An Aldi Competitor Implemented A Controversial Anti-Theft Self-Checkout Policy

Across the U.S., retail stores report a seismic amount of inventory shrink (essentially missing items they can't account for), which they argue is increasingly due to theft. According to the National Retail Federation, nearly $100 billion of goods are lost to shrink yearly, and that figure is growing. Many in the industry target self-checkouts as the source of the problem. Perhaps recognizing the pitfalls following the self-checkout hype (the number of self-checkout lanes has increased by 10% nationally in the last few years, reports Catalina), grocery chain Giant is trying to prevent thefts by limiting the number of items customers can pay for at self-checkouts to 20. Stores will also close at 10 p.m. and be patrolled by more security staff.

Many shoppers complain about the inconvenience of the new plan, but it's hard to argue with the motivation. It's not surprising that self-checkouts are only encouraging the problem. It's easier to run away from a machine bolted to the floor than a security guard, after all. In fact, people have come up with a wide variety of methods to trick the machine: They'll ring up an item with the label of a less-expensive item, or buy a quantity of a product but pay for only one. Social media platforms are rife with shoppers sharing their tricks and hacks to cheat the system.

Supermarket chains hope that limiting self-checkout item sales will reduce thefts. But why do people manipulate the machines in the first place? 

Why are self-checkouts vulnerable to theft?

Giant believes that restricting the number of self-checkout items to 20 will reduce the opportunity for theft as it will lessen the likelihood of thieves charging out of stores with bags full of loot. More importantly, interaction with store employees is believed to reduce theft. It's harder to steal from a human than a machine, and recognizing that your actions may negatively impact a person working for a living is sure to prick a shopper's conscience. 

Interestingly, people who abuse the freedom of self-checkouts tend to otherwise be law-abiding, but may succumb to Opportunity Theory — they don't plan to commit a crime, but when the opportunity arises, they can't resist trying to get away with something. This coincides with the Neutralization Theory, which proposes that people use self-checkouts to steal because they believe they are only taking a tiny part from a greedy corporation. They are satisfied that no person is being harmed. Often people point to the fact that machines frequently fail to do the job as well as a human could. They take advantage of glitches to walk out of the store with items the machine failed to scan, especially if the reduced number of employees means that there's nobody around to ask for assistance. 

But grocery store chains respond that shoplifting does affect the human employees of the store, who are put in harm's way when they have to deal with blatant theft. (In fact, some grocery stores forbid their employees from stopping shoplifters.) And they argue that rising prices caused by inventory shrink will be tough on all of us.