'GET OUT OF JAIL FREE': Aussies' self-service checkout trick


UNDERCOVER security officers at Coles are catching "hundreds" of self-service checkout thieves every week, but a shocking number of Aussies are still swiping groceries and getting off scot-free thanks to a "get out of jail free card".

A survey of 2200 shoppers by research firm Canstar Blue has revealed that 7 per cent admitted to stealing an item without scanning it, while 9 per cent admitted to not paying the full price by scanning the item as a cheaper alternative.

Sergeant Tony Doherty and Constable Ryan Hall at Coles Erina. Picture: Mark Scott
Sergeant Tony Doherty and Constable Ryan Hall at Coles Erina. Picture: Mark Scott

The numbers are largely unchanged from two years ago, suggesting high-profile efforts by Coles and Woolworths to crack down on the "swipe everything as carrots" mentality and rein in their massive theft bills have been largely unsuccessful.

"It's still a huge problem," said Canstar Blue editor Simon Downes. "What absolutely blew my mind is the number of people who are getting away with it."

The items most likely to be stolen were fruits and vegetables (24 per cent), followed by packaged foods (16 per cent), snacks and drinks (12 per cent), baby products (12 per cent) and fresh packaged meats (10 per cent).

Of the survey respondents who admitted to deliberately stealing an item, just 5 per cent said they had been caught. Of those who attempted to score a discount by incorrectly scanning an item, just 10 per cent said they had been caught.

Shoppers aged 18-29 were the worst offenders, with 12 per cent admitting to deliberately stealing and 14 per cent to scanning an item as something cheaper. Generally, the older the shopper, the less likely they were to steal.



Across the states, shoppers in NSW and Victoria were the most likely to deliberately steal (7 per cent), with Victorians most likely to not pay the full price (10 per cent). South Australians were the least likely to deliberately steal (3 per cent), with shoppers in Tasmania and the ACT least likely to incorrectly scan (2 per cent).

"It's also worth keeping in mind that this survey reveals the number of people who admit to stealing," Mr Downes said. "The true figure may be higher."

He said while supermarkets were probably never going to completely remove the risk due to the nature of self-service, he suspected they "would have liked to see a reduction over the last couple of years given we know they're taking it seriously and they're exploring new ways to try to reduce the theft".

Mr Downes said self-service check-outs appeared to have "opened the door to shoplifting" for many Australians who would previously not have even considered it because they were seen as an "easy target" and the risks were "minimal".

He said one of the big dilemmas for the supermarkets was how to address that "get out of jail free card" of being able to plead ignorance if caught.

"How does a young self-service checkout operator make the distinction between someone who's just unfortunate, maybe the machine isn't working correctly, and someone who's playing the system?" he said.

"It puts a lot of pressure on the shop assistants. That's maybe why so many people are inclined to try to steal some of these items - they see a young, teenage shop assistant, they think, 'Even if they challenge me I've got a ready-made excuse'."

Mr Downes said that was where "eyes in the sky" camera technology and other tactics the supermarkets used to catch offenders came into play.

Respondents were split down the middle when asked about their preference for using self-service check-outs, with 50 per cent preferring to use them and 50 per cent favouring traditional staffed check-outs.

"Of those who prefer using self-service check-outs, it's all about the speed and convenience," Mr Downes said. "Some people would simply prefer not to have to interact with anyone and they can simply pay for their items quickly and get away.

"There is clearly huge demand for self-service check-outs, but the supermarkets would do well to listen to their customers because many still prefer walking up to an operated checkout and speaking with a human being.

"The trend may be replacing traditional check-outs with self-service machines, and this will work really well in some stores, such as those located in busy city centres. But in other areas the supermarkets risk frustrating their customers if they replace too many operated check-outs, or replace them entirely."

A Coles spokeswoman said, "We find assisted check-outs offer a convenient choice for our customers. While the large majority of our customers do the right thing, it's not fair that a small number of people get away with doing the wrong thing.

"Like a number of retailers, we work with police to reduce shoplifting. There are also trained covert security officers in our stores nationally and they're catching hundreds of thieves every week and reporting them to police.

"Our focus is on providing convenience along with shorter queues, while allowing our team members to stay on the shop floor to assist customers.

"When customers are only buying a few items, we've found that assisted check-outs are actually twice as fast as traditional check-outs. We see more than five million assisted checkout transactions each week so our customers are clearly enjoying the convenience."

A Woolworths spokesman said, "Self-service checkout is an incredibly popular and convenient option for customers short on time, and we know the vast majority of shoppers do the right thing when using them. We have security measures in place for those that don't."

Neither Coles nor Woolworths provide figures for self-service checkout theft, but the retail industry rule of thumb is theft accounts for about 3 per cent of revenue.

Roughly half of Woolworths' $36.4 billion and Coles' $29.7 billion annual food sales go through self-service, which means their losses could be in the area of $546 million and $445 million, respectively.

Earlier this year, a German man was fined $100 after pleading guilty in the Bundaberg Magistrates Court to stealing bacon, mince and cheese from a Woolworths for a friend's BBQ. The man said he couldn't afford the groceries because he was a "poor backpacker" earning just $50 a day.

Last year, Queensland mum received a nine-month suspended sentence for swiping $4500 worth of groceries from Coles and Woolworths in an elaborate self-service scam, in which she photocopied barcodes from packets of two-minute noodles and glued them onto items in-store.

That pales in comparison to a $326,000 fine handed to a German businessman convicted of theft in a Munich court after scanning $73.50 worth of veal liver as cheaper fruit. The seemingly excessive penalty was based on the man's monthly income of $37,500.

Australian company Tiliter Technology has reportedly been trialling an "artificial intelligence" camera system that will automatically identify products, making theft impossible and eliminating the need for barcodes.

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