Self-checkout has been an asset to retailers looking to cut expenses, not to mention the speed and convenience it affords shoppers. Along with those advantages, however, comes a disturbing fact: Self-checkouts make the possibility of unscanned items — often for dishonest reasons — that much easier.
Retailers are employing a number of tactics to combat the possibility of unscanned items, including what one chain has dubbed “aggressive hospitality.” Woods Supermarket, a nine-store chain based in Missouri, gives self-scanners “more attention,” says director of loss prevention Doug Haworth.
“If customers are honest, they won’t mind the extra attention and the fact that we told them they forgot to scan something,” he says. “If they’re trying to get away with something, they’ll think to themselves, ‘They’re on to me.’”
Increased attention is one thing, but sometimes a little extra help is needed. Woods uses technology from StopLift Checkout Vision Systems at two stores where self-checkouts account for about 40 percent of all transactions — with good results.
“We have cut [unscanned items] by 90 percent,” Haworth says. “We have found that by body language, you can see customers who are trying to get away with something. You can see them ‘hide’ things in the cart — you can see the intention is there. We have been able to prosecute and it has held up as shoplifting.”
Shoplifters are the exception, however, since most unscanned items are unintentional or inadvertent, Haworth says. “What we see more often is that [customers] are not doing it on purpose. It’s not shoplifting, but it’s still a loss.”
Field results show that shoplifting “is as much as five times more likely to happen in the self-checkout lane,” says Malay Kundu, founder and CEO of StopLift. That’s why StopLift added enhancements and made modifications to its pioneering analytics-based ScanItAll video recognition technology. The original system was designed to use store surveillance cameras already in place at checkout. The system coordinates video of cashier-scanning activity records with scan data from the POS system.
Thus, when a video shows a cashier making 12 swipes and the register records only 10 items being rung up, a review of the video would show whether the extra swipes were to reposition the item so the scanner could read the barcode or if the cashier had missed the scanner altogether — intentionally or otherwise.
The system also supplies other relevant data like cashier identification, date and time of day. Loss prevention personnel are provided with the exception reports and can view videos and POS data on a regular schedule.
With self-checkouts there is more urgency, since a shoplifter’s appearance at the store isn’t as predictable as that of a scheduled cashier. In addition, the video frame monitoring self-checkout has to be enlarged to capture the whole POS system, weight scale, the self-scanning shopper and all levels of the shopping cart.
‘Different ways to cheat’
The major challenge with self-checkouts is that “dishonest customers have so much going for them,” says Kundu, noting that shoppers have more ways to try to beat the system. Cashiers might bypass the scanner or overlook things left in the cart to allow friends or associates to shoplift.
Self-scanning shoplifters can do both those things, in addition to scanning lower-priced items for higher-priced ones or committing “weightless” theft — bypassing the weight scale or putting a pound of premium coffee on the scale and manually inputting the code for unscannable items, such as bananas, which are much cheaper per pound.
Even when shoppers are detected trying to beat the system, “they can always claim they didn’t understand the machine,” Kundu says. “They can always say they didn’t intend to not scan something or accidentally left it in the cart.”
It was while researching self-checkout systems in real in-store situations that StopLift discovered the greater frequency of unscanned items. “There are all these different ways to cheat,” Kundu says. “This stuff has been going on at self-checkouts since they were introduced.”
In addition to smaller retailers, international retailers like Tesco are using the system on four continents around the globe. StopLift’s latest technology, the self-checkout accelerator, was developed in conjunction with self-checkout manufacturers NCR and Fujitsu and demonstrated at the NRF Annual Convention & EXPO last January.
The accelerator “enhances weight-based security to handle a broader spectrum of cases,” Kundu says. “Until now, security at the self-checkout has been performed solely by weight scales. Unfortunately, weight scales take a little time to settle and legitimate purchases do not always match their expected weight in the database. As a result, conventional security measures often produce mistaken alerts which frustrate customers, leading some retailers to disable security and expose themselves to theft.”
The accelerator could also be used to override alerts in special situations, such as when a shopper places a purse on the scale while preparing to begin the self-checkout process.
Haworth says Woods has budgeted for an upgrade that will provide immediate notification that items have been left unscanned, so store associates can intervene to point out forgotten items.
In the meantime, there is a one- or two-day delay between the infraction and when it is reviewed. The associate handling self-checkout is shown what happened, using video along with the receipt after the StopLift system has marked it in red. The review process takes about two hours each week, Haworth says, a great improvement both in time and accuracy from the days when they would manually review surveillance tape and coordinate it with cash register receipts.
“I’m a true believer,” Haworth says. “We realized our ROI within 30 days.”
On an encouraging note, Haworth says is that in the nearly two years the systems have been in place at Woods, “We have yet to find a dishonest cashier. Mistakes are made, like forgetting to scan an item because they were distracted by the store intercom or maybe talking a little too much to customers ... but you do like that engagement.”