Are supermarket self-checkouts turning shoppers into swipers?

The Criminology & Criminal Justice journal recently published an article by Emmeline Taylor of the Australian National University entitled “Supermarket self-checkouts and retail theft: The curious case of the SWIPERS”. Primarily, the article looked at whether the use of Self-Checkouts (SCO) cause theft amongst otherwise honest customers who would not steal in any other circumstances.

SCO technology has been used increasingly since 1992. Today it is a common feature of many retail shops and features most prominently in most major supermarkets. In fact, some ‘assisted service stores’ feature only SCO and no cashier staff.

Even from a lay perspective, it would seem a logical conclusion that transferring the responsibility and onus of properly administering the checkout process from cashier staff to the customer would correlate in an increase in theft, purely on account of the lack of supervision involved in SCO transactions. No doubt this would have been well accounted for by supermarkets and the like, and balanced against the savings to be made in reduced wages as staff numbers are reduced.

In fact, the article referred to a separate study by IBM which found that “if one store assistant can effectively manage four or more SCO lanes, 75% or more of that cost can be returned to the bottom line for each transaction completed”. Furthermore, staff have often found to be the cause of much store theft themselves through what is referred to as ‘sweet-heartening’; the “unauthorised giving away of goods without charge to friends, co-workers or family, a practice to which two thirds of participants in a 2012 study admitted to doing in the previous two months. In light of these figures, it becomes understandable then that a company may tolerate an increase in customer theft from stores where the cost is outweighed made by savings on staff and reduced theft elsewhere.

In order to deeper examine the correlation between SCO and rise in shop theft, the article analyses the different types of “seemingly well-intended patrons engaging in routine shopping”, or SWIPERS. It identifies those who are accidental, switching, compensating and irritated or frustrated.

According to the data available, over half of shoppers surveyed who admitted to stealing goods claim that when they first stole, it was by accident. Upon realising how easy it was to take the goods without paying however, they continued to steal regularly. The article points to this data supporting a claim that “individuals who get away with stealing without punishment are likely to lower their risk assessment and continue to commit the crime, thus creating a symbolic spiral of escalating criminality”.

Secondly, switchers are those who commit what the article refers to as ‘discount theft’ by scanning another cheaper product instead of the one they are actually walkout of the store with. It proposes that these offenders would not otherwise consider stealing if it were not for the SCO (or rather the opportunities for theft that SCO afford) and often view their actions as cheating or similar rather than stealing, as they are still paying something for the goods.

Compensating SWIPERS the article suggests are a cohort who are motivated to steal through a sense of entitlement and by way of construing the theft as some form of political act or justified as “deserved recompense” and therefore not a crime. This is often linked to the reduction of staff in supermarkets in particular, and from experiencing difficulties during the checkout process using SCO. Compensators regularly display behaviour neutralisation such as using the justifications above to allow themselves to continue adhering with society’s values of right and wrong.

Finally, the irritated and frustrated thief. Similar to compensators, the article describes these shoplifters as relying upon the failings associated with SCO to justify theft of goods. It questions how genuine difficulties such as ‘the item would not scan’ and ‘I could not find the correct vegetable’ which are oft cited are in reality, or whether they are simply products of excuse making behaviour.

From a Criminal Law perspective, the reasons or excuses that people steal are somewhat less grey. To be found guilty of a charge of theft, the Prosecution must be able to establish that the accused person appropriately property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other and have done so dishonestly. With respect to SWIPERS, it would generally not be in issue that property was taken, which belonged to the retailer. The issues would lie in whether the accused person dishonestly intended to take the item or items when they failed to pay at the SCO and left the store. This is likely an area to engage a Melbourne criminal lawyer to argue.

For the most part, retailers and supermarkets in particular have shown that they would rather contact the person who left the store without paying and seek that they return the goods or pay than involve the police “where there is any doubt about intention”, meaning that these cases are not often seen before the Courts.

The study ultimately poses the question, will society’s normalising of this manner of theft as a minor and harmless activity disperse into other consumer-orientation payment systems? It quotes a previous assertion made in 1970 that “there is a little larceny in everyone” and it would be hard to argue that the implementation of SCO has provided greater opportunity for theft. The bottom line however is that the large majority of these scenarios are examples of thefts.

If you want to talk to a Criminal lawyer in Melbourne about any of the above, or for a free case assessment, please call us on 03 9034 7351 or email to

Tom Isaacs

Tom Isaacs

Bachelor of Laws with Honours - LLB(Hons)

Tom has been part of the firm for the past 10 years, working initially as a law clerk and now as a fully qualified Solicitor. He completed his Bachelor of Laws with Honours at Deakin University, and undertook his legal training at the Leo Cussen Insititute where he was president of his class. Tom appears regularly at Magistrates' Courts, both metropolitan and in regional Victoria.