Naughty Or Nice? Retailers Use Smiles To Fight Self-Checkout Theft

With Christmas on Tuesday this year, all the last-minute holiday shopping this weekend should make for some of the biggest spending all year, but those busy stores are also going to be on the lookout for some shoplifters, especially at self-checkout machines, where it is a surprisingly big problem.

At a supermarket in Sedalia, Mo., people are stocking up for their traditional holiday dinners. An employee helps customer at the store’s four self-service lanes, but every so often they catch items that customers did not scan.

With a smile and a helping hand, the employees are there to make sure all of a customer’s items get scanned and paid for.

“That is what we call aggressive hospitality,” says Doug Haworth, who is in charge of loss prevention at Wood’s Supermarkets. He says the aggressive hospitality is a tactic to reduce theft.

“At self checkout, if the intent is to leave the store without paying for anything, what we’ve seen is they usually make it worth their while,” he says.

That’s costing stores big time. Richard Hollinger, who studies theft for the National Retail Federation, says many companies are removing their self-checkout lanes, claiming customers don’t like them. In reality, he says they’re just losing too much money.

“They’ve done the cost-benefit analysis, and there were some negatives that they never really anticipated,” Hollinger says.

One reason is that at self-checkout, wannabe shoplifters have a great excuse.

“If I didn’t scan everything, I can say, ‘Oh, I couldn’t tell what was going on, it was confusing, it was beeping at me,'” says Malay Kundu, the CEO of StopLift, a Massachusetts company that uses computerized video analysis to flag shoplifting.

The company’s videos show people scanning only some items and putting others directly into the basket, ringing up pricey produce at the price of bananas or people scanning cheap items and putting more expensive ones on the weight sensor.

“A liter of vinegar and a liter of vodka weigh the same,” Kundu says.

Amazingly, in one video, a shoplifter calls over the attendant after having trouble getting her coupons accepted.

“This is a pretty common thing,” he says, “because you might as well get a discount on the few things you paid for.”

Right now StopLift’s service only tells stores after the fact which transactions to follow up on, but Kundu is now testing a system that would alert employees in real time.

For now, though, many retailers are holding off or staffing up with aggressive hospitality. So when that self-checkout attendant is super nice to you this weekend, she may just be making sure that you’re not being super naughty.

Copyright 2012 WBUR. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.