ConsumerTalk with Wendy Knowler

Customers share their stories of unintended shoplifting (and how it ended)

Have you ever accidentally walked out of the store without paying for something?

If the answer is yes, then you're not alone.

Consumer journalist Wendy Knowler has had her own close call with unintended shoplifting and so have dozens of CapeTalk listeners.

Callers shared their stories of unintended shoplifting, the criminal prosecution that followed and in some cases, the resolution reached in-store.

I was chained to the back area for most of the day, I was arrested. My case was postponed several times and eventually, it was withdrawn.

Ciska, caller

In South Africa, an average of 170 people get caught shoplifting every day, according to the latest crime stats.

But not all these cases are blatant acts of theft. Knowler explains that shoplifting can happen under various circumstances.

There professional shoplifters, shoplifters driven by addiction, those driven by poverty, thrill seekers, kleptomaniacs and the absent-minded people who shoplift unknowingly.

While the policy is to call the police at most retail outlets, Knowler says that store management should exercise discretion before involving law enforcement and pursuing charges or criminal prosecution.

The problem is there is often zero tolerance in the store - CCTV cameras capture someone not paying for something, or a roving security person spots them, and they’re apprehended at the store exit.

Wendy Knowler, consumer journalist

Absent-minded shoplifting is a thing... Store management should be trained to make a call.

Wendy Knowler, consumer journalist

It becomes intent when you've left the store and [still decide not to pay after realising].

Wendy Knowler, consumer journalist

The managers should have the discretion to actually look at the [case] in it's entirety.

Wendy Knowler, consumer journalist

Last week, a 52-year-old shopper was detained for forgetting to pay for chewing gum she grabbed at the till point.

The woman had paid R665 for her groceries at Shoprite at Tzaneen Crossing, but was still stopped by security and arrested, despite offering to pay and explaining what had happened.

The woman appeared in the Tzaneen Magistrate’s Court on Monday and the charges were dropped.

Meanwhile, a public prosecutor who wishes to remain unnamed says some store security guards have arrest targets to meet, which can influence the decision to apprehend accidental shoplifters.

Knowler has the following advice for would-be shoppers:

  • Don't put products in your handbag while shopping - always use a basket or trolley
  • If using a pram, resist the urge to hang items on it or put anything inside it
  • Don't enter stores with too much other shopping; rather offload regularly to your car
  • Don’t eat or drink products in-store - security guards are on high alert for this
  • Be mindful - cellphones and children cause a distraction which can cause accidental shoplifting
  • If you're apprehended, insist on dealing with the most senior person in the store

Shoprite and the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa (CGCSA) declined an invitation to respond on-air.

Listen to the entire ConsumerTalk discussion on The Pippa Hudson Show:

Every Wednesday, on The Pippa Hudson Show, consumer expert Wendy Knowler provides useful insights and tips on how to make the most of your buying power.

For more stories visit the ConsumerTalk feature page.

Got a consumer case you need help resolving?

Email: consumer@knowler.co.za, put Cape Talk in the subject line, followed by the issue e.g. cellphone contract dispute.


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