A Coles customer forced to show his hernia to supermarket staff has vowed to never return after being asked a humiliating question at the self-service checkout.
Tony Jones, 39, who has an “extremely obvious” hernia about the size of a rockmelon on his right side, was about to pay for his groceries at the Kallangur Coles north of Brisbane on Saturday morning when he was confronted by the employee.
“And what about what’s under your shirt?” Mr Jones said the staff member loudly asked him, causing the other customers to look around.
Mr Jones has a stoma as a result of having his entire bowel removed from bowel cancer a few years ago, and later developed a very large hernia at the site which “sticks out about 15 centimetres from my stomach”.
“My initial reaction was flat-out shock, because she didn’t say it in a way of asking me, she flat-out accused me,” he told news.com.au.
“She seemed quite proud. Everybody in the self-checkout bay heard what she accused me of, and she walked over to me. I was just stunned, I guess I kind of shut down — I’ve never been accused of being a thief before — so I just lifted my shirt.”
After revealing his hernia with the stoma bag attached to the tip — leaving him feeling “violated” — he said the staff member simply told him, “Yeah, sorry, we’ve had a few of those lately,” apparently referring to shoplifting incidents.
Coles has since apologised to Mr Jones.
“I’ve lived here for 12 or 13 years, I’ve been at that Coles plenty,” he said.
“Obviously I don’t expect retail staff to recognise everybody … I assume they’ve had some thefts lately, I’m not sure whether they’ve been given instructions to pull up more people because they don’t have a gate yet.”
Woolworths and Coles have both rolled out controversial new smart gates at self-service check-outs in recent months a bid to tackle a 20 per cent increase in supermarket theft, which costs retailers $9 billion a year.
The hi-tech gates — part of a range of measures including AI-powered cameras — automatically open and shut to allow paying customers to exit the store, while supposedly blocking and thus deterring thieves.
Last month, a Coles customer in a wheelchair said they had been “crushed” after the gates “slammed shut” on them.
“I just don’t think assuming somebody is a criminal first is right,” Mr Jones said.
“I’ve worked in retail before, I’ve had to check people’s bags, you ask them nicely. But announcing it and being accusatory is not the way to go. I’d just like Coles to not assume you’re a criminal.”
Mr Jones shared his experience on Reddit over the weekend, asking, “Is Coles allowed to ask what’s under my shirt? When it’s just my hernia.”
The post quickly went viral, attracting hundreds of comments.
“Former loss prevention officer here — they cannot detain you in any way unless they have witnessed you select the goods and witnessed you not take advantage of a reasonable opportunity to pay,” one person wrote.
Another woman said, “I have a permanent ileostomy and have had retail workers accuse me of stealing too. It’s annoying because most of the time I wear clothes where the top of it pokes out the top and it’s happened when I’ve worn clothes that completely covered it.”
A third person commented: “Gentle reminder Coles turned a record profit in the midst of the Covid recession, then decided to install hard arse security detectors to catch thieves.”
Mr Jones submitted a complaint via the Coles website — but only received what he felt was a “copy and paste” response.
A Coles spokeswoman told news.com.au on Monday that the supermarket had since reached out to Mr Jones directly.
“Our aim is to deliver helpful and courteous service for our customers every day and ensure they are treated with respect when shopping in our stores,” she said.
“We are disappointed to hear about this customer’s experience on the weekend. We have spoken directly to our customer this morning and apologised for this incident.”
Mr Jones, who stressed he did not think the employee should be fired, said he would likely try to find the sensitive home-brand washing powder he needs at Aldi or The Reject Shop, after some helpful suggestions online.
He suffers from a raft of health issues, including a permanent catheter that he had to have installed due to complications from his bowel cancer surgery, and will likely need “at least” another three surgeries including his hernia repair.
“I’m not dealing with it great, if I’m truthful,” he said.
“I’m seeing doctors weekly at the moment. Things add up, and getting called out on Saturday, it basically shut me down for the entire day, [left me] for lack of a better word feeling like s**t. I had all eyes on me. I’m not a social person so I just wanted to get out of there to be honest. I don’t think I’ll ever be going back to Coles.”
Around 46,000 Australians live with a stoma, which is an opening in the abdomen usually created after an illness requires the removal of a section of bowel or bladder.
“Living with a stoma can seem daunting at first — but you’re not alone,” HealthDirect says. “While it may take time, there are specialist healthcare professionals who can help with the adjustment process.”