On the odd occasion that psychology student Thomas* checked his receipt outside the supermarket and saw that he had paid for all his groceries, he would sigh in disappointment and think: ‘Shit, I could have saved money again!’
After all, he would normally save around 25 euros a week. Simply by stealing at the self-scan checkout, he says. ‘It almost felt like a waste not to. Especially when it’s so easy.’
Figures from Statistics Netherlands show that he is not the only one: shoplifting rose by more than 30 percent in 2022 compared to the previous year. Many retail experts attribute this huge rise to the mass adoption of self-scan checkouts in supermarkets.
SORRY, I FORGOT
‘You never needed a strategy to steal’, says Thomas. ‘When employees check your bag, they usually only take out the top few items. If they do find something, you can just say you forgot to scan it. After paying for those items, you were free to go. It didn’t feel like they cared that much.’
Mark*, who is a graduate in Economic and Consumer Psychology of all things, also found that stealing was very easy. ‘They never checked us’, he says. ‘I only stole a few times per month: speciality beers for a drinks night with a friend. Speciality beers are relatively expensive, and it feels like you don’t get much in return. I only buy budget brands when shopping for regular groceries. So I didn’t think it was worth the risk of not paying for it and getting caught for a 60-cent can of tomato paste.’
Unlike Thomas, Mark did have a tactic. We had chosen six unique speciality beers and we took two of each. We scanned half and put them in a bag right away. If we were selected for a random check, we’d just say that we wanted to pay for the other half separately. ‘Eventually, the stealing became a habit’, says Thomas. ‘I never felt any guilt. I’d sooner feel guilty towards myself for not doing it. It’s not like Albert Heijn would actually miss those three euros with their high profit margins.’
‘I’d feel more guilty in front of a cashier’, says Mark. ‘It’s much more personal that way, and stealing would feel very awkward. At the self-scan checkouts, they practically invite you to.’
He did show remorse to his friends. ‘They thought it was morally wrong. They told me there were other ways to protest profiteering. One of my best friends was very firmly opposed to it. I didn’t like hearing that and it really gnawed at me.’
Political science student Floortje Slimmens works as a self-scan employee at Albert Heijn XL in Leiden. She, too, has noticed a lot of theft at the self-scan checkouts. Every shift, she catches people who “forget” to scan something.
‘The thing is that it’s only officially shoplifting when you walk out the exit gates. If you catch people before that, they usually act like it’s an accident. It’s always the same excuses: “Sorry! I forgot” or “Oh, I thought I’d already scanned it”. I don’t believe most people. Self-scanning is not something brand new. It’s been around for years and there are signs explaining the rules everywhere. Of course, no one wants to admit that they were planning to swipe something. But usually, the only thing I can do is make them pay and let them go.’
Slimmens also notices that things are getting worse by the measures the supermarket is taking to combat theft. ‘The random checks went from scanning a few products to scanning 12 products. For people with few groceries, this means you scan almost all of the customer’s products nowadays.’
According to her, people tend to react very negatively to these comprehensive checks. ‘And they’re convinced that the checks aren’t random at all; that we deliberately single them out. Sometimes, they start yelling: “Why me again? I’m no thief!” So we hung up banners asking customers to be respectful. I understand the frustration because the self-scan checkout is intended for quick grocery shopping. So that’s why it feels funny if we have to rescan everything.’
What does she do if she catches someone red-handed? ‘Thankfully, I never have to do the hard work, I just notify a superior who handles the rest. I do still find it a bit scary to confront people about it. After all, they might get aggressive.’
In addition to more vigorous checks, the supermarket now also hires security guards to support its staff. ‘We don’t know when they work and neither do the customers. They usually watch the camera surveillance and wait for the thieves to leave the store. I once opened the exit gates for a boy who said he didn’t have any groceries. The guards caught him outside the gates and it turned out he had trays of sushi hidden in his coat.’
According to Statistics Netherlands, shoplifting rose by more than 30 percent in 2022 compared to 2021. Even if you factor in the Covid-19 measures, it is a sharp increase both in terms of percentage and absolute figures. This is remarkable because there has been a decline in reported shoplifting incidents since 2015.
The consequences depend on ‘the nature and extent of the theft’, according to a police spokesperson. ‘A supermarket manager may decide to settle the case with a civil fine and a shop ban. If the police are brought in, the case may lead to a reprimand or even a criminal prosecution by the Public Prosecution Service. In that case, they give a ruling based on age, extent of the theft or recidivism. At worst, it could lead to a criminal record or a community sentence.’
‘If you get caught outside the gates now, it’s standard procedure for us to call the police’, Slimmens says. ‘I once had a three-hour shift during which the police showed up six times; it was truly bizarre. I still consider it a big deal when two men in police suits take someone away.’
Thomas also got caught. ‘I hadn’t scanned 30 percent of my groceries at Hoogvliet. They got the manager and he told me that unfortunately, they had to call the police. He said they were carrying out extra checks that day and that I was the twentieth person they had caught.’
That Hoogvliet manager was Joey Groenenberg. ‘On average, we catch six people a day’, he said. ‘Students make a sport out of it. I heard that in student houses, they sometimes keep score of how many euros they’ve stolen.’
Groenenberg understands in part why stealing is appealing to students. ‘Prices have gone up, of course. Meat, beer and cosmetics are the most commonly stolen items. These are tough times and students don’t want to give up their luxuries. But if you watch your budget more carefully, you don’t have to steal.’
The supermarket manager would prefer to go back to the traditional checkout lanes. ‘I think there’s less theft at regular checkouts. That’s because you have to put everything on the belt and the cashier checks every customer. I don’t thing the salary costs outweigh the number of products that are stolen. Unfortunately, head office wants to keep the self-scan checkouts.’
That is why the focus is now on prevention, he says. ‘Hoogvliet is increasing the number of random checks and the number of products that are scanned during those checks. We’re also more likely to call the police. What many students don't know is that stealing can have major consequences for their future. First of all, you're banned from the shop and get a 181 euro civil fine. We enforce the ban by keeping your data in a folder and most faces are recognised by cashiers as well.’
In addition, offenders are issued a reprimand. ‘That’s not a criminal record, but rather a kind of notation that you’re registered with the police. I once had a law student completely break down in my office. For him, a notation could have negative consequences for future applications to law firms.’
For Thomas, such a reprimand was reason enough to quit. ‘After the police had arrived, they told me I had the right to remain silent and that I would get a criminal record the next time. Only then did I realise how serious it was. I haven’t stolen anything since. I want to become a clinical psychologist someday, and a criminal record would make that much more difficult.’
Mark eventually also retired from shoplifting. ‘I have a steady job now, so it feels petty to steal a few cheap groceries. And it used to be more fun because I had an adolescent brain. The excitement was extra motivation for me.’
‘I thought I’d never get caught’, says Thomas. ‘I’d also never thought about possible consequences. I felt like I’d always be able to get away with it. As it turned out, that was not the case. Now I have to explain to my friends all the time why I’m not allowed into Hoogvliet.’
*The names of Thomas and Mark are fictitious, their real identities are known to the editors.