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CT stores see downsides of self-checkout trend

Close-up of unrecognizable man purchasing bananas at self-checkout kiosk in grocery store
Grace Cary
Close-up of unrecognizable man purchasing bananas at self-checkout kiosk in grocery store

On a typical weekend cashier shift at a grocery store in Madison, Charlie Hyunjin might be watching seven self-checkout registers during a busy shift. The 20-year-old says he often sees people not paying for items, but can’t do anything about it.

“They tell us, ‘You don’t know who they are, what they’re capable of. Just let them go,’” said Hyunjin, who did not want to name his employer. “So, I see people who have many things unscanned in their carts, and the most I can do is come to my manager.”

Self-checkout is now offered by 96% of retailers nationally, according to a recent study from the Food Industry Association.

This trend, first embraced to save on labor costs, may have compromised stores’ ability to effectively prevent theft, which has prompted social media jokes about how easy it is to steal from self-checkout machines, with many justifying it because of the high cost of groceries.

The Connecticut Food Association has been studying trends in shoplifting, said Wayne Pesce, president of the organization, which does research on food safety and education.

“Advances in technology, particularly the widespread adoption of self-checkout machines, have introduced new challenges for retailers in combating register theft,” Pesce said in an email. “Shoplifting is a big business and is constantly evolving in terms of nefarious tactics.”

Theft from self-checkout transactions is more likely compared to a human cashier interaction, according to a statistics sheet from Capital One Shopping Research, which published data summaries from a combination of studies on retail trends. Capital One reported that 15% of shoppers admitted using self-checkout to shoplift.

Memes that poke fun at how easy it is to not pay for items when using the self-checkout have surfaced on platforms like Reddit, Instagram and X. These users tend to disgrace the idea of stealing from small independent stores, but have no problem with taking from larger chains, which they perceive as unaffected by such petty theft.

“Honestly, I see it as the natural response to all of what’s happening,” said Patrick Kearney, a graduate student at Southern Connecticut State University. “It makes sense when you consider how high cost of living nowadays.”

Kearney, who said he has never stolen, sympathizes with those who resort to stealing groceries at supermarkets and large retail stores.

“Some people are genuinely struggling to keep up with the prices of essential goods, and if that’s what they’re taking, I wouldn’t consider them to be a bad person for that,” he said.

According to Pesce, although there is a growing tolerance for individuals who choose to shoplift in response to price gouging, the rise of organized retail crime groups is a significantly bigger issue.

“While there is a minority of people who resort to shoplifting out of necessity, it’s important to note that organized retail crime involves highly organized and planned criminal activities rather than impulsive acts driven solely by individual economic hardship,” Pesce said.

Pesce said employees are one of the most important aspects of preventing shoplifting.

“Well-trained staff are essential in maintaining store security and preventing losses,” he said. “They’re the first line of defense against potential shoplifters.”

In practice, however, many grocery stores are not practicing this line of defense.

The National Retail Federation, in its latest Retail Security Survey, reported more than 40% of stores surveyed do not authorize any employees to stop shoplifters, up from 38% in the previous year’s study.

Hyunjin says that although he sees people who are stealing all the time, he is trained not to do anything about it when he sees.

“That is not my responsibility,” he said. “I don’t get in trouble when people steal; that’s really not on me.”

Jackson Volenec is a journalism student at Southern Connecticut State University. This story is republished via CT Community News, a service of the Connecticut Student Journalism Collaborative, an organization sponsored by journalism departments at college and university campuses across the state.

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