Retail Customer Experience: Using Associates to Reduce Self-Checkout Theft

May 15, 2012

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from Retail Customer Experience, a daily news portal devoted to helping retailers differentiate the shopping experience.

While video analytics and other technologies may be the ultimate answer to reducing theft at self-checkouts, staffing the areas and training promise a quicker path to stem any losses.

It may seem like an oxymoron to hire employees to run self-checkout, but the solution was never designed to run without humans. A typical configuration of four or six kiosks next to one another calls for one employee monitoring the area.

"They are supposed to have that person standing there helping the customer, but a vast majority of these theft issues occur when they’re pulled away to bag groceries or something," said Bill Alford, president of International Lighthouse Group, a risk management firm. "That’s when you get blatant theft."

The employee also must know what types of theft occur at the self-checkout. One common trick is pretending to scan an item; another is not even bothering with the scanning ruse and directly moving the item from the cart to the bag.

It’s true that most checkout kiosks have components that weigh products and will note a discrepancy, for example, if something costs $1, and it weighs 20 pounds. However, each machine has a "skip bagging" feature that thieves use to their advantage, Mr. Alford said.

Price switching and entering the wrong PLU codes are also common. Price switching occurs when shoppers simply scan a cheaper item but then put a more expensive item in the cart.

Entering multiple PLU codes of the same product should be another red flag to retailers. For example, most shoppers don’t buy six bundles of bananas, but thieves will use those PLU codes and then take more expensive items, Mr. Alford said.

They also need to know how to approach a possible thief and understand that there’s no need to confront a customer in an accusatory tone.

"You should treat all customer interaction as a service," he said. ‘If you see a product in the cart you say, ‘Oh here let me help you; I think you forgot about this.’ "If you see someone pick up a product and pretend to wave it over the scanner and put it in the cart you say, ‘Oh, let me help you with that. It needs to beep.’ Don’t try to catch them, try to help them."

Discussion Questions: What role should associates  play in reducing theft at self-checkouts? Of those mentioned, which suggested uses of store employees at self-checkouts are the easiest/most challenging to implement?

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9 Comments on "Retail Customer Experience: Using Associates to Reduce Self-Checkout Theft"

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Frank Riso

As a prior store manager, I would never expect a store associate to put themselves in harm’s way to stop a shoplifter. Today, we have more technology in the store to assist the professional loss prevention teams, such as video. This technology continues to improve to the point where video analytics could recognize the customers and keep data on repeat shoplifters. Shoplifting is not a onetime event; once they learn how to do it at the self checkouts, they are more apt to shoplift more often. That is when the use of the video analytics and training start. Once the video application sees the shoplifter as they even enter the store, store staff can be ready to assist that shopper and prevent the theft. A few of these trips will soon discourage the shoplifter and the word will get out to others.

I also believe that the one person assigned to the self checkouts should never leave the area unless someone else takes over for them. Those who want to steal will always find a way, we just need to be more attentive to our customers and that is the best prevention.

Bob Phibbs

It would be nice to instead of training them to be security guards who suspiciously examine the 90% of shoppers who are honest to catch the 10% who aren’t, to train them to be helpful. We’ve all gone to a self-checkout kiosk expecting it to be quick then the machine crashed with some exception, no checker to be found and the ensuing wait which is longer than just going to a regular checker.

Telling a customer “I think you forgot this,” in its best presentation is accusatory, but my guess of the actual delivery at the scanner would be off-putting for most people who would feel judged. And let’s face it, that’s what those cashiers are being trained to do.

Steve Montgomery

The mere presence of an associate in the self-checkout area helps reduce theft, but as noted, companies often utilize this person to do other tasks. This provides opportunity — one of the three key elements for theft to occur.

I expect that few companies properly prepare their employees to handle shoplifting at the self-checkout area. The suggestions listed are great, but it takes training to use them. We have found that role playing as part of the training better prepares employees than simply saying here’s what you do if you see this.

Roger Saunders

Asking the customer, or offering them help, provides added service, an opportunity for customer interaction, and an opportunity to smile, and let consumers know you appreciate their visit.

This also serves to cut down on shrink in a variety of ways. It’s tougher to “steal” from someone who has extended a smile and a helping hand (guilt does work).

Matt Schmitt

Retailers are increasing efficiencies and saving on labor costs with self-checkout. Video and other technologies are less intrusive and disturbing than associates watching like a hawk and policing for theft. It’s unnerving and a bad experience to the vast majority of loyal customers who aren’t stealing to be given the “hawkeye and receipt-frisk treatment.”

Ed Dunn
5 years 4 months ago

Until the point-of-sale move to item-level identification (with RFID or additional 2D barcode) instead of using SKUs at the point of sale scan, social engineering hacks like this will continue to exist.

Ralph Jacobson

I know from Larry Miller’s Supermarket Shrink surveys of the past that customers are inherently honest. For the vast minority of shoppers who are responsible for theft, staffing one employee at the self-checkouts intimidates 99% of them.

Lee Kent

This is not really a knowledge area for me and I don’t know what the loss numbers look like but I’m wondering if something along the lines of the Costco receipt check might be a thought?

gordon arnold

Preparation is far from the issue here. The issue is associate apathy. If associates cared more about what they do, the shrink numbers would fall hard and customer satisfaction would soar.


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