Australia’s two biggest supermarkets are going to increasingly drastic lengths to fight back against stealing and violent behaviour in their stores – but experts are saying it could lead to a sense of ‘distrust’ and ‘trauma’ in customers.
Retailers say the moves are necessary to combat a $9billion-a-year problem, but they are being slammed by privacy campaigners as over the top and likely to unfairly target the most vulnerable members of society.
Coles announced this week that it would introduce a range of hi-tech security measures in stores across the nation, including overhead cameras to track customers’ every move, enhanced AI cameras at checkouts and ‘smart-gates’ that lock automatically if people try to do a runner with goods they haven’t paid for.
The store also revealed the use of body-worn cameras – similar to those used by police or bouncers – would be used in some of its most high-risk stores to protect staff against an alarming increase in violence
Coles’ body-worn cameras will be trialed across the supermarket giant’s stores
Australia’s two biggest supermarkets are going to increasingly drastic lengths to fight back against stealing and violent behaviour in their stores – but experts are saying it could lead to a sense of ‘distrust’ and ‘trauma’ in customers
Woolworths has also been ramping up security, with its rollout of enhanced cameras monitoring customers at self-checkouts receiving mixed reviews.
‘It’s important to note that the majority of customers do the right thing in store. Measures like this are for the ones who don’t,’ a Coles spokesperson said.
Privacy campaigners say the extra security measures are an unnecessary burden on people going about their daily lives.
The new security will only add to the ‘fear you’re constantly being watched’, Deakin University senior lecturer in criminology Mary Ilias said.
The cameras will also ‘exacerbate feelings of trauma and distrust’ for vulnerable people, according to Dr Ilias.
She fears innocent people who appear unsettled or shaky, perhaps due to a physical or mental condition, may be unfairly targeted by the new security measures, causing unnecessary distress.
Retail advocates hit back, saying the new technology wouldn’t be rolled out if customers weren’t happy with it.
‘New technology such as body cameras is being tested by some stores here and overseas and is being done so within privacy laws and with careful attention to staff and customer feedback,’ Australian Retailers Association chief executive Paul Zahra said.
Retailers say the moves are necessary to combat a $9billion-a-year problem
Retail staff will wear the new cameras to fight theft and violence in Coles stores
‘It’s in retailers’ interests to keep their customers comfortable and at ease in stores and this kind of technology is first and foremost to keep frontline retail staff and customers safe.’
Woolworths introduced a similar bold security measure in a bid to keep its employees safe back in 2021 that was widely praised by shoppers.
‘The use of these cameras has seen a substantial reduction in the amount of abusive and physical incidents our stores team members have faced,’ a Woolies spokesperson said.
Addressing privacy concerns, supermarket spokespeople said footage from the new cameras would not be kept ‘for any longer than a few weeks’ and the cameras complied with Australian laws.
However, despite consumers welcoming measures to protect supermarket staff, many have also addressed concerns at the growing number of cameras in stores.
Controversial overhead AI checkout cameras, fitted at self-serve checkouts in both Coles and Woolworths, have been widely criticised, as customers claim the relentless surveillance is ‘completely unacceptable’.
Some footage recorded during a recent trial of the body-worn cameras
Many customers have taken to social media to air their frustration (pictured, a Woolworths self-serve checkout)
Ultimately, the question boils down to whether or not the new measures are too much of an overstep for businesses to protect their bottom line, say experts.
‘I think Coles should perhaps consider other approaches that do not default to surveillance,’ Australian Privacy Foundation vice-chair Monique Mann said.
‘Let’s think about why are we seeing increases in people shoplifting? Why are people being aggressive towards staff? People are struggling. At the same time, Coles and Woolworths are recording massive (in excess of a billion dollars) profits amid a cost of living crisis. Maybe they should think about that and try to alleviate cost of living pressures that rather than just expand surveillance and their profits,’ Dr Mann said.
Mr Zahra said theft costs Australian retailers an estimated $9bn annually, although he said a lot of crime still went unreported.
‘Retailers use these technologies in accordance with stringent privacy laws and have strict protocols in place.’