The new rise of the shoplifter – the end of the self-service checkout?

Cover Story, Editorial, Features

Vol. 26, Issue 14, 26 January 2024

With the dwindling reduction of manned checkouts and the increasing rise of self-service checkouts in supermarkets and many other stores today, shoplifting has been on the rise around the world. Added to this the general increase in product prices, lower disposable incomes, and higher unemployment, people see self-service checkouts as a means to reduce their expenditure through petty shoplifting. Most petty shoplifters seem to be youngsters, students, and those in low-income households, so it would seem that shoplifting is often born from necessity and for many it can be worth the risk of being caught. A recent case in Sweden even saw a police officer – in full uniform – labelling his purchase with a cheaper product price and getting caught in a random check.

Go into almost any supermarket or convenience store, in almost any part of the world today, and you will see the inevitable self-service isle with it’s open checkouts for you to scan your own goods and pay. Many airport duty-free stores have also embraced the unmanned checkout in favour of lowering staff costs and reducing queues. Amazon have even introduced a whole store that is smart enough to know what is in your shopping basket, and automatically take the payment from you when you casually walk out of the store – all without you even taking out your wallet. We even see the technology being used in hotels and many public libraries.

But while the technology was meant to free us, many say it has in a way created even more problems than before. The idea was that with self-service checkouts, there would be less need for staff, the process would be faster so less queuing and less chit chat, customers would be sure that they were not overcharged for something, e.g. nothing scanned twice, and everyone would be happier. However, many critics of the system, including the stores themselves, cite many new problems that comes with such a service. Purchasing of alcohol and tobacco products demands a cashier comes to check ID from the customer, as do other seemingly innocuous products such as razor blades, matches, lighters, fuels, and so on. Also, there are customers that are still unfamiliar with the technology, such as the older generation, sometimes they simply are not sure how the machines work. In some cases, discounted items often need the reduction being manually input to the machine by a cashier. Therefore, a member of staff needs to be present at each of the self-service checkout areas ready to assist customers.

The older market style shopping experience is sometimes the best way – self-service picking, with cashier weighing.

Now the biggest complaint of all comes from store owners – that of petty shoplifting. For some, being in charge of what you put in your shopping basket, and then deciding what to actually scan and pay for, is a temptation they cannot resist. For those that feel they want more for their money than what they are paying for, it seems easy to give into the temptation of not scanning an item and simply putting it with the items you have already scanned, and walking out having not paid for something. This also extends to the ‘weigh your own fruit and veg’ sections where shoppers have a choice of perhaps two different versions of the same fruit and very different prices, let’s say normal avocados at €6.00/kilo and organic ones at €12.00/kilo. They might place the more expensive avocados into a bag, but weigh them at the cheaper price, and nothing is noticed at the self-service checkout because the customer is doing the “checking-out”.

A sushi restaurant – the ultimate “self-service pay for what you eat” restaurant, I wonder how many people swap the places for another colour or sometimes hide them altogether?

This has grown into such a problem for many store now, not just in Finland but in many other European countries, the US, and around the world. Some stores are now resorting to more heavily supervised self-service checkout and increased random checks on what customers have paid for vs what is in their shopping bag. In more extreme cases stores only open their self-service checkouts at certain times or have even closed them off altogether. 

It just goes to show, the more trust we place in people and technology, the more that trust can be misplaced.