Shoppers Get Candid About Stealing at Self-Checkout

New LendingTree survey reveals the direct link between shrink and checkout process
Lynn Petrak
Senior Editor
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Self -checkout stats
Most shoppers have used and like self-checkout, but many remain temped to take items without paying.

Consumers have gotten honest about their temptation to steal during the self-checkout process. Confirming what many retailers already know or suspect, 15% of respondents in a recent survey conducted for online lending market LendingTree reported that they have purposely taken an item while supposedly scanning. 

In an even worse signal for grocers with self-checkout lanes, although 60% have felt remorseful afterwards, 44% plan to steal products again when using that option. This kind of theft issue is widely acknowledged as a problem, with 69% of consumers agreeing that self-checkout technology contributes to shoplifting. 

[Read more: “Retailers Rethink Self-Checkout”]

Even those who don’t steal aren’t keen on turning in those who do. The survey showed that of the 23% of self-checkout users who have seen someone steal from the machines, 45% did nothing about it. 

LendingTree found some notable demographic differences in sticky fingers at self-checkout. Nearly a third (31%) of Gen Z shoppers and 21% of Millennials have purposely taken an item without scanning it. On a gender basis, 52% of men say they would take items without paying again, compared to 33% of women. Half of those with children under 18 say they would steal in the future, versus 39% of respondents who are not parents.

To be sure, food inflation and lack of food access have contributed to theft at the point of sale, but the survey indicates that there is a portion of the buying public who steal for the sake of stealing. “There’s no doubt that some folks struggling financially might be tempted to walk away without paying,” said Matt Schulz, LendingTree’s chief credit analyst. “However, I think there may be more who do it because they can or because of the thrill of it. I also think that those who did it successfully could be tempted into doing it again. Given there were no consequences the first time, they may be emboldened to do it over and over again."

While the survey underscores concerning ethical issues among many consumers, there were some positive findings, too. About two-thirds (62%) of respondents said they like the efficiency of self-checkout and 44% appreciate shorter lines. Almost all – 96% – of Americans have used self-checkout at least once.

Schulz said that retailers need to balance the risk and reward aspects of self-checkout as they battle shrink to stay competitive and profitable. “While self-checkout is convenient, it certainly poses a risk for shoplifting,” he said. “Ultimately, retailers need to decide whether the self-checkout terminals are worth the risk. Sure, they can help the store save money because fewer people are needed to check out customers. The question, however, is whether that savings outweighs the potential uptick in theft. That’s a question lots of retailers are likely wrestling with.”

The issue is already a hot one in the industry. In the United Kingdom, grocery chain Booths recently announced that it is taking out almost all of its self-checkout areas based on consumer feedback and other issues.  In the United States, Walmart shared plans to remove self-checkout from some stores in New Mexico, while some Target stores started limiting self-checkout to 10 items or fewer. Earlier this fall, ShopRite restored full-service checkout lanes to stores in Delaware. To combat purchases from non-members, Costco is now requiring membership verification and photo identification at self-checkout areas

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