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Stores risk losing younger shoppers with anti-theft measures targeting self-checkouts: retail expert

By Natasha O’Neill, Writer

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    Toronto, Ontario (CTV Network) — Amid a recorded rise in retail theft, companies are taking more measures at self-checkouts to stop people from stealing.

Allowing customers to complete their own transactions can make shopping seamless and easy, but a retail strategist says self-checkouts are also an avenue for theft.

Liza Amlani, principal and co-founder of Retail Strategy Group, told in an interview that self-checkouts without additional measures are one of the ways thieves can easily steal from retailers.

“Customers want self-checkout, they don’t want to be monitored, or security hovering over them,” Amlani said.

But some companies have started implementing more measures, particularly at self-checkouts, that can change the customer experience.

“The convenience of self-checkout, especially across the younger generations who prefer it, I think that’s where retailers will really kind of lose customer loyalty and even market share,” Amlani said.

RETAIL THEFT ON THE RISE Recently Loblaw Companies Ltd. implemented a receipt check for some stores in Canada, which prompted backlash from customers.

Loblaw-owned stores, including Loblaws, Real Canadian Superstore, Shoppers Drug Mart, Your Independent Grocer, Zehrs and No Frills, started asking customers for their receipts before leaving the store.

A report by the Retail Council of Canada, meanwhile, suggests that retail thefts have increased by about 300 per cent since the pandemic began.

“The reason why people are stealing, why theft is on the rise, is because of the state of the economy,” Amlani said. “If people can’t afford essentials, and their daily grocery needs then of course, they’re gonna have to do something about it.”

Food inflation has hit many consumers hard over the last year, with basic products, like fresh fruits and vegetables, increasing to unaffordable prices.

Due to the independent nature of self-checkouts, Amlani says it is attractive for thieves to use them, but additional measures can be taken to deter efforts.

HOW TECHNOLOGY CAN HELP DETER THEFT New technology in tags, like radio-frequency identification (RFID), allows for a product to be tracked by the company throughout the supply chain.

“There’s a lot of products out there that have magnetic traceability, like through RFID technology built into the product label,” she said. “So it is possible for brands and retailers to track the journey of their product, especially from a theft and loss prevention perspective.”

This technology is harder to implement on grocery items, which is why other measures can be added to ensure theft does not happen at self-checkouts.

Some retailers have cameras to watch for theft, while others have implemented scales.

“If you go to Shoppers (Drug Mart), or even Walmart, they use scales,” Amlani said. “So whatever you weigh in should match as you weigh out.”

Receipt checks are another way to monitor theft, but they can leave a negative feeling for the customer if the employee accuses them of stealing.

Some Canadians also reported receipt checks are not being done for all customers, which raised concerns of racial profiling.

Employee and brand ambassador expectations have risen in the past few years, Amlani said, especially during the pandemic when front-line workers ensured distancing, masking and monitored for thefts.

“I would say upscale training. Just really understanding what your employees are going through and what they’re willing to do and if there are roles that we need to clearly define,” she said.

Amlani says not all theft measures should be used at the same time.

“It’s just a matter of just figuring out what is the right balance to make the customer still feel great about their shopping experience,” she said. “So the customer experience should be delightful without being invasive.”

THE POPULARITY OF SELF-CHECKOUTS At the Billings Bridge Walmart in Ottawa, some customers were unhappy with the brief closure of a self-checkout.

“I just feel like that’s not a really smart move, because there’s going to be so many people. Lines are backed up as it is on a normal day at Walmart,” Justin Jituboh, a shopper, told CTV News Ottawa. “So I feel like they definitely should open the self-checkout.”

A Walmart Canada spokesperson told in an interview that the self-checkout was closed due to construction.

“We look forward to interacting with you on a one-on-one basis,” a sign posted by the company at the self-checkout area read.

But the interaction with people is one of the reasons customers choose the self-checkout in the first place, one shopper said.

“Some people don’t want to have to talk to people in the checkout lines, so that’s going to be a bummer,” Kateri Trzebiatowski told CTV News Ottawa.

Self-checkouts jumped in popularity over the pandemic when distancing orders were in place, especially with younger shoppers, a study by Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab suggests.

The May 2021 survey shows 53 per cent of respondents said they would use a self-checkout machine in the future.

While the new technology makes small purchases quicker for customers, one shopper points out how convenient cashiers still are.

“It’s a lot easier for me if someone else does it and puts it in the bag and whatnot,” Albert Gervai told CTV News Ottawa. “I don’t really enjoy the self-checkout, to be honest with you, unless it’s (for) one or two things.”

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