Stealing in Supermarkets

There’s an interesting news brief in today’s N.Y. Times about a report just issued by the Food Marketing Institute about shoplifting in supermarkets. In previous years, health and beauty products were the most frequently shoplifted items, making up 23% of all stolen items in 2000. But last year, the percentage of health and beauty products had fallen to 14% of the total, now third on the list, “after meat and analgesics.” (I must say, I love the seeming randomness of these category groupings — i.e., “meat” gets its own category, while “health and beauty products” probably includes thousands of items; but I digress.)

Why the big drop in stolen health and beauty products? “The decline,” writes Alex Mindlin, “partly reflects increased security for pseudoephedrine, a decongestant that can be used to make the drug methamphetamine. By the end of 2005, 34 states had passed laws restricting sales of medicines with the chemical, and often requiring stores to keep them under lock and key.” Interesting. I wonder how many of the people who used to steal pseudoephedrine are the ones who are now stealing the meat.

But there was an even more interesting note in the article, about the behavior of shoppers using self-service checkouts. “The report also suggested,” Mindlin writes, “that self-service checkout lanes, where customers scan and pay for their purchases themselves, are surprisingly theft-free. Of the roughly 5,400 stores in the survey with self-checkout lanes, 63.6 percent reported no increase in theft rates.”

Because the article includes no information about the overall trend in theft rates, it’s hard to make much sense of this statistic. But to my mind, if “63.6 percent reported no increase in theft rates” at self-service checkouts, that sounds like 36.4 percent did. If this is considered a victory, as Mindlin and/or the F.M.I. seem to consider it — “surprisingly theft-free“? — then it is also a good reminder to not invest in supermarket stocks.

FWIW, here’s an earlier post about WalMart’s change in shoplifting guidelines.

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  1. filthy-lucre says:

    I used to live near a drugstore that posted polaroids of shoplifters with the items they were caught stealing.

    Without exception, the items featured in the polaroids were either cigarettes or condoms.

    Maybe the ones caught stealing the condoms are now stealing the meat to pay for their (unwanted/unplanned?) children.

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  2. filthy-lucre says:

    I used to live near a drugstore that posted polaroids of shoplifters with the items they were caught stealing.

    Without exception, the items featured in the polaroids were either cigarettes or condoms.

    Maybe the ones caught stealing the condoms are now stealing the meat to pay for their (unwanted/unplanned?) children.

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  3. luxlunae says:

    Well if the actual amount stolen per day per checkout machine is less than the cost(s) of paying one checkout clerk for that day, the store still wins.

    Additional benefits of course include that you don’t have to deal with a machine calling in sick or quitting suddenly, or any of the other staffing problems common to minimum-wage jobs.

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  4. luxlunae says:

    Well if the actual amount stolen per day per checkout machine is less than the cost(s) of paying one checkout clerk for that day, the store still wins.

    Additional benefits of course include that you don’t have to deal with a machine calling in sick or quitting suddenly, or any of the other staffing problems common to minimum-wage jobs.

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  5. pkimelma says:

    All the self-service checkouts I have seen have one employee that monitors the whole set. They are supposed to be there to offer help, but they are also watching. So, most people who are inclined to steal would realize they are being watched. Maybe thefts go up when someone is being helped? Since some shoplifters operate in gangs (for distractions, etc), they may find they can have one ask for help while another passes a high ticket item around the scanner.
    One note: they used only percentage of theft, not amount. It would be interesting to know if the dollar amount goes up with self-serve checkout when it goes up. That is, do people not pay for a pack of gum or for a $20 item?

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  6. pkimelma says:

    All the self-service checkouts I have seen have one employee that monitors the whole set. They are supposed to be there to offer help, but they are also watching. So, most people who are inclined to steal would realize they are being watched. Maybe thefts go up when someone is being helped? Since some shoplifters operate in gangs (for distractions, etc), they may find they can have one ask for help while another passes a high ticket item around the scanner.
    One note: they used only percentage of theft, not amount. It would be interesting to know if the dollar amount goes up with self-serve checkout when it goes up. That is, do people not pay for a pack of gum or for a $20 item?

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  7. scottso says:

    The NY Times reported on the phenomenon nearly 4 years ago:

    http://tech2.nytimes.com/mem/technology/techreview.html?_r=1&res=9E02EEDE1F3AF935A35755C0A9649C8B63

    There are some very sophisticated measures taken to prevent shoplifting.

    1. Super-sensitive scales ensure that what comes off the “in” side of the scanner goes into the “out” side. They may also check the weight of the item against a master database.

    2. There is at least one miniature camera above the scanning portion of the machine that the operator monitors to ensure there’s no monkey business.

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  8. scottso says:

    The NY Times reported on the phenomenon nearly 4 years ago:

    http://tech2.nytimes.com/mem/technology/techreview.html?_r=1&res=9E02EEDE1F3AF935A35755C0A9649C8B63

    There are some very sophisticated measures taken to prevent shoplifting.

    1. Super-sensitive scales ensure that what comes off the “in” side of the scanner goes into the “out” side. They may also check the weight of the item against a master database.

    2. There is at least one miniature camera above the scanning portion of the machine that the operator monitors to ensure there’s no monkey business.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0