Stealing at the checkout: Is theft OK during a cost of living crisis?

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The cost-of-living crisis has crunched your budget and the weekly grocery shop now carries stresses like never before. So, as you go through the self-checkout, is it justifiable to ‘accidentally’ put through some items as cheaper products, or avoid scanning them at all?

It’s a provocative question at a time when retailers the world over are citing a post-COVID bounce back in shoplifting as a major operational challenge.

The self-checkout has a long history, but some shoppers find it contentious against the backdrop of the cost of living crisis. Credit: Bloomberg

Recent research from Monash Business School’s Australian Consumer and Retail Studies (ACRS) group offers a glimpse into how Australian shoppers are feeling about “deviant” behaviours at the shops, from sampling the products in the fruit aisle and not paying, to simply taking items.

The results of the study of 1001 consumers contained surprises: a significant chunk of them, more than a quarter, ranked several forms of retail theft at least a little understandable.

“While most of the population said theft behaviours were ‘not at all justifiable’, there was a percentage of the population who said that these behaviours were either ‘a little’, ‘somewhat’, ‘very’ or ‘completely’ justifiable,” research and strategy director at ACRS, Stephanie Atto, said.

The survey asked participants to rank their attitudes towards the behaviours, rather than whether they actually engaged in them.

The self-checkout is one area where some shoppers appeared to be OK with the idea of bending the rules. Thirty-seven per cent of shoppers said scanning an item as cheaper when using self-checkouts was at least ‘a little’ justifiable, with 15 per cent agreeing it was either ‘very’ or ‘completely’ justified.

Thirty-two per cent saw not scanning some items at the self-serve as at least a little bit ok.

The figures also show up a difference between the attitudes of older and younger consumers – 57 per cent of shoppers aged 18 to 34 in the research saw at least some justification in not scanning some items, while only 12 per cent of consumers aged over 55 found this was OK.

Self-serve at the shops is hardly new – the first DIY register was introduced in the United States in 1986, and Coles and Woolworths started to roll out the technology broadly in the mid-2000s.

But the self-checkout has become a point of tension between consumers and retailers right across the world over the past year or so, as some businesses expand the use of the technology more widely, while others increase the level of surveillance and security present while you scan.

In Australia, Coles and Woolworths have both outlined a range of investments to prevent theft this year, including the use of artificial intelligence and cameras at self-serve bays, moves which have sparked concerns from privacy experts and the community about the protection and use of biometric data being collected.

Complaints about the self-serve experience hit the social media feeds of major retailers daily, from shoppers who are cranky about everything from the surveillance they feel they are under to the lack of customer service or situations where the technology doesn’t work as intended.

Coles, Woolworths and Bunnings and Kmart operator Wesfarmers are all keen to highlight that they are focused on providing consumers with a choice between staffed and self-serve checkouts, and are continuing to work to find this balance.

Have you ever stolen some delicious treats from the bakery at the supermarket?Credit: Dallas Kilponen

“Hundreds of thousands of transactions are made at our self-serve checkouts every week. We know customers like the convenience of them, but also understand other customers enjoy checking out through our manned lanes,” a Woolworths spokesperson said this week.

Wesfarmers chief executive Rob Scott said when discussing the group’s annual results in August that shoppers have increasingly come to expect a self-serve option.

“We try to offer both [types of checkout], but we have seen over time very strong demand for assisted checkout,” he told this masthead.

Coles and Woolworths did not directly answer questions this week on whether there are signs that some consumers feel theft through self-serve is justified, though they did highlight that only a very small percentage of their customers engage in any behaviours of concern.

“The majority of our customers do the right thing and treat our team with respect, and we thank them for doing so,” a Woolworths spokesperson said.

Coles said, “while most of our customers do the right thing, unfortunately a small number don’t”.

Regardless of which checkout they use, it’s clear from Monash’s research that the consumers surveyed are under significant financial pressure. Fifty per cent of them said they were in a worse financial position than a year ago, with the majority of consumers spending more on food, housing and insurance costs.

That reality could well be playing a role in attitudes towards retail crime.

“We specifically asked about deviant behaviours within the cost of living context and how justifiable these theft behaviours are. In this context, financial difficulty can be attributed to why people might find those behaviours justifiable,” Atto said.

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