Self-Checkout Ethics


I am embarrassed to admit that this issue never occurred to me begore a friend sent me an article about it. Or maybe I should be proud.

Voucher Codes Pro is a company that offers coupons to internet shoppers. It surveyed 2,634 people, and almost 20% said they had cheated while using a grocery store self-checkout. Over half of the cheaters said they took advantage of the system because they realized being apprehended was unlikely. A 2015 study of self-checkouts with handheld scanners conducted at the University of Leicester audited a million self-checkout transactions over a year’s time.Out of $21 million in sales, goods worth nearly $850,000 left stores without being scanned and paid for.

How does this happen? There are several techniques:

  • Ringing up a T-bone ($13.99/lb) with a code for a cheap ($0.49/lb) variety of produce is known as “the banana trick.”
  • When a pricey item leaves the conveyor belt without being scanned, it’s “the pass around.”
  • Then there is “the switcheroo,” where you peel the sticker off something inexpensive and place it over the bar code of something pricey. You do have to make certain that the two items are about the same weight to avoid triggering the “unexpected item” alert on some machines.

“Anyone who pays for more than half of their stuff in self checkout is a total moron,” reads a comment in a Reddit discussion on the subject. Another one says, “There is NO MORAL ISSUE with stealing from a store that forces you to use self checkout, period. THEY ARE CHARGING YOU TO WORK AT THEIR STORE.”

I guess this would apply to gas stations too.

I’ve never been to a store that didn’t at least have one human-manned check-out. Unless there is a long line, I’ll always take that option. I’ve told many clerks why: the self-checkout machines not only eliminate jobs, they make shopping less social, interactive, and fun. At the local CVS where I drop by often, everyone knows my name and that of my wife. I joke with the staff, ask about their jobs and family, and generally behave like human beings are supposed to treat each other. Meanwhile, I watch about 30% of the self-check transactions go awry, requiring the clerks to excuse themselves and push some buttons.

If and when the Democrats succeed in passing a national minimum wage law, it will force more stores to go the self-check route, meaning fewer jobs and I supposed, more theft, more losses at the check-out machines, and higher overhead. Good plan!

I still don’t understand why otherwise normal, every day citizens would steal food and other items. Part of the phenomenon is progressive cities like San Francisco and Dallas decriminalizing shop-lifting. If it’s no longer a crime to steal food, those ethics alarms will ring increasingly fainter, if at all.

Barbara Staib, the director of communications of the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, theorizes that self-checkouts tempt people who are already predisposed to shoplifting by creating rationalizations, like the “the stores are making you work for them” nonsense. “Most shoplifters are in fact otherwise law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They would chase behind you to return the $20 bill you dropped, because you’re a person and you would miss that $20,” but a mechanical cashier gives the false impression of anonymity, she says. “This apparently empowers people to shoplift.”

Ah. They are idiots, then. You steal from the store, not the cashiers.

Frank Farley, a psychologist, concludes that self-check-out crooks often have Type-T —the T stands for “thrill—personalities. “Shopping can be quite boring because it’s such a routine, and this is a way to make the routine more interesting. These can be risk-taking, stimulation-seeking people,” he says.

Boy, if your stimulation comes from sneaking cheese through an auto-cashier, you’ve got bigger problems than being bored with shopping. It does sort of explain why Winona Ryder was shoplifting, I guess. That has always bothered me.

But never mind Winona. A culture that cannot reliably set the ethics alarms of its citizens to reject stealing as wrong, regardless of how bored they are or how easy it it may be is poised for destruction. That was one of the things religion did effectively, and why our “enlightened” society is the worse for its decline.


Pointer: Patrice

Source: Getpocket

32 thoughts on “Self-Checkout Ethics

  1. This is why the left despises organized religion. Outdated codes of morality such as the Ten Commandments takes all the fun out of the thrill out of petty theft and burdens the thief with guilt. There is always someone who will blame such activities as arising out of poverty or some other unethical rationalization.

  2. Before I went to college, I was a grocery clerk for Safeway for 7 years. The store hired private security to combat shoplifting and I was astonished at how many people they rounded up including an acquaintance and a school principal. I worked 6 hour shifts and they were catching 2 and 3 people just during my shift back in 1980. I mean I really couldn’t believe that that many people were stealing. Of course, the number of shoplifters decreased as the word got out, but even after a few months that had the private security there were still about 5 or 6 captured per week.

  3. I go to the grocery store early on Saturday morning. Inevitably, there are only self-checkouts open. Also, inevitably, I need the clerk’s help when the conveyer has too many items on it or I ring up items too quickly. At Kroger, there is only a little shelf on which to bag items. If I have a cartful of groceries, I have to move the bags sooner than the computer likes in order to bag more items. Removing the full bags too quickly has caused problems. Forget about using coupons.

    It’s annoying. I prefer the manned checkout aisles, but that requires going later in the morning when they are busy…and still don’t have enough employees working.

    However, stealing is not the answer. Due to the limited shelf space I sometimes have to bag items, I have to put bags into the cart much quicker than I can remove items from the cart to scan. On more than one occasion, while loading bags into my trunk, I’ve found an item buried at the bottom of the cart that didn’t get rung up because it was obscured by my bagged items. I’ve walked right back in each time and rung up the $2 napkins or whatever it was that got overlooked. It’s not mine unless I paid for it and having to do my own checking out doesn’t change that.

    What rationalization makes it okay to steal because you are doing your own work? They had it coming? I deserve this?

  4. I have always known there were ways to defeat the self-checkout process and steal items. It just never occurred to me to do it. Funny enough, it still to this moment hasn’t occurred to me to do it, and I pray it never will.

    Those who do are thieves, pure and simple. If you don’t want to “work” for the grocery store in order to speed up your trip, get in line and check out the normal way. That is, until those jobs go the way of the dodo because nobody can afford to pay a checkout clerk $15/hour. Then we’ll all get in line for the privilege of checking out our own items, so even the benefit of expediting the process will be lost.

    I wish all those shoplifters ill. They increase costs for the rest of us, and they come up with a bunch of dumb rationalizations to make themselves feel better about what they clearly know is wrong. Maybe they just feel like all the cool kids are doing it.

  5. The old adage “The Customer is Always Right” wasn’t some enlightened view about how stores should treat people. It was a clever marketing gimmick by a handful of retailers circa late 1800s. They knew that some customers were dishonest, but that by making that claim they could entice MORE customers to their stores who were on the level – enough to cover for the slimeballs who would abuse the system.

    LL Bean, the famed Maine Company, used to offer a lifetime guarantee on their products. They took that down to a one-year guarantee a few years back, because so many people were returning stuff they’d bought ten years previously and had just plain worn out.

    You may rest assured that the grocery chains have a VERY good idea of what their annual losses are due to the self-scan abuses. They have obviously made the calculation that based on the labor costs saved by the self-scan kiosks and other factors, those losses are tolerable.

    Except they aren’t. We’re all paying for it – by having to wrestle with the self-scans, and by paying more for the products WE buy to cover margins for the dishonest. It pisses me off (and I’m the guy who always removes a product from the case and alerts the meat department when a product is clearly mismarked – for example, beef tenderloin for 2.99 per pound. I’ve done it more than once.)

    • Arthur, you make an interesting point about how grocery stores potentially deal with ‘shrinkage’ by simply monitoring their accounts and assuming it is just part of ‘cost of goods sold’, almost like marketing, and adjusting their price… I wonder about the ethical considerations of business choosing to handle it this way instead of the earlier example of hiring security guards and actually trying to stop bad behavior. The store’s behavior strikes me as failing the categorical imperative, at least it would if shoplifting was still a crime…

      Second question, why isn’t there a competitive advantage for stores to reduce theft. Is this simply a lack of enforcement by the police/city ordinance? Is this in part driving the reduction of retail space (food deserts) in low income parts of cities?

      I always thought the Chesterton fence post fallacy was only useful when the specific law/institution did not have obvious beneficial value, never thought it would have to be applied to shoplifting.

      • I don’t know about ethically, but legally even trying to stop shoplifting gets stores into all kinds of trouble. If there’s any hole in the case where the customer can claim that they came in with the item, or it fell in their bag, the store might lose money on lawyers and court costs. If that happens or the employees were mistaken, the store opens themselves up to lawsuits, and if the accused shoplifter was a person of color… Then on top of that, if the employee who stopped them gets injured because the customer throws something or takes a swing, there’s the potential lawsuit there.

        This is probably why there’s no competitive advantage: the stricter you are about shoplifting, the more you open yourself up to lawsuits or court costs. The things being stolen have to be worth that risk from a business perspective.

        • I should add, since there are many lawyers here, that I am not one of them. This is what we were told when I was a retail employee to dissuade us from going all Nancy Drew on shoplifters (which we very much wanted to.)

          • I would have felt the same urge.

            Also wonder if this is part of what makes Costco so different, I assume their theft rates are very low given the receipt checking done prior to leaving, not that other stores can copy that.

            • I worked at Home Depot for a while, and my husband worked at Wal-Mart (among many other stores in our younger days.) At those stores, since they do have much more expensive items (like power tools and electronics) they have much better security, with dedicated security officers and video surveillance and lawyers ready to go. Costco is probably more in that league. But a suburban grocery store or a store in a shopping mall doesn’t have that kind of set up.

      • One of the reasons that there is no longer a competitive advantage for stores to do more to prevent shoplifting is nauseatingly illustrated by this story:

        It’s a risk/reward calculation, and saving enough money from preventing theft to be asked to lower your prices a tiny bit isn’t worth this kind of headache if it happens to you. The likelihood of something like this happening in your store is fairly low (but increasing day by day), but the cost of dealing with it if it happens is enormous.

  6. The property rights slippage is perhaps the biggest threat to freedom we have. Without property rights, what will we have, really? It all starts with something that you can call yours and have that defended. So I personally think all theft should be prosecuted on principe. If it’s a corporation, small business or individual trespass, it makes no difference to me. It is a cornerstone of democracy as we know it and free trade. The reason the us became so powerful is for one big reason. We keep our commitments. That means we keep our commitment to purchase what we take from stores. Any other way is a slow decline into chaos. It’s not exclusively a Christian value. It’s a cornerstone of a functional society. We ignore this blatant theft at our peril.

    • The reason the us became so powerful is for one big reason. We keep our commitments.

      Ah… no. Read Trollope’s “North America” some time. The U.S.A. was notorious for welching on its commitments, often through glosses of legalisms like repudiating the French debt after 1789 on the grounds that the regime change obviated it, or what happened to Smithson’s bequest. Trollope commented on how state debt was very sovereign risk stuff, and that the Civil War had led to federal debt repudiation being canvassed. Later, Skidelsky observed that the total loss of European capital that way (mostly British and Dutch, I believe) was comparable to all of Marshall Aid.

      So, much of why the U.S. became powerful was from keeping outside inflows of wealth, not from keeping commitments.

      Please don’t read this as mere anti_Americanism, go and look it up. Any hostility arises from what happened, it’s not a driver for it.

  7. People do what you let them get away with. Self-checkout makes it easy to get away with shoplifting. The only thing I’m surprised about is that 20% of people admit they steal from self-checkouts. They are unethical enough to go steal, but ethical enough to admit it when they don’t face consequences. I’m curious what percentage lied about stealing from self-checkouts. That would be an interesting number.

  8. I am amazed that someone has such low self-esteem to prostitute themself for a few dollars. Then often demand that others respect them.

  9. A Millenial distant relative of mine uses another unethical scheme. She orders things online, uses them, and then returns them for a full refund. Two examples:
    1. she orders birthday party decorations for her 6-year old’s party. After the kids ate their cake and ice cream with their party hats she collected the hats, wiped down the table cloth, repackaged them, and sent them off along with the noisemakers to Amazon. She was gleeful to receive her refund in full.
    2. Before flying to my house for her 11-day stay ( 8 days too long) she had ordered a car seat for her child. She used the seat a number of times. When she was getting ready for her return flight she asked me to return the seat. I refused and donated it to the local thrift shop. She became infuriated.

  10. I know this really is about stealing which is unethical almost 100 per cent of the time. And, I do like the interaction of human assisted checking out (well, except for that one guy). But, choosing assisted to preserve jobs is poor economics. It makes as much sense as repeatedly pushing over displays in the grocery so they’ll hire more people for clean up. Even better, in other situations, hire house painters who use only small artistic paintbrushes, ditch diggers who use only tablespoons (teaspoons?), farmers who do not use tractors or harvest machines, and so on.

    • I would agree if the shelf-checkout machines actually worked. I only use them when I have a small number of items and yet have never actually checked out without needing assistance.

  11. Both the self checkouts and the regular checkouts face a problem: [i]some[/i] of the theft techniques can be indistinguishable from innocent mistakes. Items left in a cart, particularly on the bottom of the cart is the most common examples. The self checkout adds to this as it can be an unintentional mistake in entering a code.

    Determining intent can be difficult, and is prone to bias (i.e. the well dressed white person who forgets $20 worth of laundry soap under the cart basket is forgiven and a disheveled minority doesn’t). I say if we’re going to criminalize potential mistakes, it should go both ways. If I can get a shoplifting charge by a mistake like that, the store manager should get a larceny conviction for ‘accidentally’ over-charging me.

    I actually have an anecdotal story about that. I know a retired small town cop. He told the story of how he responded to a call from the grocery store about laundry soap on the bottom. He told the assistant manager “OK, I can book her. But just be aware, if anyone ever makes a complaint that a mistake was made and they were over charged, I will come book you for theft. Deal?”

  12. I think that this has been a long time in coming, and to support my thesis, I will rely on many things my father has been saying over the years. My father worked in the grocery business from the time he was fourteen until less than two weeks ago when he given the choice of retiring from the Walmart frozen section or taking a drastic pay cut since they restructured their entire way of handling the grocery part of the store and had eliminated his position. Most of his years, all but the last 18, in fact, were in a small town Mom-and-Pop style store, but then he was let go when a change of owners occurred and he had to move to a neighboring town Wal-Mart.

    Twenty years ago, when I was in high school, the federal minimum wage was $5.15 an hour. At that wage, it was cheaper for a small local grocery store to hire extra workers to carry groceries out for the customers and never take a cart into the parking lot. This solved two problems for the grocery store. First, it was harder (but not impossible) to shoplift. There were more eyes in the store, and more attention was paid to customers. Second, grocery carts are not cheap for a small store to afford. Most people treat them very roughly, causing quite a bit of damage over a fairly short number of weeks, they are stolen, and they are often left strewn around the parking lot, making it much harder to collect them before the wind blows them away or people run them down in their cars, and some people make a game of running down those carts. The replacement costs are actually quite high. If a grocery store, at $5.15 an hour, can pay someone to carry out groceries and ensure a cart is never left in a parking lot, they actually save money and have a side benefit of being known for great service, which attracts more customers.

    Somewhere around the minimum wage hike that put the wage at $5.85 or $6.55, the grocery stores in question now had way too high of hourly costs, and the idea of carry-outs suddenly went away. The grocery stores dropped many positions, such as having extra hands during the day to handle the needs of the customers as carry-out and other helpful positions, as well as requiring a change in how truck unloading and pallet down stacking were handled. Less people were hired so less people were around the store looking after the store’s interest, and shoplifting increased in ease and thus in effect. This starts these stores into a bit of a downward spiral, where the more you have to pay your workers, the fewer workers you have. The fewer workers you have, the more money you lose for replacement carts and shoplifters, and the more you have to jack your prices just to make ends meet. As you raise prices, people try to find somewhere else to shop, leading you to want to employ even fewer workers.

    By the time the minimum wage reached $7.25, my dad was well ensconced in his Wal-Mart position. Wal-Mart is proud to pay more than minimum wage, because they don’t want workers unions jacking up their costs. However, when the federal minimum wage goes up, Wal-Mart wages must go up to ensure that everyone is appropriately above that minimum. Indeed, sometimes the federal jump actually takes a job and puts it under the minimum, especially for the lowest skill workers. When that minimum wage jump took place, my dad noticed a huge change in the Wal-Mart policies. And as a note, whatever hurts Wal-Mart bottom lines is going to cause massive issues with the little Mom-and-Pop grocery stores that don’t sell massively marked up items like bug spray and sunscreen, much less other general merchandise (GM) items. Wal-Mart runs a crappy grocery store, with most grocery sections losing money and being supported by the GM side. They still make huge profits because people come to Wal-Mart to only have to go to one store to get everything on the shopping list. The Krogers, the Our Family stores, and every other big name grocery retailers are nearly the same as a Wal-Mart for the overall changes that they feel are necessary.

    When that minimum wage jump occurred, Wal-Mart took a massive profit cut until they cut more positions. Self checkouts were hardly new, but now they installed a great many more, so as to cut more positions. Cashier is not the lowest paid position in most stores, so that saves quite a bit of money. In addition, they decided that they needed to decrease the people handling the shelves. My dad was in charge of the freezer section and he went from having five people working for him to keep the freezers full, organized, and handled, to two. Other sections had the same issues. Again, as I said above, fewer people working means more opportunities to shoplift.

    Finally, the Wuhan Flu has made this worse. To keep everything running with social distance, and especially to get the call-in items handled, Wal-Mart decided to cut positions (my dad’s department went from three people to one-half). Everyone who still worked there was put on priority blue cart. When you called in with an order, people were to drop everything and find your items. This led to shelves not being stocked and an increased emphasis on self checkout. Again, the opportunities to shoplift have increased.

    As a note, Wal-Mart does not prosecute shoplifters below a certain amount because the attorney fees are more than what they lose with shoplifting. Anyone who shoplifts below that amount just becomes another cost of doing business.

    All this adds up to shoplifting being easy, with small likelihood of getting caught, and even if you are, if you can argue that you are only shoplifting a couple of dollars, they will let you go. It does not deal with the change in mentality of the populace that shoplifting isn’t wrong, as that would take a whole extra thing, though I will mention Marion Barry’s Misdirection and various state laws, as well as the fact that children are not being taught about the basics of right and wrong by parents or teachers. However, as the saying goes, a lock keeps and honest man honest, and self checkouts, coupled with a lessening of staffing have removed most of those locks.

    • “Wal-Mart runs a crappy grocery store, with most grocery sections losing money and being supported by the GM side.”

      Close; Wal Mart loses money on the products they sell in food, but they make their money in financing.

      Their contracts vary by vendor, but as an example, they only pay Pepsico/Fritolay invoices quarterly. Basically: They sell Pepsi and Lays at cost, don’t pay their bills for three months, but turn the product within days, so they’re able to take the cash they hold for three months and offset the cost of financing other lines.

      It’s a tough concept to get around, because their food divisions are always in the red, but they’re actually better off as a company than they would be otherwise. They “make” their money in saved interest.

      • Not sure about Wal-Mart, but other grocery chains make a significant chunk of their money by leasing out shelf space. The soda and chips aisles are perfect examples – the producers bid annually for X feet of shelf or freezer space, and part of the deal is that they do the shelf stocking. That’s why you’ll often see someone wearing Pepsi-branded stuff stocking the Pepsi shelves. The margins on groceries aren’t impressive – meat and veges are often running about breakeven, sometimes even a loss. The store might get a gross profit of a nickel for a liter of soda pop, if that – but they make the dough on the rental and the reduced labor (from having the producer doing the re-loads).

        • I worked on both sides of that (I was a Fritolay Rep before I was a Store Manager before I went back to school). Perimeter programs exist, but they’re maybe $10,000 per vendor for a 60,000 sqft store, and usually have more to do with the displays and endcaps than the shelving itself.

          And this might seem counterintuitive, but the vendors actually request that their staff fill the shelves. The thought process is that the vendor cares about their product, while the stores care about the stores, so we’ll do a better job, properly rotate, ect. ect.

          One of my favorite Fritolay stories was this Safeway in Alberta, they were a union shop and they were notoriously bad at stocking my section, but they would make a grievance every time I did it for them, because “I was taking good union work away from those union guys”. The issue wasn’t the store didn’t want to give out hours, this was during the oil boom, they didn’t have the labor. So I sat down with the store manager, and made an agreement: I would be hired by Safeway, and wear the ugly tan shirt and everything. I would work four two hour shifts per week and be in charge of the Fritolay section (I helped the Pepsi guys out every now and again too, same company) and if I had a headache, well… I could just clock out. The shop steward still hated me, even though I was paying my dues like a good union scrub. I still smile thinking about it. That deal lasted more than a year before I left Fritolay.

  13. One comment from here in wacko San Francisco. Our stores have strict rules for their employees, security guards included. They are not to pursue shoplifters primarily because our shoplifters are so brazen they will attack the employee/pursuer and the resulting injury is a workers comp claim. The cost of such a claim, in CA, just isn’t financially justifiable. And so, we all suffer when we trade short term gains for long term losses. My husband and I are covered by USAA insurance company primarily because, regardless of the cost, they will fight any claim they suspect is fraudulent. This policy has paid off for them and their policy holders. I wish everyone had this attitude–we’d be so much better off as a society.

  14. A psychologist explained that there are 2 types of law abiding people; the good people and the cowards. The good people follow the law and get along with society because they are inherently good. They have no ill will towards others and don’t want to hurt people physically, financially, or emotionally. The rest are cowards. They follow the law because of fear of punishment from the government or from society that views such behavior negatively. Most of the cowards tell themselves that they are good people, but they aren’t.

    How do you tell the 2 groups apart? There are good people and cowards in a protest. When the protest turns into a riot, the good people go home or at least leave the area. The cowards take part, cheer it on, or at least stay to watch. There were no ‘good’ people in the riots last summer, the good people left as soon as the looting, vandalism, or destruction started. When given a justification to steal, the cowards will steal, the good people won’t.

    We are reaching a point where society no longer values good behavior. Without peer pressure shaming those who misbehave, we can’t keep the cowards in line. Think about leaving your valuables in a room with some people. There are some groups where peer pressure makes it more likely that your valuables will be stolen the more people in the room. There are other groups of people that your valuables may be stolen if there is only one person in the room, but they most certainly won’t be stolen if there are at least 3 people in the room. Poverty doesn’t cause crime, a societal attitude that breaking the law is acceptable causes crime.

  15. Well I, for one, prefer the self-checkout and always have.

    Why? Having worked as a cashier in a number of retail places (granted, decades ago now) including a supermarket, I know that *I* will do a better job of organizing and properly bagging my purchases than will happen when I spin the Wheel-of-Teenager.

    I am WAY more diligent about combining and double-bagging my frozen items to keep them colder for longer, segregating strong-scented items (e.g. soap) from the things that would absorb the scent (e.g. chocolate), and putting solid/heavy items (jars and cans) in the bags first and that the fragile/light items (potato chips, bread) on top so the latter don’t get crushed.

    It’s a simple case of “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

    As for the issue of shoplifting, the reason the stores accept it is simple: liability.

    At every one of those retail stores, it was drilled into me that I am never ever to be confrontational with a customer. First off, the store doesn’t want my safety to be imperiled; and second, it’s a bad-looking scene for other customers to witness.

    At most, we had a very scripted thing to say, along the lines of “Would you please come with me to [some location]? I’d like to discuss a private matter with you away from the other customers. It concerns the [name the item] in your [say where they’ve stashed it].” But we were strictly forbidden from detaining anyone or even using words like “shoplifting”, “theft”, “stealing”, etc.

    This was even the case once when I was working at a pharmacy and someone brought in a forged prescription for a narcotic. The pharmacist quietly called the police but no one confronted him. (Eventually he left before the police arrived.)

    The sad truth is that the cost of an incident where someone is injured is so much worse than the cost of the shoplifting that stores really do tacitly allow it.


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