Lots of “Unexpected Items in Bagging Area”: How Honest Are We in the Self-Serve Checkout?

In a multinational study of self-serve check-outs (Britain, Belgium, Netherlands, and the United States), the conclusion is that of the 6,000,000 items checked during the researcher’s observations (that’s 1,000,000 shopping trips researched), 850,000 (about 4%) were not scanned, i.e., the shoppers did not pay for the items.  Whether the non-scans were errors or intentional is an unknown because, well, the retailers did not want researchers confronting the shoppers (and pressing charges was out of the question).

According to the National Retail Federation, retailers reported losing $44 billion in 2015 to shoplifting, employee theft, fraud, and errors.  About $17 billion of the total was due to shoplifting.  Interviews with self-serve shoppers found that they were “neutralizing their guilt.”  Feeling that the store was too expensive, taking an item here and there without paying just balances the account.  Ah, the “giant ledger sheet in the sky” theory of ethics. One shopper said, “If I buy 20, I can get five for free.”  The store makes enough money on the 20.

Retail stores are aware of the theft rates at self-serve and also know that employees assigned to help and observe there cannot catch everything, particularly when they are helping the less technologically gifted customers  However, the stores believe there are still savings with the self-serve lanes. They can get more purchases processed through with fewer employees, despite the theft that seems to come quite naturally to some.

Kudos to Christopher Mele for his coverage of this delightfully intriguing story on theft and human nature, “Self-Serve Checkout:  What Honor Code,” New York Times, August 15, 2016, p. B2.

About mmjdiary

Professor Marianne Jennings is an emeritus professor of legal and ethical studies from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, retiring in 2011 after 35 years of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in ethics and the legal environment of business. During her tenure at ASU, she served as director of the Joan and David Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics from 1995-1999. In 2006, she was appointed faculty director for the W.P. Carey Executive MBA Program. She has done consulting work for businesses and professional groups including AICPA, Boeing, Dial Corporation, Edward Jones, Mattel, Motorola, CFA Institute, Southern California Edison, the Institute of Internal Auditors, AIMR, DuPont, AES, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Motorola, Hy-Vee Foods, IBM, Bell Helicopter, Amgen, Raytheon, and VIAD. The sixth edition of her textbook, Case Studies in Business Ethics, was published in February 2011. The ninth edition of her textbook, Business: lts Legal, Ethical and Global Environment was published in January 2011. The 23rd edition of her book, Business Law: Principles and Cases, will be published in January 2013. The tenth edition of her book, Real Estate Law, will also be published in January 2013. Her book, A Business Tale: A Story of Ethics, Choices, Success, and a Very Large Rabbit, a fable about business ethics, was chosen by Library Journal in 2004 as its business book of the year. A Business Tale was also a finalist for two other literary awards for 2004. In 2000 her book on corporate governance was published by the New York Times MBA Pocket Series. Her book on long-term success, Building a Business Through Good Times and Bad: Lessons from Fifteen Companies, Each With a Century of Dividends, was published in October 2002 and has been used by Booz, Allen, Hamilton for its work on business longevity. Her latest book, The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse was published by St. Martin’s Press in July 2006 and has been a finalist for two book awards. Her weekly columns are syndicated around the country, and her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Reader's Digest. A collection of her essays, Nobody Fixes Real Carrot Sticks Anymore, first published in 1994 is still being published. She has been a commentator on business issues on All Things Considered for National Public Radio. She has served on four boards of directors, including Arizona Public Service (1987-2000), Zealous Capital Corporation, and the Center for Children with Chronic Illness and Disability at the University of Minnesota. She was appointed to the board of advisors for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators in 2004 and served on the board of trustees for Think Arizona, a public policy think tank. She has appeared on CNBC, CBS This Morning, the Today Show, and CBS Evening News. In 2010 she was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Business Ethics by Trust Across America. Her books have been translated into four different languages. She received the British Emerald award for authoring one of their top 50 articles in management publications, chosen from over 15,000 articles. Personal: Married since 1976 to Terry H. Jennings, Maricopa County Attorney’s Office Deputy County Attorney; five children: Sarah, Sam, and John, and the late Claire and Hannah Jennings.
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