Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Things I Don't Understand: The Highlighter Person at Costco

Shopping at Costco is like competing in American Gladiators. First, you have to out-maneuver other SUVs for a spot in the always-crammed parking lot. Next, you have to navigate your shopping cart through aisles filled with a sea of flatbeds and curious shoppers hell-bent on tasting every free item to pop out of a toaster oven, irrespective of the nutritional content or number of processed foods involved. Getting produce means you have to brave the arctic cold of the refrigerated room. And throughout, one lifts 50 lb. plastic jars of mayonnaise and plastic-wrapped packs of 128 rolls of toilet paper into one's cart, usually without stretching beforehand or being equipped with a weight belt for support.

It's a grueling physical process that tests the muscles every step of the way. It's not a shopping experience for the timid or meek. It's the WWE of grocery shopping.

So why, pray tell, is there a person stationed at the exit gate, apparently tasked with auditing your receipt against the contents of your shopping basket? Every visit, said person lifts a fluorescent highlighter and marks one's receipt. But why? What good is gained here? Let's look at the logical inconsistencies embodied by this role:

  • 1. Consumers have already passed through checkstands and paid for their goods. There is virtually no way out of the building with a cart without passing through a checkstand properly, so it's not like the highlighter person prevents rampant theft of filled carts.
  • 2. There is no realistic way to audit the items of a full and oftentimes overflowing shopping cart against a list of ~50 items documented on a receipt. Children's socks, toothpaste, a bottle of wine? How is someone going to spot those items hiding behind a box of 224 diapers, or a pack of 24 Gatorade drinks, or a 42" Vizio flat screen television?
  • 3. Having this unnecessary ritual exist in the first place only serves to slow outbound traffic from Costco, which usually turns into a ten-minute death march just to leave the building. One can literally watch his or her milk spoil before his/her eyes, while waiting in line to exit.

So what exactly does Mr. and Mrs. Highlighter do for Costco? If they're not preventing shrinkage and theft, why bother with the unnecessary ritual of someone going through the motions? Wouldn't this person be better spent "greeting" customers (a la Wal-Mart), rather than impeding their prompt departure from the store?

Does the highlighted mark legitimize the receipt itself, anymore so than the "Costco" logo printed at the top? And if I didn't stop my cart to get the highlighted mark, would I be pecked to death by a barrage of highlighted pens?

I'm sure one of you out there has the answer, why is the highlighter person at Costco in the first place. Please, do tell.

Earlier: Things I Don't Understand: Tahiti Village

21 comments:

Eric Karros said...

I think it may prevent more theft than one might think. While in reality the highlighter can't perform a full matching of receipted items vs carted items, and I'm sure few have been caught via this process, I suspect the knowledge that there's someone theoretically doing this deters some potential shoplifters from even trying.

Steve Sax said...

EK, just to continue the thread: so why doesn't any other major retailer have someone in a similar highlighty function?

Eric Karros said...

Shortage of qualified talent in the market.

Eric Karros said...

Seriously though, the K-mart near my house has such a person.

QuadSevens said...

These highlighter people usually aren't in great physical condition. Most are, let's say, over the hill. So I'm sure if you just walk briskly past them, or run since you've already given your muscles a good workout just be shopping, they won't be able to do anything about it.

Eric Karros said...

Quad, I've thought about doing that more than once, but when it came down to it I've never had the balls to actually act.

Corey said...

Retail receipt and bag checking has gained traction in recent years, and many big-box stores now employ greeters or door guards to ask for proof of purchase -- sometimes only when the security alarm is activated, sometimes only for unbagged items, sometimes for random audits and, in the case of warehouse clubs like Costco and Sam's Club, every customer's receipt is checked.

Some customers resent being treated like they're suspected of theft and have begun declining receipt checks, which are only legal if they are voluntary. Stores may ASK to see your receipt, but the moment you paid for your merchandise, it became your personal property, and they have no more right to inspect it than they do the contents of your pockets or purse.

If an overzealous door guard prevents you from leaving until you show your receipt, shouting frothy nonsense about store policy this and store policy that, he or she is guilty of ulawful detainment, false arrest and, in some states, kidnapping. State shoplifting laws allow merchants to detain a shopper only when they have proof and can meet a specific legal burden ("probable cause" or "reasonable suspicion" depending on your state) that a theft has occurred.

This applies to general merchandise stores like Walmart and warehouse clubs like Costco; however, Costco shoppers signed a membership contract agreeing to participate in the receipt checks. While that doesn't give employees the right to detain you, it does give them the right to cancel your contract and prevent you from coming back.

QuadSevens said...

Having your costco membership cancelled wouldn't be good. But why not try this at Fry's Electronics instead? They have highlighter people too. Although, the last few times I've been there a good looking young woman is checking receipts. So I don't mind stopping.

Dusto Magnifico said...

Whatever the reason, I don't care as long as prices stay low and I can get what I need...

goldenboat said...

Nothing quite like getting frisked at the door to complete an enchanted shopping experience.

Jane said...

As long as I have a 42" Vizio flatscreen in my shopping cart I'm not going to complain about anything! Though, when it causes a bottle neck it can get really annoying.

Orel said...

Home Depot does this too. I agree with EK that the illusion of security may actually create some.

Alex Cora said...

What really happened is that a package of their 100 highlighters broke open in the back and instead of throwing them away, the use them at the door.

Rob said...

Fry's was the first to implement this, AFAIK.

OZ said...

The reason for the marking of your receipt is to guard against theft.
For example you buy goods, you go to your car and empty your cart, go back to the store and fill up with all the same stuff and walk out again. Yes, people do this!

Stephanie said...

One reason for the receipt check is to double check the "checkers" accuracy. Recently the checker rang up the wrong item and she said "if I don't fix it I'll get yelled at when they check your receipt."

exphysgrl said...

i was once "caught" with an extra item in my basket!! it went down the conveyor belt, somehow did not get scanned and was put back in my cart. costco almost had to eat the cost of a $4 jar of capers!! good thing the highlighter guy caught it.

Daddy Geek Boy said...

As much as I love Costco, it truly brings out the worst in humanity, as anyone who's ever been caught in a "free sample" stampede can tell you.

As for the checkers, I'm not sure they've ever really even looked in my cart before giving me that bright yellow check.

Steve Sax said...

I know it's almost a year later, but I wanted to memorialize this link which says legally, Costco can't cross-reference against the goods in the basket...

Eric Karros said...

It now is over a year later, but I have a story to share. I was recently in Kmart. After I paid for my items and left the checkout area, I walked towards the exit. It was there I saw the highlighter guy eyeing my approach. I vaguely remembered Corey's comment above, and when the guy waved me over and raised his pen, in a moment of courage and perhaps recklessness, I said "no thank you" and walked out the exit. I might have even added the word "sir" in an attempt to keep the exchange civil. I'm not sure.

I then left the building and speed-walked nervously to my car, afraid yet strongly tempted to look back. In the end I did not. But to my knowledge my actions that day have caused me no ill consequence. And man, what a rush.

Steve Sax said...

So EK, what did your five-finger discount at Kmart yield?