feels like you’re being restricted in your movement,” said Capacchione. “They’re choosing to combat theft in a way that disadvantages the regular customer.”

Loblaw did not answer questions about gates except to say they’re a theft deterrent.

A security gate set up at a Provigo store in Montreal.
Many Loblaw stores have installed security gates with designated entry and exit points. (Submitted by Tristan Capacchione)

Walmart Canada has installed gates in a majority of its stores, according to the company. 

Diane Ray of Victoria said she recently encountered a closed exit gate at a Walmart in Nanaimo, B.C. 

Ray said she paid for her items at self-checkout, and then bought one final item at the store’s pharmacy. She says when she tried to leave, an employee at the gate stood in her way. 

“I was on the scooter. I couldn’t just get up and walk past her,” said Ray, who uses a mobility scooter. “And the gate was still closed, so it meant I wasn’t going anywhere.”

Diane Ray sits on her mobility scooter.
Diane Ray of Victoria says she was angry after she was blocked from exiting Walmart on her scooter until she showed her receipts and answered questions about where she bought her items in the store. (Submitted by Stephen Ray)

Ray said the employee demanded to see her receipts and peppered her with questions about her purchases. 

“I hadn’t done anything wrong,” said Ray. “I felt humiliated, angry — I was angry and I felt like I was being treated unfairly, unjustly,”

She said the employee eventually returned her receipts and let her leave. Ray’s husband, Stephen, said he complained at the store’s customer service desk, but nothing ever came of it. 

Walmart responds

Walmart spokesperson Sarah Kennedy told CBC News in an email that the company is “committed to providing a safe and inclusive environment,” and is looking into Ray’s case. 

Kennedy added that Walmart’s gates have been installed “over time” to “help manage the directional flow of customers into and out of our stores.” 

Lawyer and consumer rights advocate Daniel Tsai says retailers can’t prevent shoppers from leaving a store — unless they have evidence of wrongdoing. 

“If you’re blocked from leaving and you haven’t done anything wrong, that indicates that they’ve engaged in potential false imprisonment, and that opens them up to a lawsuit,” said Tsai, who is based in Toronto. 

He added that locking the wheels of a shopping cart could be deemed false imprisonment if a shopper felt trapped when their cart stopped moving.

“The key consideration here is the psychology of the individual,” he said. “So if the cart locks up, that [could give] them the impression, probably quite reasonably so, that they can’t leave.”

The Retail Council of Canada (RCC) says theft-prevention measures benefit shoppers, because when retailers lose money due to crime, they raise prices. 

‘”Theft costs Canadian retailers billions of dollars a year, costs that are passed on to you and I as consumers when we go shopping,” said RCC spokesperson Michelle Wasylyshen in an email. 

But Tsai said if a retailer’s anti-theft tactics anger customers, they risk losing business. 

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