Old tricks at the self-checkout machine — like trying to pass off a bottle of vintage Bordeaux as a banana— are becoming harder to get away with.
Ever since retailers hit on the idea that they could make customers, not employees, scan and bag their own products, and installed rows of monstrous self-checkout machines at the front of their stores, shoppers have tested the limits of what they could get away with stealing.
The thievery came in many forms. Ribeye steaks were rung up as onions. Aged gouda was slipped into the bag without being scanned. The barcode for a cheap bottle of wine was slapped on an expensive one. Some customers scanned everything perfectly, then casually walked away without paying.
The era of rampant self-checkout theft may be coming to an end. Retailers are fighting back, equipping their clunky machines with slick new tech, or reasonable facsimiles, capable of catching shoppers in a lie — and calling them out on it.
Self-checkout machines have become a common sight at stores, with a record 200,000 machines shipped worldwide last year, up from 80,000 in 2019, according to consulting firm RBR. Some retailers, including Walmart, Kroger and Dollar General, are experimenting with self-checkout-only stores. Retailers that have stuck with traditional cashiers, like clothing and home improvement stores, are starting to install the machines. Even Albertson’s, which had previously pulled the machines from its stores, has been busy installing them again.
Yet they’re plagued by theft. Consider this: Retailers that process half their transactions through self-checkout can expect losses on shrink — the industry term for nonproductive inventory — to be 75% higher than traditional checkout at grocery stores, according to a University of Leicester study.
Do some people make innocent mistakes at self-checkout? Sure. It’s easy enough to punch in the wrong code or drop something in your bag thinking that it’s been scanned. Yet plenty of purposeful thieves play innocent when they get caught, claiming they hadn’t meant to steal. Because the risk has been so low, a whole generation of customers has been tempted to give shoplifting a shot.
“Normal shoppers can become very emboldened by the cloak of excuse-making that surrounds self-checkout,” said Adrian Beck, a criminology professor at the University of Leicester.
To discourage bad behavior, retailers have come up with a few tricks themselves. Many of the machines have large video screens that are intentionally installed in a customer’s face so that they have the feeling that they’re being watched. Other retailers go farther still, displaying the shopper’s face in the actual computer screen where it’s impossible to ignore. It’s meant to be more of a psychological deterrent than anything. In reality, the video isn’t recorded and may not be actively monitored by an employee.
Self-checkout machines are also increasingly capable of outsmarting the thief. Many can now identify certain products, using a combination of cameras and artificial intelligence. For instance, if a shopper puts down a steak, but tries to ring it up as an onion, the machine knows this and will call their bluff. Or if a shopper punches in a green vegetable, the system will recognize it as such, and only give the shopper the option to ring it up as asparagus, green beans or broccoli.
“Normal shoppers can become very emboldened by the cloak of excuse-making that surrounds self-checkout.”
Retailers like Kroger have also been testing artificial intelligence technology that can identify when an item has been placed in the bagging area without being properly scanned — with an accuracy rate that results in 80% fewer customer alerts than the antediluvian-era scale that’s widely used on many self-checkout machines.
Screaming sirens and rotating red and blue lights to alert the store about a shoplifter have so far been frowned upon. The first course of action, generally, is to nudge the customer, giving them a prompt on the screen that says what’s been detected and asking them to please try again. “The good thing about highly opportunistic offenders is you can push them back to honesty quite easily, because they really don’t want to get caught,” said Beck.
Retailers often want to give the shopper the benefit of the doubt. After all, mistakenly accusing someone may mean they never return to your store again. One U.S. retailer has a 50% threshold, meaning that it declares a customer is a good scanner if they ring up half their items correctly.
“Making sure you don’t alienate that customer is really important. Because they might have just made a mistake. What we don’t want to do is treat them like a thief and ultimately give them a bad experience so that they don’t come back to that store,” said Matt Redwood, director of advanced self-service solutions at Diebold Nixdorf, whose self-checkout machines are used by retailers like Ikea and Lidl.
Don’t be surprised if an employee gets involved. Retailers are increasingly setting up alerts for workers who are monitoring the self-checkout area, letting them know of any potential foul play and advising them how to act. In one situation, the employee may be told to visually monitor the situation, but not yet engage. Maybe they’re instructed to walk over to the suspected customer and simply ask how they can be of help. Or they might be shown a five-second video replay of a customer caught stealing, and be directed to confront the customer about it.
Retailers are also beginning to put their best employees in the self-checkout area, armed with special training, said Beck. “It wasn’t that long ago, when you talked to retailers about who they were putting to work in the self-checkout area, it was basically the walking wounded,” he said.
The stakes has made them rethink that. “You could be responsible for ten machines that all have alerts at the same time,” Beck said. “Who do you prioritize? The mom with the screaming child? The gang of kids? How do you keep the plates spinning? You need people who are real problem-solvers who can deal with stress.”