Australia’s two biggest supermarkets are trialling new technologies to clamp down on shoplifting and incorrect scanning of items by shoppers using self-service checkouts.
On Friday, Woolworths opened its latest store in Sydney’s Gregory Hills, unveiling futuristic features including a ‘safety robot’ to clean up spills and alert staff members to hazards, as well as new surveillance cameras at self-service checkouts.
“We know the vast majority of our customers do the right thing at self-service checkouts. We’re trialling new security measures at Gregory Hills for those that don’t,” a Woolworths spokesperson told The New Daily.
Rival Coles has also been trialling anti-theft technology, installing cameras and large monitors that display real-time footage of shoppers scanning each item above the self-service checkouts in a handful of stores across Melbourne.
Coles sees more than eight million self-service transactions each week, and while “the large majority of our customers do the right thing, it’s not fair that a small number of people get away with doing the wrong thing”, a spokesperson said.
“Like a number of retailers, we work with police to reduce shoplifting.
“There are also trained, covert security officers in our stores nationally and they’re catching hundreds of thieves every week and reporting them to police.”
Retailers risk backlash from shoppers
While the major supermarkets and department stores remain tight-lipped on the effect of shoplifting on their bottom lines, loss of inventory is estimated to cost Australian retailers $4.5 billion a year.
A 2018 survey of shoppers by Canstar Blue found that 7 per cent had stolen an item without scanning it, while 9 per cent admitted to scanning an item as a cheaper item.
“From an industry perspective … the severity of shoplifting and incorrect inputting of products is actually quite high,” Curtin University consumer psychology expert Billy Sung said.
It’s costing supermarkets a lot, so it’s not surprising that they are working on tech to curb these behaviours.”
The US is at the forefront of Artificial Intelligence-focused innovations, with start-ups pioneering machine-learning to recognise faces, learn where products are placed and “prevent shoplifting by getting an AI to monitor what people pick up”, Dr Sung said.
However, companies employing heavy-handed surveillance tactics may risk backlash from shoppers.
“Consumers do have a tendency to think that’s manipulative. There is what’s known as ‘the perceived intention of manipulation’,” Dr Sung said.
“Every time we alert or inform consumers that a retail shop is using surveillance tech we see that perceived intent increases and has a spillover effect … the consumer perceives the brand or store as trying to manipulate their behaviour.”
From confusion to frustration, there are several motivations behind why people steal at self-service checkouts, Queensland University of Technology retail expert Gary Mortimer said.
“Sometimes it’s a genuine mistake. For example, they don’t know a difference between a red delicious, jazz, or fuji apple,” Dr Mortimer said.
“Sometimes frustration – they’re struggling to scan something so they just throw it in the bag.
“Sometimes a bit of compensatory behaviour – the perception that if I have to select, ring up my own goods and bring my own bag, then the supermarket owes me.”
Regardless of the motivation, shoppers can expect to see big retailers continuing to trial different strategies “to mitigate the loss”, Dr Mortimer said.
“Most consumers do the right thing. The only people that would be concerned about it are the ones doing the wrong thing.”