Self-scan checkouts are the new supermarket scourge

All quiet at the Hoogvliet self-scan. Photo: Brandon Hartley

Self-scan checkouts have invaded the Netherlands. You can find them everywhere from grocery stores to furniture giants like Ikea and the Etos pharmacy chain. Customers in a hurry and CEOs eager to cut back on labour costs both love them.

And so do shoplifters.

Jumbo’s chief executive Ton van Veen has just gone public with the claim that thieves had made off with an estimated €100 million worth of products from the grocery chain’s shelves.

He also confessed that thieves are becoming increasingly sophisticated and the self-scan desks account for a third of all thefts. Jumbo is not alone. Plus and Dirk, have also reported an increase in shoplifters in their stores.

According to an RTL Nieuws report from last summer, shoplifting increased 30% in 2022 and self-scan checkouts were cited as one of the primary reasons why. The Parool also recently reported that Dutch police tracked 41,000 shoplifting incidents from January to November 2023, a tally last reached in 2014.

But this is just one of the problems the self-scan checkouts have created since they started popping up all over the country.

Need for speed

Self-scan can be a godsend, especially for the tech savvy. They can walk up to one, scan their items, bag them, pay with their phone or bank card, and be out the door of their local Albert Heijn in a fraction of the time they would have spent waiting for a cashier.

Gone are the days of getting stuck in a line snaking down the frozen food aisle because a fussy customer is convinced they didn’t get the proper discount on a bag of cat litter.

But for the elderly, the less dexterous, customers who want to pay with cash, or individuals who’d rather not scroll through a long menu of apples until they find the correct type, self-scan is enough to put you off your groceries.

More than that, you may well end up being hauled over by the teenager monitoring the self-scan and asked to empty your bag so they can check that you have actually paid for all your shopping – which is not only an insult but loses all the time benefits the system brings in the first place.

I’m aware of several shoppers who left their groceries behind and sailed off into the sunset when ordered by some officious person “who is only doing their job” to unpack and pack up again. It’s worse than airport security.

Nor should we overlook the fact these systems require customers to do work once done by staff and with no training. While they’re relatively simple to use, at least in theory, it is easy to get it wrong and that can lead to flustered customers being treated like criminals and given shop bans forgetting to scan items like paper towels.

Sixteen-year-old shop assistants are being put in charge of the sections. They’ve been called names, threatened, and had things thrown at them while confronting customers, all for the princely sum of just €6.76 an hour.

Jumbo seems to think increasing the number of security cameras and some unspecified AI miracle will deter thieves. They and other supermarket chains like Dirk say they’ll provide additional training for their staff in the New Year. Some have also begun placing security tags on more expensive products.

Meanwhile, the FNV trade union says there should be fewer self-scan checkouts and older employees should monitor them instead of underpaid and poorly trained teenagers. They’d also like to see an increase in traditional cashier checkouts and the hiring of additional security guards. Wouldn’t we all.

There’s also the question of how much recent loses at these businesses can be truly attributed to shoplifting or issues with the kiosks and how much can be blamed on ‘shrink.’ That’s a term widely applied to other problems ranging from products not scanning properly to staff and vendor fraud.

In the meantime, you’ll find me at the self-scan desk for that carton of ice cream or missing essential ingredient. But if my shopping cart is full, I am quite happy to wait in line.

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