It's not exactly to stop shoplifting.
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When you enter a warehouse store like Sam's Club or Costco, you have to show your membership card. You have to show it again when you're at the register checking out. So then why would there be any need to show your receipt on the way out the door? It's not because these members-only clubs doubt you're really a member — and it's also not because they're making sure you're not stealing. They're doing it, according to company spokespeople and employees with insider information, to make sure you're not losing money.

Yes, really. On their site, Costco writes, "We do this to double-check that the items purchased have been correctly processed by our cashiers. It's our most effective method of maintaining accuracy in inventory control, and it's also a good way to ensure that our members have been charged properly for their purchases."

Or to put it another way, they want to make sure you're not getting overcharged (you take the financial hit) on your shopping trip, and they also want to make sure you're not getting undercharged (they take the hit).

Wait, undercharged? Is that a politically correct way to say they want to make sure you're not stealing something? Yes and no.

Both Costco and Sam's Club have said they're not trying to catch shoplifters. They have loss-prevention people who roam the store to monitor for that. But what the receipt check does is help them make sure the check-out process was as accurate as possible. With the volume of business these stores do in a day, and the rate at which cashiers work, it's no surprise they might skip an item, or accidentally scan something more than once. The receipt check and quick item count is the best way to catch possible errors.

A former Costco employee wrote in a now-archived Reddit forum that, "If a receipt shows under 20 items, we count. It's a very quick count to 20. Most people who work at the exit are actually counting your cart before you even hand the receipt over. So by the time the receipt is in your hands...they already know there's 15 items in your buggy. They look at the receipt for a split second, see the 15 at the bottom, mark it and hand it back. Easy."

The receipt checks also serve as a last reminder before you leave the store. The person at the door will check for gift cards on the receipt and confirm you picked them up. They might also give you a tip about an upcoming sale if they see something in your cart they know will be marked down soon. For most people, it's a brief pause on the way out the door, and no one is worse for it.

But what happens if the numbers and the receipt don't match? They'll make it right. That same former Costco employee wrote on Reddit, "Trust me, we're not loss prevention, we have loss prevention in the store and that's not us. We're literally just trying to make sure our cashiers do the job right, and when we DO catch it, all the information gets stored. Who did it, what time, etc... and those cashiers get spoken to. This is not to benefit anyone but the member to improve the experience overall."

It would probably be uncomfortable to have an employee point out that you have two packages of toilet paper, and your receipt says you only paid for one, but it's an honest mistake. It's certainly not the fault of the "exit greeter," who is ultimately there to help you.

The Costco employee added, "[One hundred] percent of the time they'd LOVE it if they didn't need to give you bad news. Nobody enjoys telling a member they can't leave until they pay for something. It's awkward, it sucks and it usually results in members getting pissed off."

Certainly the stores are putting a rosy spin on making sure they're not losing money, but they're also helping you avoid loss, too.

Costco Wholesale Warehouse
Credit: Art SEITZ / Contributor

Are You Allowed to Say No?

You can say no to a cart check, but you may find yourself in more of a mess than it's worth. The terms and conditions of membership for both Sam's Club and Costco spell out that they can check your receipt when you leave. (Costco's language is a bit more precise; they write, "...all receipts and merchandise will be inspected as you leave the warehouse.")

If you say no, you may give the store probable cause to suspect you're up to no good. They can call law enforcement, who can inspect your cart, and you don't have the ability to say no to that. In an Internet infamous story, one Oregon man who refused to show his receipt on his way out the door at Costco got into a tiff. He ended up with a broken leg, he sued the warehouse store for more than $600,000, and he lost.

Even if you manage to keep all your bones in one piece, you could lose your membership privileges. So if a cart check bothers you that much, you may not need a membership at one of these club stores anyway.

What Else Does the Receipt Say?

In addition to the number of items you purchased, a trained exit greeter can quickly read a lot of information from your receipt. (Each company and store are different, so these are examples of things that might be printed.) For example, most stores change their receipts daily in some small manner so that employees will know the receipt you hand them is from that day.

High-end items, like jewelry or electronics, are sectioned off on the receipt, too. Immediately the exit greeter will know if they need their supervisor to sign off on those purchases.

Lastly, any special purchases, like gift cards, will be marked so the employee can just quickly verify with you that you did get everything you want before you leave the store. It would be quite annoying to get all the way home only to find out you forgot to swing by the customer service desk for something.

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