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How shoplifters justify theft at supermarket self-service checkouts

A green light for dishonest behaviour? via

The number of self-check out terminals around the world is predicted to reach 325,000 by 2019 and some stores have even become fully self service. But for some supermarket customers, the removal of store clerks has been a green light for dishonest behaviour.

Based on research in this area, I developed an acronym to describe people who steal or give themselves a hefty discount at self-service checkouts: “SWIPERS” – or seemingly well-intentioned patrons engaging in routine shoplifting. And they are costing the retail industry billions of pounds a year.

Customers are now relatively autonomous in the picking, payment and packing of goods they wish to purchase, but trusting them to process an honest and correct transaction is not without problems. The Home Office’s 2014 Commercial Victimisation Survey found that supermarkets with self-service checkouts are significantly more likely to experience shoplifting (86%) than those without (52%).

The carrot trick

A few years ago, I was working with retailers in Australia to reduce shoplifting, when one of the major supermarkets discovered that it had sold more carrots than it had ever had in stock. Puzzled by this development they looked into their inventories and found that in some cases individual customers were apparently purchasing 18kg of carrots in one go. Unfortunately this wasn’t a sudden switch to healthy eating or a desire to increase vitamin C intake, it was an early sign of a new type of shoplifter. Otherwise honest shoppers were using the self-service checkout to transact more expensive items – typically avocados – and put them through as carrots. The behaviour became a national epidemic, so much so, that the police launched a crackdown specifically on avo’ theft at the self-service checkout.

In the UK, surveys have revealed similar problems – one in five shoppers admit to regularly stealing when using the self-checkout, approximately £15 per month, amounting to a staggering £1.6 billion worth of items every year. In fact, the extent to which this has become normalised has led some to suggest that the machines themselves are crimonogenic, turning otherwise honest customers into “a nation of shoplifters”.

Don’t put unexpected items in the bagging area. cormac70/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Self-service machines can be manipulated in many different ways. Other techniques include obscuring the barcode while mimicking the scanning motion, stacking items together so that only the bottom one is scanned, scanning items but not paying, or only partially paying, or entering the wrong quantity of loose items.

A typology of ‘swipers’

In my research analysing surveys on this issue and what people admit to, I’ve divided “swipers” into four main groups.

1. Accidental

Many “swipers” claim that they originally stole by accident, but when they realised how easy it was, it became a regular habit. In a 2014 VoucherCodesPro survey, 57% of those admitting to theft when using self-scan machines claimed that they first stole goods by accident or because they couldn’t get an item to scan. Those who are not apprehended or punished are likely to revise down their risk assessment and continue to commit offences, so creating a symbiotic spiral of escalating criminality.

2. Switching

Peanuts are cheaper than pine nuts, cooking tomatoes are cheaper than vine tomatoes, and of course, carrots are cheaper by weight than most other fruit and vegetables. Recognising this, many customers switch labels or deliberately input a different item on loose products. Perpetrators of this kind of “discount theft” do not necessarily view their actions as theft. Rather this behaviour is perceived as “cheating” the system rather than stealing – or as I argue, a way of “gamifying” an otherwise mundane routine. Since switchers do pay something for the goods, they often don’t consider it to be “real” theft.

3. Compensating

Self-service usually results in fewer staff and more profits for the retailer, which for some “swipers” provides justification for their theft. Some customers believe that they should be “compensated” for having to process their shopping themselves when previously someone would have been paid to do it for them – it costs an estimated US$1 to check out a US$100 spend. So overall, losses through customer theft might be cheaper than the cost of paying cashiers.

There are also ideological motivations: a resentment towards the growing automation of jobs, and the domination of large supermarkets over small community businesses. It’s difficult to ascertain whether this group genuinely consider shoplifting to be a political act, or whether this enables them to continue to perceive themselves as honest and moral individuals.

4. Irritated or frustrated

“Unexpected item in the bagging area” announces the machine accusingly as a red flashing light comes on. Perhaps unsurprisingly, self-service checkout is now considered one of the most irritating features of British modern life. Those who steal through frustration believe it’s justifiable in response to their experience at the store, and draw upon a range of excuses, or what are known in criminological parlance as “techniques of neutralisation”. Justifications often include: “the item wouldn’t scan”, “the barcode was damaged” and “I couldn’t find the correct fruit or vegetable”. It’s difficult to know if the customer originally intended to pay for the item or whether self-service check-out invited this type of post hoc excuse making, also found among many burglars.

Pleasure-seeking shoplifting

Not all crime is rational or motivated by money. Some retail crimes are committed for more visceral reasons, such as armed robbers who get a kick out of the adrenalin, power and control, even when the rewards are minimal. Recognising that transgression can be enjoyable provides some understanding as to why shoplifting is not solely the preserve of economically and socially disadvantaged groups stealing for subsistence.

In 2016, the Amazon Go concept store was unveiled with its “Just Walk Out” approach to shopping, using the same type of artificial intelligence technology used in self-driving cars to eliminate the need for checkouts. As a truly fluid and autonomous shopping experience looks set to be the next step in retail, augmented with biometrics such as facial recognition and artificial intelligence, only time will tell what new techniques the “swipers” will develop.

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