As it turns out, the self-checkout line has a big drawback.
It seems to be passively encouraging shoppers to steal.
At least, such is the recent finding of a study out of the University of Leicester in England, which concludes that consumers going through self-checkout lanes create about 4 percent loss - about doubling the rate of customers who go through standard checkout lines. And given that profit margins in grocery around the world are in the 3 percent to 5 percent range - those big upticks mean big issues for the bottom line.
The study focused particularly on shoppers in the U.S., U.K. and Europe - and sought to systemically answer a question that has been bandied about in retail in the decade or so that self-checkout lanes have become a popular alternative. Are such systems - which run on an honor system of consumers actually ringing through all of their own items correctly - making it more likely that consumers will take advantage?
“Retailers could find themselves accused of making theft so easy that some customers who would normally — and happily — pay are tempted to commit crime, especially when they feel ‘justified’ in doing it,” the researchers said in a statement.
So does that happen? The study looked at consumer behavior over 12 million shopping trips from four retailers in Britain, two in the United States and one each in Belgium and the Netherlands between December 2013 and February 2015.
After a detailed audit of a million trips (6 million checked items) - about 850 thousand were found to have gone by the wayside - or 4 percent.
Did the customer steal those items - and decide not to check everything through? Did they forget to check something they didn't spot at the bottom of their cart? Did they just plain use the technology wrong and think they entered something they didn't?
According to the research - that part is hard to quantify without a more detailed study.
But, one of the researchers noted, such a study is certainly warranted, since the self-checkout line is here to stay.
“Both loved and loathed by consumers, with the phrase ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’ striking dread into many a shopper, self-scan technologies are growing in use and likely to become even more prominent.”
However, on the assumption that at least some consumers are employing a "buy 20 - take 5 mentality," Read Hayes, a research scientist at the University of Florida and the director of the Loss Prevention Research Council, notes there are remedies available.
“Public view monitors perched either above or at eye level at the self-service machines can help combat theft," noted Dr. Hayes said.
Such set ups allow shoppers to appear on the screen, with a sign noting they are being watched.
Random controlled trials have found increased sales in lanes with the monitors, meaning there were fewer deliberate or careless losses, Dr. Hayes said.