Thieves steal at self-checkout because they feel the risk is low, expert says
For Brian Simpson, a recent routine shopping trip to a Canadian Tire store in Toronto turned into an unsettling experience. He says after paying for his items at a self-checkout, a security guard blocked him from exiting and demanded to see his receipt.
"It made me feel like a suspect, like I had done something wrong," Simpson said. "I don't like that they're … painting us all with the same brush, that they're assuming that everyone who uses self-checkout is going to steal."
The Retail Council of Canada (RCC) told CBC News that shoplifting is on the rise and that it's working with retailers on solutions. Some major retailers have adopted random receipt checks in selected stores, but the practice has sparked backlash from shoppers, who say they shouldn't have to pay the price for self-checkout theft.
"It's treating us like criminals because of the changes that they made to the store because of this expansion of self-checkout," said John McCracken, who encountered a receipt check warning sign last month at a Loblaw-owned Superstore just outside Halifax.
"If you've ever used the self-checkouts, you know how unbelievably easy it is to rip them off."
So just how bad is the self-checkout theft problem — and is it the driving force behind receipt checks? CBC News put those questions to Canadian Tire, Walmart and Loblaw Companies Ltd., which have each incorporated the checks in some capacity. None directly answered the questions.
Canadian Tire said in an email that receipt and bag checks, which are left up to the discretion of individual store owners, are commonly used in the industry for "inventory control." Walmart said receipt checks can be used for theft prevention, but it didn't specify what type of theft. Loblaw directed comment to the RCC, but the retail council said it doesn't track self-checkout losses.
So CBC News turned to criminologist Adrian Beck, who has studied self-checkout theft for more than a decade. He said it's a growing problem due to the expansion of self-checkout machines and the fact that thieves feel the risk of getting caught is low.
"We've got a larger proportion of people using them, and quite a lot of people now are feeling more comfortable about how you might be able to use and abuse these systems," said Beck, an emeritus professor at the University of Leicester in England.
I had a receipt check <a href="https://twitter.com/CanadianTire?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@CanadianTire</a> tonight by the security guard at the exit. I used the self-checkout. Not impressed. I was already watched by the staff member who was monitoring the self-checkout.
As part of an industry-funded study published in 2022, Beck surveyed 93 retailers (he wouldn't provide names) spread across 25 countries that have incorporated self-checkout technology.
According to the study, retailers estimated that as much as 23 per cent of their store losses were due to a combination of theft and customer error at self-checkouts.
Two-thirds of the retailers said self-checkout-related losses were a growing concern.
The carrot trick
Sometimes customers make honest mistakes at self-checkout, such as accidentally failing to scan an item. Beck said that can embolden thieves to steal, because they feel they have a good excuse if they get caught.
"I can simply say, 'You know what, I'm sorry, I've obviously made a mistake. The machine was difficult to use,'" he said. "The real issue that retailers have is they find it very difficult to prove that I am a thief as opposed to a poor scanner."
Beck said there are various methods thieves use to steal at self-checkouts, such as inputting the code for carrots when scanning pricier produce without barcodes, such as grapes, for example.
"They're misrepresenting what they're actually purchasing because they know carrots are a lot cheaper than grapes."
Loblaw customers angry about receipt checks
Loblaw customers are disgusted by signs posted in stores that say customers must be prepared to show their receipts to validate their purchases. Some say it adds insult to injury with inflated prices and call the search of bags an invasion of privacy.
Another trick is called "skip scanning," where thieves scan only some of their items. Tom Doyle, a plain-clothes investigator who patrols Ontario retail stores, said he frequently catches people doing this at self-checkouts.
"They'll scan the oranges there, but they'll put the steak [directly] in the bag," said Doyle, with Corporate Protection & Investigative Services in Toronto. "If there's $200 worth of groceries, they might pay $50."
Doyle said in his experience, self-checkout thieves tend to be average shoppers looking to cut down their bill.
"Prices are going up on everything," he said. "They say, 'That's too expensive. I can use that $20 for something else.'"
Are receipt checks a good solution?
Beck said retailers are using various techniques to combat self-checkout losses, such as training attendants to watch over customers, incorporating technology like surveillance cameras and doing random receipt checks.
But receipt checks can be a turnoff for customers. Romina Moazami said, several times earlier this year, she was asked to show her receipt after using self-checkout at a Canadian Tire in Burnaby, B.C. Moazami says she's now boycotting the store.
"Why are you profiling me as a suspect?" she said. "I'm willing to pay more or drive farther, just so I don't condone this behaviour."
Toronto Canadian Tire customer Simpson said stores grappling with self-checkout theft should consider pulling their machines. "Maybe you need to rethink whether or not self-checkout is right for your location."
But Beck suggests retailers will keep offering self-checkout, as long as the money they save from reduced labour costs is higher than what they lose due to theft and scanning mistakes.
"The amount of self-checkout is only ever going to grow, particularly in grocery where we see it is very dominant now," he said.
Receipt checks may also be here to stay. Despite the backlash, Canadian Tire, Loblaw and Walmart gave no indication that they're reconsidering the practice.
Our associates are trained to check receipts to make sure unbagged items, and those at the bottom of the basket, have been scanned. As more of our stores are equipped with self-checkout machines, our associates will check receipts to make sure the transaction went smoothly.
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