self checkout thievery
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
October 6, 2020 ·  5 min read

The Banana Trick and Other Acts of Self-Checkout Thievery

If you had the opportunity, would you steal from another human being?

What if that human being were replaced with a robot?

Experts predict that America’s Self-Checkout Systems market will reach 7.1 billion dollars by 2024 [1]. Over the last decade, retailers across the United States have added thousands of self-checkout machines in an effort to save on labor costs. These new automated systems, however, come with new and sometimes costly challenges.

One of the biggest problems retailers face with these machines is theft. With customers using hacks like “the banana trick” to save on items, stores are losing money.

The Banana Trick

Voucher Codes Pro, a company that offers coupons to internet shoppers, surveyed 2 634 people. Nearly twenty percent of them admitted to stealing from an automated checkout at some point in the past. More than half of them said it was because they knew it was unlikely they’d get caught.

There are a few different tricks that shoppers are using to trick the system:

1. The Banana Trick

Ringing up a more expensive item with the code for a cheap variety of produce. For example, using the code for a banana to “pay” for an expensive t-bone steak.

2. The Pass Around

This is when you put something in your bag without scanning it.

3. The Switcheroo

Peel the sticker off of something inexpensive and place it over the barcode of a more expensive item [2].

Just how much money is this costing stores?

In 2015, criminologists at the University of Leicester audited one million self-checkout transactions over the course of one year. Sales totaled 21 million dollars. Nearly 850 thousand dollars worth of goods were never paid for [2].

Why are People Stealing?

According to the Leicester researchers, ease of theft is one of the most common reasons. People who would not ordinarily steal are now more likely to do it simply because they can. 

“People who traditionally don’t intend to steal [might realize that] … when I buy 20, I can get five for free,” the authors explained [2].

In other words, many of these people aren’t entering the store with the intent to steal. When they get to the checkout, however, they realize they can- so they do. 

The consequences for retail theft have also gone down. For example, in Dallas, Texas, the police department decided they would no longer routinely respond to retail theft under fifty dollars. In 2015 they raised that number to one hundred.

Morals Matter

Another reason why someone might be more inclined to steal from an automated self-checkout machine is because of a difference in morality. Barbara Staib is the director of communications of the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention. She believes that self check-outs allow people who are already predisposed to stealing to rationalize their actions. This tempts them to shoplift more.

“[The machines give] the false impression of anonymity,” she says. “This apparently empowers people to shoplift.” [2]

Many people wouldn’t steal from a human being, but stealing from a machine doesn’t really feel like a crime. University of Manchester criminology professor Shadd Maruna explained:

“Individuals can neutralize guilt they might otherwise feel when stealing by telling themselves that there are no victims of the crime, no human being is actually being hurt by this, only some mega-corporation that can surely afford the loss of a few quid. In fact, the corporation has saved so much money by laying off all its cashiers that it is almost morally necessary to steal from them.” [3]

Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University, says that personality also comes into play. He describes many supermarket thieves as having “type-T” (aka “thrill”) personalities. He says that for these people, stealing can make shopping a more interesting activity.

“These can be risk-taking, stimulation-seeking people,” he explains [2].

Why Are Retailers Still Using Self-Checkout?

Stores introduced self checkouts about ten years ago. After a significant amount of backlash from customers, however, many stores removed them.

Retailers are now embracing self-checkouts again for a number of reasons. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the employment rate was high. For retailers, this meant that finding people to fill available job openings was becoming difficult. At the same time, they were losing revenue from shoppers moving online. Shoppers themselves were becoming more accustomed to dealing with machines instead of people.

The truth is, despite some of the issues with them, retailers are seeing some savings. 

That doesn’t mean they’re not attempting to curb theft. Many stores disabled the weight-based theft-detection system on their machines because they trigger too many messages that annoy shoppers. This, of course, has made it easier for people to steal. There is a new technology that is emerging, however, to replace this method. 

NCR Corp, which makes the self-checkout devices in Walmart stores has begun introducing a type of video technology. To help reduce false positives, humans off-site will watch five to ten-second clips of possible mis-scans.

Since backing away from its weight-based theft detection system, Walmart has been using a camera system made by Everseen Ltd. In this system, cameras track product and shopper movements and correlate that information with what’s being scanned. If the system suspects a mis-scan, it pauses the transaction in real-time and alerts a store worker [4].

Related: Say goodbye to cashiers: Walmart store switches to self-checkout only

Embracing Technology

Although self-checkouts were initially met with opposition, as the technology improves more and more shoppers are embracing them. Target, for example, has self-checkout machines in all but two hundred of its 1900 stores. A spokesperson for the company said that about one-third of shoppers prefer the machines [4].

As the technology improves, however, so is the security. So if you have been using the banana trick at the self-checkout, your days of small-time grocery theft may be coming to an end.

Read: If Facebook isn’t spying on me, why did I get ads for what I just spoke about?