This is Patricia Stewart an 85 year old woman. She spent the first five months of the lockdown shielding from Covid 19 as she is a vulnerable person. Last autumn during the period when the first lockdown was lifted she ventured out to shop for the first time. As a M&S customer for over 60 years she went to her favourite branch in Bexleyheath shopping mall. What happened next is hardly believable but raises a lot of civil liberties issues.
Patricia Stewart was nervous about going round a public store for the first time. She went to the customer services desk and exchanged a babywear item for a bra. She then went round the food hall but being worried about Covid starting putting packaged food items into plastic bags. This attracted the attention of a security guard who told her not to do this.
According to details released by M&S following a subject access request by her relatives he ” deemed it as shoplifting “. She was then followed by a male manager and female colleagues. Now feeling thoroughly uncomfortable she approached the till four times and then changed her mind and decided to leave the trolley full of shopping and go out of the store.
M&S Brazilian knickers- a smoking gun?
She was followed into the shopping mall by the manager and a female colleague and while she was sitting on a bench waiting for a taxi they challenged her in public and demanded her name and address She refused to give it to them so they proceeded to search her shopping bag. They found none of the food shopping but did discover a pair of M&S Brazilian knickers without a receipt. They claimed they had been watching her on CCTV and saw her change a label adding that a customer had also complained about her.
They then proceeded to serve her with a ” trespass order” – a device used by many stores to keep out suspect shoplifters without going to court – not only from the Bexleyheath store but from any store in the country and on purchasing anything from M&S on line for the rest of their life.
The ban has been challenged by her two daughters who asked to see the CCTV and for evidence of the other customer’s complaint. When challenged M&S couldn’t provide the CCTV to prove their allegation because according to them ” it wasn’t recording properly”. Nor could they produce the customer who complained.
But M&S stuck to their story and have now ended any correspondence with them -pointing out they are not regulated by anybody and therefore nothing else can be done.
I decided to investigate this and approached M&S Corporate Press for comment. Six weeks after failing to reply to me I escalated my inquiry to Steve Rowe, chief executive of M&S, who has ignored my email. Therefore I can’t put their response.
There are two issues here which are connected. First of all the particular case and the use of trespass orders and secondly how they can be enforced. The retailer is allowed to use them because their store is private property. A search on the internet reveals they could be quite common – for example someone complained in Bristol about being banned by M&S. And nobody knows how they can be enforced – one theory which sounds too fanciful to me – is that M&S are secretly using facial recognition cameras in their stores. The other is that the M&S Sparks card – both offers you treats but is used as a surveillance card to monitor customers. Since M&S would not respond to my questions all this is speculation.
The Sparks card was used by M&S in this case as proof of her not purchasing the knickers – they revealed in an email that they have records of many of her purchases going back two years but insisted they had no personal file on her. But according to her the knickers were purchased by a friend as a gift – so they wouldn’t be on her purchase list.
Failing to get a reply from M&S the relatives and I decided that we could test out the ban. First she decided to order a bra on line without using a Sparks card – and guess what she received a cheery note from the company telling them it was on its way and it was delivered last month. (see above)
She has since then shopped in three other M&S stores without any problem but has not returned to Bexleyheath.
This raises the question whether these ” trespass orders” can really be enforced or just used to intimidate people believing they can be banned. I would certainly have thought they would have to have an elaborate system to enforce them nationwide – that might be challenged by GDPR.
The other matter is a civil liberties issue – from what I have got from the subject access request – M&S would have had a flimsy case if they went to court. So why should they be judge and jury in deciding people’s individual liberties?
According to their memos M&S believe their staff behaved with ” integrity” in banning her. Tufail Ahmed, the manager of the Bexleyheath store, who must be locally responsible for this, has a Linked In page in which he says:
“M&S Manager of the Year 2018/2019. With nearly 20 years of retail experience working for leading retailers in various roles, I know that change is a very normal place in retail. I am now part of the change at M&S, leading and inspiring people to be the very best.
” My long term aim is to be an influential member of a business’ senior leadership team, that is what I am currently working towards.”
I suspect relatives of Patricia Stewart might beg to disagree.
As for Steve Rowe, who has built his entire career with M&S, his silence on the matter is deafening. He looks about the age to have elderly relatives, I wonder if he would like them to be treated like Patricia Stewart.