Retailers Reconsider Self-Checkout Strategy as Theft Soars in Canada [Interview]

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It appears as if retailers, such as Walmart, are rethinking the self-checkout offering at stores and some retailers are either pulling them out or not launching them as theft related to a cashier-less experience continues to grow.

Melinda Deines, Strategist: Brand & Marketing with design consultancy SLD, said even a consumer who has little intention of stealing is more likely to do so at self-checkout. Consumers who are inclined to steal can now do so more easily. 

Melinda Deines

“By continuing to use self-checkouts in their current format, retailers are creating an environment where theft will continue and become normalized, threatening even greater losses in the future,” she said.

“Walmart’s not the only brand that’s rethinking self-checkouts. Wegman’s in the U.S. is removing them. Hy-Vee which is a gas convenience, they’re pulling them out. Albertson’s has been back and forth. Trader Joes has said we’re never having them and still don’t have them. We’ll see if that remains true forever.

“There’s definitely a range of responses. I think the amount of shrink caused by self-checkout probably was a big surprise to a lot of retailers and dealing with that is probably sort of mission number one from their perspective – controlling that because it’s gotten out of control. The interventions that they’ve been using are not really working. So that’s why we’re seeing some of this backtracking and now having staff members coming and supporting with standing. This could help them while they rethink what does the ideal experience look like. In the meantime, we’ve got to control that shrink.”

Self-Checkout (Image: Shutterstock)
Image: Walmart Corporate (New Checkout Experience Seeks to Eliminate the Wait and Add Options at the Register)

She said self-checkout has created a new type of shoplifter.

In a blog on the company website, Deines outlined the four factors making self-checkout really conducive to shoplifting:

  1. Self-checkouts increase consumer frustration. Despite improvements in technology, self-checkouts are still far from simple. Most lack an effective workflow and there are no standard practices, creating confusion. A customer hasn’t been trained on how to find codes or enter promos correctly. Such frustrations may cause consumers to steal out of sheer exasperation.
  2. Stealing, simplified. At traditional checkouts, a staff member takes responsibility for accurately scanning items and obtaining payment. Without that oversight, brands rely on an honor system. When no one is watching, it’s a piece of cake to switch a lower-cost item for an expensive one, switch barcodes, and not scan all items.
  3. The risk of enforcement is low. If a consumer is caught with an unscanned item, they have the perfect explanation: it was an honest error. Proving otherwise may be impossible, making enforcement very difficult.
  4. Consumers rationalize their behavior. The removal of human interaction may amplify the sense that stealing from a big corporation doesn’t hurt anyone. In today’s inflationary economy, financial stress adds another reason to rationalize theft. In addition, consumers may feel that retailers are saving money by reducing labor costs so they are entitled to share those savings. Or, they may feel this is their way of forcing the retailer to “pay them” for doing a job that was previously done by staff.
Image: Walmart

Deines said some common deterrents used by retailers today involve friction which could create negative experiences for consumers and staff.

The first is staff monitoring, the second is the use of smart security, the third is shutting down self-checkouts at busy times, the fourth is implementing receipt checks or rescans as consumers exit, and the fifth is using messages that caution consumers about theft.

“The first thing to think about is that first of all customers want self-checkout,” she said. “They do. There are a lot of customers that don’t want to use them but want to have a person but there’s a lot of customers that do want them. Eliminating them altogether is not a long-term solution and I don’t think that’s the way that retailers should go.

Self-Checkout at Shoppers Drug Mart (Image: Dustin Fuhs)
Metro Front Street Self-Checkout (Image: Dustin Fuhs)

“However, I think if you’re in a situation where the loss is so extreme that you’re considering raising prices, I would say a temporary shutdown and rethink quickly would be better than raising prices. Retailers need to think that yes people want this type of technology but it has to work for the consumer. It has to be easier for them. A lot of that frustration that consumers are having when things aren’t working, it’s not a seamless experience for them, they are trying to get support from a staff member and the staff member is not there or is with someone else, if we can deal with that then we can deal with a lot of the accidental loss because a lot of this loss is not coming from intent. It’s coming from someone just making an honest mistake.

“The amount of loss that’s happened due to accidents is very high. So if we can deal with some of that frustration and make it more seamless then we’re going to shrink the shrink by doing that. That would be the most important thing that retailers can do.”

She said the other most important thing they can do is think of technology as working in concert with human beings.

“Removing human beings completely from the equation is not what customers want. They want to have access to a person in case something doesn’t work,” she said.

“And the other aspect of having a human being there is that it reinforces the sense that this is an organization where it’s humanistic. If we completely remove people from the equation then we reinforce the sense that this is just a big corporation. It’s just the big, evil bad you know multi-national corporation that’s here to stick it to the little guy. So we don’t want to have that happen. We want to reinforce that positive relationship with our staff and empower them to really make a human connection with people even if it’s just greeting someone and saying hi my name is Melinda if you need any help I’m right over here, just click this little button and I’ll be right there. Even something like that can go a long way to making people feel like oh there’s a person here which really changes the dynamics at self-checkout.”

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He is the Senior News Editor with Retail Insider in addition to working as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training. Mario was named as a RETHINK Retail Top Retail Expert in 2024.

16 COMMENTS

  1. Walmart mainly relies on self check out here in Ontario, and it’s a complete mess. Especially stores that double as people’s primary grocery store. The loss of plastic bag has also added to the frustration.

    I’ve seen people with full shopping carts and they’re expected to scan their own items, bring them town bags, and bag them themselves. It’s such a painful and slow process that needs to be fixed and addressed.

    • I’ve been bringing my own bags for a couple of decades now. Transitioning to self-checkout was relatively easy because there was always a staff member nearby to help me at the beginning and that I know I can rely on if something doesn’t work. I no longer have to wait in lineups because someone ahead is trying to find the correct change or having a time-consuming interaction with the cashier. I can pack my bags the way I want them packed – weight evenly distributed between bags so they’re easier to carry with produce or frozen items in waterproof bags so they don’t get other items sticky or wet.

      I’m getting faster at scanning and was able to whip through checkout the other day quick enough to do a bit of shopping and still catch my bus between transfers without having to wait for the next one. The self-checkouts that scan everything in your bag without you having to some anything are even better.

      I expect the places I shop to have enough respect for customers to trust them. Those that don’t simply don’t get my business.

      • It really is all about you isn’t it. Businesses don’t trust customers because they have given them a reason not to. Plain and simple. Do you not think it would be easier for them to not have someone checking receipts? They are being forced by people. Maybe not you but to think that this is something that is being done to you and you will take your business somewhere else is ridiculous. Unfortunately for many there is not someone at these stores to help and they get so frustrated they either leave with nothing or just take the thing that is giving them the trouble. Let’s keep people in jobs and working and use the tried and true method of using a human to ensure checkout is done properly. Let’s also not take it so personally and understand that this is not an attack on you

  2. The worse is Loblaws/Shoppers. I’ve been in a Shoppers when an 80 year old gentleman was forced to go to self-checkout when the cashier asked him how he was paying & he replied with card. He said he didn’t know how to use them & cashier basically said follow the instructions. He was totally lost. I told cashier I was paying cash and when the total came, I pulled out my debit & she voided the transaction and said I had to use self checkout. I walked out, I like self checkout but this time I wanted a cashier. Also, points for Food Basics & Dollarama that will allow you to use cash at self-checkout, unlike the places that suspend your transaction & make you go to another register if you pay cash. They just drive customers away and cause increased theft – I’m not waiting 10 minutes for the single cashier to pay when she is looking after 12 self checkouts!

  3. I love self check out when I have just a few items,. When they had cashiers with 10 items or less (I may be wrong about the amount of items as have a short memory lol) it was almost as fast as self check out, they should go back to that!

    • Self-checkout is usually faster than the express line, at least in my experience, but I’ve had to wait in line at self-checkout if I shop when people are getting off work.

  4. 1-5 items, just let me zip through a selfie. More than that with weekly grocery run, cashier please.

    Why doesn’t big head executives get it? Too much focus on eliminating labour costs I assume?

    • Yup. Even though most saw this coming, the geniuses insisted it would lead to more profit. It’s ok though. They’ll fire a bunch of middle managers and still get their bonuses.

    • They have to account for different shopping habits I suppose. I haven’t done weekly grocery runs since the nineteen eighties when store hours were extended. I just pick up what I need on the way home. It’s even better now that I can order online. When something non-perishable or that I freeze goes on sale I order in quantity and have it delivered. What I’d like to see are more stores conveniently located on the routes I take walking or on public transit, stores open until at least midnight and more local speciality shops. I do shop at Costco but not for groceries and only visit their stores a few times a year. For others it’s convenient to shop there when they’re stopping for gas anyway.

  5. Guessing the high prices at stores like Loblaws is partly due at least to the increased theft. Then it is a vicious cycle…people steal because they feel they are being gouged. But I love the self checkout…it is quicker usually as there are often no lines. But I have to wonder why stores could did not foresee increased theft happening….guess that’s why analysts get paid the big bucks…lol.

  6. All of these big stores seem to think they’re so smart on what the consumers wants and they think they’re saving money by not having a cashier there. Now it’s bit them in the ass. Good for them

  7. I love how their research findings gloss over the number one reason: Most customers in fact Do Not like self checkouts. It omits that direct reason from the list and then tries to incorrectly claim that most customers prefer them. This is simply not true. Use them a couple times and you know they aren’t faster in most transactions, and more work for You the customer, not less.

    Self checkouts are Annoying to use, while simultaneously we are also aware that using them is very likely costing vulnerable people their jobs. This leads to resentment, which just leads to further problems.

    No, most customers do not enjoy using them.

    And when the stores close every staffed checkout except one, and force the customers through the self-checkout, that does not mean your self-checkouts are successful, it just means you took away options many customers prefer.

  8. I always prefer self checkouts. I don’t like people handing my groceries and other purchases. The lines go faster and you can bag the stuff yourself. I have used self checkouts since they became available.

  9. All wrapped up in this loss prevention, I have noticed many stores now designing the stores with restricted access to the exits. Specifically, Walmart and Canadian tire here in Calgary, you cannot get to an exit without going through the checkout line. No problem when you are buying but I often browse through and don’t find want I need and want to leave without waiting in line. It’s only been a minor annoyance usually and the customer service at Canadian tire would buzz me through a normally locked gate to bypass the line, until today. Despite the line being exactly as you would expect the weekend before Christmas, the service person refused to buzz me out and said I had to go through the checkout. I spoke with a supervisor to let them know waiting in line to leave a store is not exactly a good customer experience and they said it is due to a rash of theft. Are there any kind of regulations about this kind of stuff? Yes I will google it myself too but I found this article so maybe some like minded folks. I don’t know… maybe I’m a Karen but I’m so burnt out by the garbage customer experience at these big box stores. It’s all about their bottom line and any semblance of respect or care for the customers is six feet deep.

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