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.


filthy-lucre

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.

luxlunae

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.

pkimelma

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?

scottso

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.

John Fembup

#2 - luxlunae,

"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."

True, and there is in fact another cost component - checkout staff who pass items thru without scanning them, for the benefit of friends and family.

I think fear of increased theft is one reason that supermarkets have not converted 100% of their checkout to self-service.

BTW, what a curious term - "self" service.

PatHMV

It's not fear of theft that keeps some clerks around, it's customer preferences. I almost never bother with self check-out at Walmart or Albertsons. I find that the lines move much more slowly. The people ahead of me tend not to be able to operate the machinery very well, for one. Also, the supersensitive scales mentioned above can be very finicky. When I've bought very small items (like a packet of 3 screws), I've had to put up with the thing beeping at me over and over to place the scanned item in the bag.

In some places, I love self-service machines. I use them at the movies constantly now. But they don't have the kinks worked out in the supermarkets and other places yet. Maybe once we have RFID tags in everything and can check out just by pushing the buggy through.

Jun Okumura

"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."

On the other hand, the 63.6% may or may not include those who reported a decrease in theft rates, and likewise the 36.4%. Newspapers routinely report figures in such an incomplete manner, leaving us to guess what the heck the numbers actually mean. I wonder why editors don't bother to stop this nonsense.

bogey4

Meat? I'm picturing some guy putting a standing rib roast down his pants and strolling out of Von's. It's a pretty funny thought.

egretman

Don't you think that out of the 1+ million Freakonomics books sold that another 360,000 or so have been downloaded?

zbicyclist

Okumura wrote: "Newspapers routinely report figures in such an incomplete manner, leaving us to guess what the heck the numbers actually mean. I wonder why editors don't bother to stop this nonsense."

Newspaper stories routinely include numbers from various sources -- each of which may use a different definition of terms or may have a different time frame. By reporting numbers incompletely, these contradictions are less apparent.

In many cases, the numbers are just a garnish to the story, like parsley next to a hamburger. They make the story prettier, but provide no nourishment.

Connie H.

Shouldn't 'analgesics' (i.e. aspirin, tylenol) be generally included in 'health and beauty products'? Could the "increase" be a result of splitting up a category more finely?

In addition, I have to wonder at the actual usefulness of restricting pseudepinephrine sales, since to get a useful amount for a meth lab, you'd need to be shoplifting cartons of packages, not just one or two you could fit in your bag, et cetera.

filthy-lucre

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.

luxlunae

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.

pkimelma

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?

scottso

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.

John Fembup

#2 - luxlunae,

"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."

True, and there is in fact another cost component - checkout staff who pass items thru without scanning them, for the benefit of friends and family.

I think fear of increased theft is one reason that supermarkets have not converted 100% of their checkout to self-service.

BTW, what a curious term - "self" service.

PatHMV

It's not fear of theft that keeps some clerks around, it's customer preferences. I almost never bother with self check-out at Walmart or Albertsons. I find that the lines move much more slowly. The people ahead of me tend not to be able to operate the machinery very well, for one. Also, the supersensitive scales mentioned above can be very finicky. When I've bought very small items (like a packet of 3 screws), I've had to put up with the thing beeping at me over and over to place the scanned item in the bag.

In some places, I love self-service machines. I use them at the movies constantly now. But they don't have the kinks worked out in the supermarkets and other places yet. Maybe once we have RFID tags in everything and can check out just by pushing the buggy through.

Jun Okumura

"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."

On the other hand, the 63.6% may or may not include those who reported a decrease in theft rates, and likewise the 36.4%. Newspapers routinely report figures in such an incomplete manner, leaving us to guess what the heck the numbers actually mean. I wonder why editors don't bother to stop this nonsense.

bogey4

Meat? I'm picturing some guy putting a standing rib roast down his pants and strolling out of Von's. It's a pretty funny thought.

egretman

Don't you think that out of the 1+ million Freakonomics books sold that another 360,000 or so have been downloaded?