Shoppers who cheat self-scan tills by passing off expensive purchases as cheaper items could soon be rumbled by new tech checks.
As many as one in three admit to not paying for items when using the self-scan tills, sometimes because they find them difficult and frustrating to use.
At the same time, shoplifters target the self-scan tills as an easy way to steal expensive items, such as cheese, steak and razors.
Supermarkets have switched to self-scan tills to cut costs, but the move has led to thefts estimated at more than £500million a year.
Supermarkets made the switch to self-scan tills to cut costs, but it has led to thefts estimated at more than £500million a year
Retail crime experts said supermarkets have been forced to test new technology to clamp down on so-called swipers, an acronym for ‘seemingly well-intentioned patrons engaging in routine shoplifting’.
This includes devices that can tell when an item in the bagging area is a different size or colour to the one scanned.
The new generation of checkouts can also detect unusual patterns. Most shoppers will buy only one bag of carrots but if someone scans five bags, the till will alert staff to a possible scam.
Professor Adrian Beck, of the University of Leicester, who advises stores on tackling theft, said: ‘It is very common for people to select brown onions, which are cheap for the weight, to represent things like bananas, avocados and grapes.’
He added that current systems ‘work on weight, so you can put a bottle of champagne on and press potatoes. If it [the scanner] can’t recognise what they look like, it will be perfectly happy with that’.
‘People make excuses for why they haven’t followed the rules such as “there were problems with a barcode”, or “they made me use this machine and I tried my best but it didn’t work”.’
New technology including devices that can tell when an item in the bagging area is a different size or colour to the one scanned may be introduced
The professor has analysed responses from 3,000 shop workers on self-service theft. He said a new system in use at some supermarkets noted the colour of an item and allowed a shopper to only select objects of the same hue, such as apples, courgettes and green peppers.
He added: ‘Other supermarkets have installed gates as you leave the checkout. If you scan the items but do not pay then the machine knows and will not let you through. A number of companies are trialling this.’
In another development, SuperSmart, an Israeli tech company, has developed a system that can weigh an entire trolley at the tills. This checks to see if the items scanned match the total weight.
Professor Emmeline Taylor, who specialises in retail crime at City, University of London, coined the ‘swipers’ acronym.
She told the Sunday Times: ‘Self service has created a new breed of shoplifter. Rather than seeing it as problematic, they get a buzz from it or see it as funny or socially acceptable in a way that you wouldn’t if you stole a piece of cheese from Tesco.
‘I heard about one customer who cut off the barcode from noodles, because they are cheap and he knew the weight of them, and glued it their watch. He would scan that barcode and cover up the code on a packet of cheese or chicken of the same weight.’
Reasons given for walking off without paying included carelessness, the barcode not scanning, forgetting to bring cash or a bank card to the supermarket, the cost of living, or not being able to afford the item
One Australian supermarket only realised that it was the victim of swipers when an audit showed that it had sold more carrots than it had in stock. Managers realised that customers had put expensive goods through the tills as carrots, with some scanning up to 18kg at a time.
According to a survey of 2,000 UK adults, one in three people admit to having stolen from self-checkout systems this year alone, albeit sometimes unintentionally.
The reasons given for walking off without paying included carelessness, the barcode not scanning, forgetting to bring cash or a bank card to the supermarket, the cost of living, or not being able to afford the item.
The survey, by Myfavouritevouchercodes.co.uk, found that the items most commonly stolen at self-service checkouts are toiletries and hygiene products, fresh produce and baby formula milk.