I’m not a shoplifter

I tend to be fairly easy-going about the hoops we jump through because of other people’s lack of integrity.  I understand that retailers may tread a fine line between treating their customers like would-be criminals and having shrinkage eat up all their profits, and usually I see their security measures as a little irritating, but probably inevitable.

But I get really irritated when I have to present my invoice for double-checking at an exit from a store, or have any clothes I’d like to try on counted, with great care, by an attendant before I’m allowed to venture into a fitting room.  The irrefutable truth is that I’m being treated like a potential shoplifter rather than a valued customer.

Woolies corporate Mission Statement probably doesn’t specify that they will maintain shrinkage below x% by treating all customers as potential criminals, but it’s certainly a key objective!  Of course, I’m being very unfair in singling out Woolies; it’s standard procedure at so many shops that mostly we don’t even pay attention.

DIY scanners for faster shopping

But two weeks ago I was in the Netherlands and popped into an Albert Hein supermarket.  It’s a nice store, part of a national chain, basically a regular supermarket with all the usual facilities.

But this time there was something new:  self-scanning. And as the header card promises, it’s fast and easy.


Customer scanning groceries

Shoppers simply collect a scanner at the supermarket entrance and scan each item before dropping it into their shopping bag.

When they’ve finished, they head for the self-service payment station, present their scanner and insert their bank card.  Quick, simple and rather fun! No need to unpack and repack your trolley, no queues or waiting for someone who ran back for something they forgot.

Self-service pay point at a supermarket

Now, other than the way this speeds up the shopping, it’s also a nice way to be treated.  They assume that their customers are, by and large, honest enough to pay for everything in their shopping bags.

Of course, I’m sure they do spot checks from time to time, but on the whole, they appear to trust their customers.  And of course, they still have plenty of regular till points for their technophobic customers.

Coffee station at Albert Hein supermarket

And just by the way, they also had a new self-service coffee station, where you can help yourself to a free cup of coffee.  Hey, I don’t even like coffee, but I was impressed.  Just one more little thing they offer their customers to make them feel special.

I have no idea how good the coffee is, or how well any increase in shrinkage will be compensated for by the long-term savings attributable to self-scanning, but I’m sure they’ve done the calculations.  But these two innovations are more than a financial decision; they are part of a sound marketing strategy.  They offer real value to their target market and set Albert Hein apart from their competitors.   The technology is not a sustainable point of difference, but by being first in, they have positioned their brand as more sophisticated and leading the way.

But mostly, they have shown their customers that Albert Hein is prepared to do things to make their lives simpler and more pleasant.  And isn’t that a far better relationship than being treated like a shoplifter?

And wouldn’t it be great if our society behaved in a way that allowed us all to be treated with this kind of respect?


  1. Chantal Edouard-Betsy on June 20, 2013 at 15:32

    Hi Ann

    Very relevant points.

    I think a factor worth considering is the retailer itself as well – if you’re an upmarket retailer, you attract upmarket (and presumably less likely to shoplift) customers, and you concentrate more on the experience of the customer rather than the stuff.

    In our environment shrinkage is practically non existent despite us removing our safety systems and I think this is largely due to the LSM of our customers and the experience – you’re hardly likely to shoplift in an environment where you have been given exceptional service. I am personally horrified when I go shopping in some of our traditional retailers at how far the lengths they go to make the shopping experience as terrible as possible for the client. How many clothing shops don’t have trolleys or baskets for example – now you’re running around with parcels from other shopping and having to tuck garments behind your ears and under your arm pits while you juggle trying to browse for other garments. One wonders if some retailers are there to sell stuff or just display it?

    I would personally love a Woolies foods where I could scan and pay my own groceries but sadly I agree with some of the other commenters here that it is unlikely in RSA.

    • Ann Druce on June 21, 2013 at 10:13

      Hi Chantal

      I’m not sure I agree with you that a wealthier clientele are less likely to shoplift. Yes, poverty will play a role in theft, but I think it’s more than that. Look at Sheryl Cwele, the drug trafficker: She had a very well-paying job but still wanted more.

      A broad lack of morality and greed are probably more to blame.

      Your approach of concentrating on the customer experience may be the key to your limited shrinkage. Engaged customers or clients are more likely to support you rather than steal from you.

  2. Dr Jacques van den Berg on June 19, 2013 at 14:11

    I agree that in certain types of countries, it would work very well, especially in places like Dubai, where you can leave all your cash in your hotel room and go out for the day, leaving your door open – everything will be there when you come back. But South African conditions may differ very slightly from the norm.

  3. Joan - BlogBizBuzz on June 19, 2013 at 13:27

    I agree with both sides of this debate, it would be lovely to move into the future. Education is required, which only society will provide as a whole. Certain parts of the world you are able to set up a fruit stall, show the price and leave it unattended, money is placed into a jar, similar concept on total trust.

  4. Michele Uyttenhoven on June 19, 2013 at 10:13

    My pet irritation is not being able to take 6 items into the change room, because the limit is only 5 at a time…

    • Ann Druce on June 19, 2013 at 16:03

      Yes, particularly when it’s quiet and you’re the only one trying things on.

  5. Pat Pughe-Parry on June 19, 2013 at 10:05

    Must say I haven’t found this problem at Woolies but there are plenty of stores that insist on checking the till slips and counting the items. I always think it ridiculous that security has no clue really what you have bought. It also really annoys me that the security guard watches you unpack the trolley, have the items scanned, watch you pack your trolley, put your slip back into your purse and then demand to check! OK I hate shopping

    • Ann Druce on June 19, 2013 at 16:04

      Or when you unsuspectingly put your invoice in your purse, close your handbag and pick up your parcels – only to get to the exit and have to unpack everything.

  6. michelle proctor on June 18, 2013 at 07:48

    Hi Ann,
    I hear what you say & a number if real first world countries offer the same. Last visit to Australia (didn’t notice coffee though) it did feel novel and so fabulously sophisticated! As much as I agree with you, I have to disagree.
    We live in a corrupt state, if you check statistics & research findings you will note the majority of the population are very sadly lacking. I’m talking honesty, integrity & the whole nine yards.
    So sadly because we are a society lacking in basic moral values we cannot expect the retailers to treat a small % with integrity at the risk of majority given free rein for thievery.
    Until we change the behaviour & a whole host of contributing factors we cannot even begin to operate in that space.

    • Ann Druce on June 19, 2013 at 08:15

      There is no doubt that “social proof” can be a big determinant of human behaviour (and consumer behaviour). So where people know that they are expected to behave in a certain way, for the most part, they tend to conform.

      But I recently read about a marketing research study that showed that even “good” people begin to behave in what should be an unacceptable way, when they believe that “everybody else is doing it, so why do I bother to do the right thing?”

      The implication for marketing is that advertising campaigns that aim to change in behaviour by publicising the extent of negative behaviour (presumably aiming to shock) tend to reinforce the very behaviours they wish to change.

      Maybe, in the same way, retail security could have the same effect! Though I do agree with you that getting rid of these measures is probably just not practical in our society. (Or in many other countries either.)

      Of course, staff training might help improve the customer experience and develop better relationships with the brand. For instance, where a sales assistant offers to hang your selection in a fitting room for you, they look like they are taking good care of you but they still have the perfect opportunity to count the garments. But there is obviously a cost attached to this kind of service, so one can’t expect it everywhere.

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