1. So I am also confused about the “Scan as you shop” vs self-checkout with the request to scan the first item – I guess she bypasses that option. I also don’t understand the “1” with eyes – is it supposed to be an RFID tracker? Wegmans is introducing scan as you go (https://www.wegmans.com/service/wegmans-scan.html) … but I though that most self checkout relies on the weight of each scanned item matching the weight on file. Also, little chance the manager will berate the employee right by the entrance/exit for someone to hear.

  2. The “1 with eyes” is something I saw recently at a store near us: it’s a robot that goes around the store searching out potential trip and fall hazards, and cleaning spills and stuff — kind of a giant Roomba. The idea is that it reduces the number of humans you need in the store.

    So, with scan-and-shop and store-wandering robots, you have fewer actual people around, meaning that it’s easier to shoplift. The shoplifting isn’t from the self-scan itself: it’s from the drop in staffing overall.

    Whether this actually works this way or not, I don’t know.

    For what it’s worth, the Boston grocery chain which is doing the scan-as-you-shop and the robots is itself unionized, and therefore pays better than most of the rest of the grocery chains. I don’t know if that leads to lower staffing levels or what — I have no idea how they compare to the rest of the industry in shoplifting, store staffing, or anything.

  3. I’m with Ian Osmond. I used to work in retail for a number of years and the loss prevention supervisors would always tell us the same thing: the best deterrent to shoplifting is personal customer service. And as a customer, I like knowing that staff is nearby. No, I don’t want them hovering over me but it’s good to know that they are there if I have a question. Shoplifters generally don’t want any attention.

  4. Tom, all of what you say is true, but the checkout lane isn’t where the shoplifting takes place, though — and that’s what this strip implies.

    The I, of course, just confuses whatever point the strip is trying to make.

  5. Bill:The strip isn’t implying that it’s due to the self-checkout lane, per se. That’s only one panel. Taking the strip as a whole, I think Tom and Ian have it – it’s (supposedly) due to the lower staffing levels of largely automated store.

    It’s a little weirdly circular that you assume that the point of the strip is only about what’s in the fourth panel, and then use that to conclude that the stuff in the other panels is confusing the point of the strip. It seems more parsimonious to use Tom and Ian’s explanation of the point of the strip, which is based on all the panels.

  6. Self-scanning options reduce staff at checkout registers, not on the floor, so on this theory should not have much effect on shoplifting. I guess using googly-eyed robots could reduce floor staff.

    Is shoplifting really a big issue for supermarkets? Other than the occasional kid taking a candy bar.

  7. But Winter, I don’t see any indication that, other than the checkout aisle, the store is less staffed than before: I’ve never seen supermarket personnel patrolling the merchandise aisles watching out for shoplifters so if anything, the weird I creature is adding a level of security most supermarkets don’t have.

  8. Cidu Bill: How do you figure the I creature adds a level of security?

    You’ve seen supermarket personnel walking around the store, and even if they aren’t shouting out to you “I’m busy watching out for shoplifters!” they are capable of noticing shoplifters, and thus provide some deterrent. The I creature is doing a job that would normally be done by a human being, but is not capable of responding to shoplifters, so provides less deterrent (reducing from “some” to “none”).

    Anyway, I have no idea whether automated grocery stores have a higher level of shoplifting. I’m just saying that ian and tom are giving a reasonable explanation of what the point of the strip is, and that panel 3 fits into that point.

  9. Well, I imagine the stupid thing is providing SOME small degree of security, even if only because it makes customers feel they’re being watched. The key, though, is that it’s not replacing any human beings: there are zero store personnel wandering the aisles for security purposes in any supermarket I’ve been in.

    And really, why would there be? Are you going to pay even minimum wage to somebody to make sure no customers slip a Butterball turkey in their pocket?

  10. Winter Wallaby – the supermarket we go to most often, next to the Walmart Neighborhood Market, has a major lack of employees. It is rare that someone is out in the aisles so they see nothing there other than by camera – which I always presume all stores have.

  11. This same store has the device to scan as one goes. We have never been able to get it to work so we don’t even try to use it. Robert does love self-checkout – very poorly designed area in this same store. There are 4 registers – two on each side of the self-checkout area. If one goes to the furthest of the two on each side, one has to figure out how to get past the person at the nearer one on that side to get to the further register. If one goes to a nearer one, one has to figure out how to leave past the person at the further register. There is an employee working at a desk in the center of the area (hence why one can’t pass other customers in the section) and can see what is being wrung up at each register. This store also has the worst software for self service I have ever seen. One has to put the item in the bagging area after scanning the item or the register gets upset and and if even one item is moved in the bagging area (such as – “oh, this works better in this bag with these items” the computer puts out warnings and later you will need to have the employee come over to clear the register problem. On the other hand if one buys 10 – 2 liter bottles of soda, it is too heavy for the bagging area and the register will start warning that you have to remove everything from the bagging area. And then there are things one cannot scan in product and/or coupons and the employee has to come and deal with it. (Walmart Neighborhood Market and I would presume their other stores, one cannot scan soda bottle returned to the deposit machine coupons – an employee has to do this and some of them won’t ring it on the register one is using, but does it on the master one they have – so one gets cash back instead of the bottles being subtracted from the credit card purchase transaction.

    Me, I would rather go to Cathy to ring up my order. I have known her through 3 supermarkets now (buy outs of supermarket chains and she gets moved to one that is still open) and she is good at her job and friendly also.

  12. Self checkout can lead to lots of things leaving shops without being paid for, even if it is not all intentional “shoplifting” per se. People who don’t intend to shoplift can, through error or frustration, take stuff that hasn’t been scanned. People can also deliberately inaccurately scan expensive things as cheaper things by swapping the barcode.

    Me, I prefer to have a professional do the scanning.

    As for the robot i-Eye thing – I haven’t seen those in the UK, but some places have cardboard cutouts of coppers looking at you. Sometimes those get stolen, though.

  13. I don’t self-checkout. They aren’t paying me. They aren’t even lowering prices when they reduce the payroll.

  14. Self checkout does not mean zero employees monitoring. They still need people to help those having issues, approve age restricted items, etc.

  15. @ Usual John – Shoplifting is a major problem for supermarkets, both through the front door (customers) as well as in back (employees). Profit margins for such stores are never very high, because of the constant price competition. Single candy bars don’t hurt, but they do add up over time. More damaging are the medium to big ticket items, such as razor blades or electric toothbrush heads, not to mention tobacco products or hard alcohol (in those areas where they are permitted to sell the latter). Most German stores place such items up front (close to the registers), where customers feel more observed, and some stores even put the really pricey items in a glass cabinet, so that you have to ask an employee to extract them.
    P.S. @ narmitaj – I have seen fully dressed mannequins in a number of medium-sized shops in Germany. This would be normal in a clothing store, but these were (among other places) in mini-markets attached to gas stations, which do not sell any clothes. The mannequins are very effective in giving shoppers the subconcious feeling that they are being watched, and are probably more effective (and certainly less time-consuming to operate) than a real closed-circuit camera setup.

  16. We used to have a teen living around the corner who would come down our block, walking down the middle of the street, looking in every car as he passed. Then on his way home again, late at night, cars got broken into.

    I’d read an article that said that a picture of eyes made people more honest, so I cut out pictures of eyes and put one picture on each side of my car. It never got broken into again.

    So maybe the Tower of Eye does contribute to reduced shoplifting.

  17. Bill, again, I don’t know what you mean by “zero store personnel wandering the aisles for security purposes.” Do you mean they’re shouting out “I’m here for security purposes”? Because, yes, they don’t do that – that doesn’t mean they’re not capable of taking action when they see shoplifting.

    It doesn’t make much sense for you to claim that a cleaning robot provides some small degree of security, because it makes customers feel like they’re being watched, yet simultaneously claim that actual humans don’t provide any degree of security. Actual humans are also capable of watching customers, whether or not they periodically shout out that they’re there for security purposes. And actual humans, whether or not they’re paid minimum wage, are clearly more capable of taking action when they see shoplifters than cleaning robots.

  18. Just ’cause you don’t see ’em doesn’t mean they aren’t there . . . security folks are usually dressed as shoppers.

  19. What I find a little confusing is that I’m fairly sure that Retail has, in the past, fairly thoroughly skewered the idea that just having employees around (as opposed to dedicated LP) can help reduce theft. Yet that’s pretty much the idea of this strip – automating the store means that there aren’t people around stocking/cleaning/checking out/etc, therefore there is more theft.

  20. Just sticking a camera bubble on the wall, even if it’s not real, can have a deterrent effect on shoplifting. Having employees who are clearly identifiable as employees can reduce loss as well. Undercovers go beyond deterrence and actually intervene to stop shoplifting. So, there are layers of protection. If you have a wandering robot that has camera ports on it, it will have an effect.

    When it comes to loss prevention, based on my short tenure in a big box store, we were more focused on keeping the staff from stealing from the company, whether by taking stuff out the back door or running scams at the register in cahoots with their friends. It was an awful job. On your feet all the time. The best part was doing the rounds of the store, because you at least got to move. Still, unlike my cousin, I don’t have any big, ugly scars from my LP days, so I guess I got off easy.

  21. Meryl A must shop at my store, because the self-checkout registers act just like she described. I have only shoplifted once. When I shifted something in the bag to make room for the next item, the register complained. I went ahead and scanned the next item and put it in the bag. The instant it was in the bag, the register was happy, but it didn’t record the price of the item. I took it back out and scanned it again, the register complained, so I put it back. The staff was busy, and others were waiting for help, so I just kept going. I remember multiple times when I would get home and realize an item had scanned higher than it should have, and I hadn’t noticed. I figure the grocery store is still ahead.

  22. Y’all missed the point. Self-checkout was the camel’s nose in the tent, and are old news. Now there are 100% automated stores. Gas stations were first, but now there are actual stores that have no employees in them.

    First they automated the checkout to reduce headcount. Then came the automated sweeping and vacuuming and floor-polishing/buffing. Now they have robots that can stock shelves. And a store that put all of that in action, removing the humans entirely, without accounting for LP, would be quickly bankrupt. So the new systems are based on RFID tracking and facial recognition tied to your store account.

    PS: self-checkout does increase shrinkage. But if the reduction in costs for employing people exceeds the costs of cutting them (buying the new technology and remodeling the checkout area, and yes, increased shrinkage), the stores are going to do it.

  23. Not just shrinkage, but mispricing, accidental or deliberate. I buy single bananas for my wife, who likes them appallingly green (when they start to get ripe, she rejects them. De gustibus and all that.) Sometimes the green ones are regular bananas, sometimes they’re organic. By the time I get to the checkout, do I remember which? I do not. So I’m quite sure I’ve paid regular price for the occasional organic banana.

    That’s not such a big deal, pennies at most. But if I were evil, I’d scan the red peppers ($2.99/lb++) at the banana price ($0.49/lb). And we KNOW people do that, deliberately. When the produce area has printers, it’s even easier: if you weigh at checkout, some of the devices say “78 cents. Place your bananas in the bag”, whereas when you scan a sticker you put on yourself, it just says the price.

    I’m quite the fan of self-checkout simply because I’m a UI guy and can do it faster than most of the cashiers, plus with the Wal-Mart style “corral” of checkouts, which most of the stores around here have adopted it’s usually faster because there’s usually a free terminal. I’ve also found ways to break some of them: for a long time, the one nearest me had a bug where if you swiped your credit card while it was weighing produce–a tempting thing to do, since it was VERY slow to actually do the weighing–it was game over: the terminal required a hard reboot. I’d do this about once a week, by accident (or “on accident” as the kids say), and each time cringe as I’d realize what I’d done. It was just such an automatic reflex to not stand there with my thumb up my butt while it pondered the weight!

    A while before that, if you pressed the “OK” button repeatedly (again, easy to do, since the thing was so slow and the touchscreen so unreliable that you never quite knew if it had “taken”), it would take a program check, create a dump, and you’d get to start over. But at least that didn’t require a reboot! I was tempted to go to the store just before rush hour and hard-crash all the self-checkouts, but that would be mean. They finally fixed these bugs.

  24. I think that the same force that has been driving down crime in general has been increasing honesty and intolerance for even small crimes; whatever it is (no more lead in gasoline, access to easy abortions, etc.), we are reaping the benefit in a more civil society that allows us to do things that to many of us who grew up in different social times seem unthinkable, like self-checkouts, and honesty boxes. I know that even from my own parents, there is large difference in tolerance of petty crime, with the trend that the younger generations will not tolerate what the older generation thinks was OK, be it littering, not reporting found wallets, reporting but keeping the money from found wallets, stealing silverware from restaurants, etc. I grew up eating with a lot of airline silverware that my parents had “resourcefully” “acquired” from said airlines; I would not take silverware from airlines, even if they actually had any anymore. Often when reading older stuff, I am shocked at the casual attitude people used to have to petty thievery. This French guy who was house-sitting for some older people took it as his due to ransack the place for stuff he wanted (who was it? some philosopher or someone later famous…); Harvey Pekar describes shamelessly lifting records from a radio station he worked at for his own collection.
    I really think people have gotten less tolerant of crime, big and small. What causes it is an interesting question. Not all places are equally intolerant; there is much more crime, big and small in Brazil, for example; my wife, upon seeing her first self-checkout in the US, her first reaction was, “this would never work in Brasil”; her second reaction was how happy she was to no longer be living in Brazil but in a country where the people are honest enough that a concept like self-checkout can work.
    I’ve only ever heard the reports of scamming the self-checkout by eg scanning the code for carrots when buying meat from the UK; eg the article quoted above has someone from University of Leicester talking about those scams. I honestly don’t know if that’s because they happen more in the UK, or if I just don’t hear about them as much from the US. One interesting thought: lead was eliminated from petrol in the UK at a later date than in the US, and I’ve seen some data indicating the drop in crime came later there as correlated with the later date in getting rid of lead; I always figured the outcome of that would be the UK would congratulate itself for having become an authoritarian panopticon society as the reason for getting rid of crime, just like in NYC Giuliani took credit for reducing crime…

  25. “Self-checkout was the camel’s nose in the tent, and are old news.”

    The library in Yuma, AZ I used whenever I was there had self-checkout, even for the holds. There was one staff member at a desk to give information and another at the Reference desk, who was a librarian. Two-story brand new library, and those were the only staff members I saw ‘on the floor’ or rather, ‘behind the desks’. I wonder what the theft rate was, even with magnetic thingies in the books which are easy enough to remove.

  26. My father was a shoplifter and proud of it – getting back at ‘the man’, whoever that was. As a response, I am fanatically honest; I still cringe when I think of his bragging about cheating someone. Funny thing is, HE thought, in his latter days, that everyone was cheating HIM. Karma is a b*tch. I once told him I’d rather be cheated upon than be the cheater, something he could never understand.

  27. If the abortion access was indeed the key component, that won’t have an effect on the crime rates for another 20 years or so.

  28. The worst thing to buy at the self checkout is a helium balloon. The machine will continue to insist that you place it in the bag area.

  29. As a kid, I developed a habit of shoplifting comic books and occasional paperback books. I was eventually caught, and of course now look back with shame on the crook I was then. Being caught cured me of the crime, mostly just out of fear, but it wasn’t until I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Markheim” a couple of years later in an English class that the wrongness of what I’d been doing really hit home to me. (Yes, an example of ‘literature that changed my life,’ which we old English majors are always joyous to find.)

    ‘I will propound to you one simple question,’ said the other; ‘and as you answer, I shall read to you your moral horoscope. You have grown in many things more lax; possibly you do right to be so—and at any account, it is the same with all men. But granting that, are you in any one particular, however trifling, more difficult to please with your own conduct, or do you go in all things with a looser rein?’

    ‘In any one?’ repeated Markheim, with an anguish of consideration. ‘No,’ he added, with despair, ‘in none! I have gone down in all.’
    I like to think that Markheim’s realization led me in my subsequent fifty-plus years to taughten up my rein in a lot of things.

    I’ve never been tempted to cheat at a grocery self-checkout, but then, if I’ve never been tempted to use one. Just another common feature of life in the early 21st century that I find inherently repulsive and go out of my way to avoid.

  30. Roe v. Wade was 1973; ~20 years later violent crime starts to plummet. In one of the Freakonomics books they bring this up as a cause for the drop in crime, that unwanted or unaffordable children grow up to be more socially unstable, and that with abortion now legal, fewer of those were born, and so crime went down. It is by no means a well accepted hypothesis, but an intriguing one nevertheless. The removal of lead from gasoline however seems to be a very strong hypothesis.

  31. Freakonomics: otherwise known as “How to ‘prove’ anything you want by manipulating statistics.”

    I think of them as the NPR version of clickbait.

  32. FOXTROT CLASSICS this week, so far

    I was thinking of mentioning that as well.

  33. Andréa, 15 or 20 years ago, I was making a purchase by check in a Wild Birds Unlimited store ( they sell bird feeders, feed and other stuff, if you’ve never seen one). When I started to pull out my driver’s license and other ID, the clerk said, “Don’t bother, people who buy bird seed don’t write hot checks.” I suspect it’s much the same with libraries, people who use libraries are not likely to steal books.

  34. @guero: ““Don’t bother, people who buy bird seed don’t write hot checks.””
    I had a comparable experience a while back when I ordered online some old time radio shows from a site on the net, to be paid by check. I expected them to wait until my check cleared, or at least until it was received by them, but in fact they sent the discs out immediately and when I expressed my surprise explained that people who collected old time radio shows were in their experience always trustworthy.

  35. 1. Wild Birds Unlimited was right down the block, ’til we moved here. It closed before I could even visit.

    2. Obviously, you’ve never worked in a high school library. Theft was rampant.

  36. I would argue that school libraries are a vastly different thing than a regular public library. If we’re going with anything that classifies based on “the type of people who visit a library”, then having a library that it’s mandatory to visit on occasion (and is one of approximately two places you can go to kill time during lunch) is pretty much guaranteed to counter that effect.

  37. There are external factors but there are also some basic personality types. As an example, here are two ways of looking at the world: 1. All transactions are zero-sum games. In order for me to win, you must lose. If I let you into traffic ahead of me, you are then ahead of me. I cannot let you be ahead of me. 2. Some transactions are win-win, or at least the gain on one side is far greater than the loss on the other. If I let you into traffic ahead of me, my trip will be delayed by the five seconds extra it takes me to reach my exit, because you will be at the exit at the time when I would have been at the exit. If I do not, your trip is delayed by the two minutes it takes all the other cars to pass. Now I don’t know if the ratio between zero-sum people and win-win people has changed at all in these years. Zero-sum is not necessarily criminal, but a zero-sum person can rationalize stealing a candy bar thus: “I save a dollar, which to me is a significant amount of money. The store owner loses a dollar, but he is so rich that he will never notice the loss.” A win-win person will see this as a lose-lose transaction: “The store owner loses a dollar. I lose the ability to truthfully say that I am not a thief.”

  38. If I could edit that comment, I would add that to a zero-sum person, any gain to any other person is a loss to oneself. To the other kind of person, Helping any other person to realize a gain results in the gain of satisfaction to oneself. Hence the loss of 5 seconds of driving time is offset by the gain of knowing that you saved someone else two minutes of driving time.

  39. When we first started in the business of making hand crafted items and selling – or at least attempting to sell them, we were not doing well (not that we do much better these days). At the end of one show as we were packing I commented to husband that our merchandise count was always right at the at the end of the show – not only did we barely sell, no one shoplifted our stuff either.

  40. This is an old post, so that might confusing. I came across it searching for something else. Anyway, I have been viewing a lot of live court video from 3B District in Michigan. Relevant to the discussion above, almost all of the “retail fraud” misdemeanor cases they get are from the self-scan, mostly Walmart. These are either price switching or “skip scanning”.

    Judge Middleton often complains that they’ve become the security service for Walmart.

    Also, we have the roving devices at some of the stores here. They check inventory on the shelves.


  41. @ Brian in StL – Some of the “self scan” machines in (large) German grocery stores require that each item scanned must be placed on a stainless steel scale next to the scanner, which keeps track of the weight of each item. In addition to being a royal P.I.T.A., this makes it much harder to cheat, and it makes it impossible to use the scanner for more than a limited number of items, because there is no provision for filling a second bag.

  42. We have scales as well. They are larger than that though and can accommodate multiple bags. You can also scan things in the cart with the “gun”, which doesn’t require that the item be weighed. A store employee informed me about that when I was trying to put 12 packs of soda on the scale. This is at the supermarket, so I don’t know what the Walmart system is like.

    From listening to the court cases, it seems that store security will review recordings after hours and sometimes refer charges against people they detect stealing and can identify. “Hey, here’s your surprise arrest warrant!”

  43. So I wonder if this Judge Middleton you refer to is right to complain about being Walmart’s security service; from your later post, it doesn’t sound like he’s making a correct pronouncement, as the security service is the one putting in the work of finding and identifying the wrong-doers — it seems only correct that the next step is to then refer those wrong-doers to the courts — what would this Judge Middleton prefer? Vigilante justice, that the stores upon detecting theft preemptively chop off the miscreant’s hand? Surely the court can never complain about doing someone else’s job, because the meeting out of punishment is exclusively reserved to the state (beyond a certain minimal level – and surely theft is above that minimal level). Maybe the police might be justified in complaining, as the San Fransisco PD seems to be doing at the Walgreens on Market St., where they are telling Walgreens they need to deter their shoplifters, because it costs way too much for the police to do it compared to the value of items being stolen, and Walgreens isn’t doing squat, and the level of shoplifting seems to have reached epic proportions with lots of Youtube videos of flagrant shoplifting from this store apparently available.

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