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Q: Am I allowed to search customers’ handbags before they leave the store?

I’m opening up a retail store soon. One of my biggest fears is how to address the issue of shoplifting. Am I allowed to search customers’ handbags before they leave the store?


You have a very valid concern. Retail stores are plagued by shoplifting, and need a way of managing and monitoring this risk. If you are able to demonstrate that there are reasonable grounds for suspecting a customer of shoplifting, you can protect your interests by confronting the customer with your suspicions and requiring that their belongings be searched. Provided you do this very, very carefully.

When an outlet store insists on searching a customer’s belongings, the store can only do so:

1) based on a justifiable suspicion arrived at through reasonable care, and

2) with respect for the rights and feelings of the customer.

You could also consider implementing various security-related measures, such as:

Proactive measures to protect your goods against being shoplifted in the first place. For example, by placing any high-value items behind the counter, or in locked cabinets. Customers interested in the goods can then ask for assistance from your floor staff.

Monitoring measures to keep an eye on your shop floor. For example, position security cameras around the store, preferably of a sufficiently high quality to allow detailed monitoring. As an additional deterrent you could also position screens around the store where staff and customer alike are able to spot suspicious activity.

Reactive measures, in the form of established procedures for how to address instances of shoplifting. You need to implement a well-thought out and practiced procedure for your staff to follow in the event that they suspect a customer may have shoplifted any items.

While managing the very real risk of shoplifting, you need to remember to balance this with your customers’ rights to be treated with respect. Failure to do so may result in your customer having a claim against you for injuria (injured feelings) or even defamation.