More surveillance in supermarkets will reduce cost-of-living fuelled shoplifting but the multi-million-dollar investment in protecting stock is a “temporary fix” that’s leaving consumers frustrated.
As most Australians struggle with rising costs, supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths have introduced a raft of new measures, including artificial intelligence and high-tech cameras at self-serve checkouts, and gates that won’t open if sensors deem you’ve stolen.
The move will stop some consumers from stealing, but has damaged the reputation of retailers who leave shoppers feeling “watched” with “no out”, according to a new report from the University of New South Wales (UNSW).
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“The idea that we are not being trusted as consumers is jarring to us because most of us do the right thing anyway,” UNSW Business School professor Nitika Garg said.
“No one likes to be watched. Cameras impinge on our privacy. We, as consumers, are unsure on how that data is being used. Not having an explanation or little reassurance is adding to the negative reaction.”
Both Coles and Woolworths have signage in store to advise customers of the new technology that’s been rolled out in store, and have addressed the “strict privacy protocols” they adhere to with any footage taken.
For example, Woolworths said AI technology at self-serve checkouts didn’t collect sensitive biometric data or keep personal information. Whether this message is reaching consumers is another story.
Social media platforms like TikTok and Reddit have given customers a space to unleash their concerns about new features, like Coles security gates that will lock you in so staff can check you’ve scanned your groceries correctly.
And you don’t have to look too closely to find these criticisms.
But it’s worth noting that being watched is not exclusive to customers in supermarkets.
If you jump in a cab, walk into any small business, or even take a stroll down the street - you’re on camera. But how this data is used is the most concerning. Bunnings and Kmart had to suspend the use of facial recognition in stores after an investigation by the privacy commissioner.
The normalisation of surveillance is something many shoppers might not be aware is happening, according to Samantha Floreani, program lead at Digital Rights Watch.
“Everyone is being treated as a suspect” and huge amounts of data are being collected,
whether that be on customer behaviour through sensors tracking people to loyalty programs.
“People should have the ability to go do basic life essentials - like shop for groceries - without being constantly tracked and monitored,” Floreani told Yahoo Finance.
“It's telling that major supermarkets are prioritising investment in privacy-invasive surveillance technology in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, rather than considering other ways that might lower rates of theft, such as reining in their huge profit margins and lowering prices.”
More than one in 10 Aussies - or 2.4 million people - have admitted to stealing in the past 12 months as they reach a financial breaking point.
About 5 per cent of Aussies confessed to stealing items at the supermarket self-checkout, the Finder survey of 1,063 people found. Groceries are one of the biggest money worries for Aussies right now, with the average household spending $185 on their weekly shop - up $37 a week compared to last year.
‘A bigger problem needs to be addressed’: Shoppers need more support
Garg agreed a complicating factor for supermarkets is that heightened technology comes off the back of billion-dollar profits.
Coles announced 20 per cent stock losses from shoplifting (and food waste) as it revealed a $1.1b profit this year, while competitor Woolies estimated theft made up a quarter of stock loss when it revealed its $1.6b profit margin.
“With customers being more price-conscious from a current cost-of-living crisis, when giant supermarkets post annual super profits, it's hard for consumers not to be frustrated,” she said.
“Those that have a negative feeling towards supermarkets most likely do not feel as though the supermarket is being fair or loyal to them,” Garg said.
“This is the reason stores need to step in and make sure they get consumers back on their side.”
She suggested a campaign explaining how shoplifting impacts all consumers could help, while also calling for government intervention to “help address this situation”.
“The higher amount of shoplifting takes a hit on all consumers as the price of products are increased to account for the stock loss,” Garg said.
“Installing security measures is a temporary fix to a much larger problem.”
What do Coles and Woolworths say?
Yahoo Finance approached both Coles and Woolworths about their approaches.
“While most of our customers do the right thing, unfortunately a small number don’t.
“Like most businesses and public spaces, we use surveillance technologies in accordance with stringent privacy laws, and we have strict protocols in place around access to the footage. The privacy of our customers and team members is important to us, and we conduct regular monitoring to ensure we are meeting all of our obligations.”
“We have a number of initiatives that we use - both covert and overt - to help reduce retail crime, which currently mirrors a level that we experienced prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
These initiatives include the use of camera technology at the checkouts, double welcome gates, CCTV and a trial of gates at the exit to our self-serve checkout area.
“We also continue reviewing our health and safety controls to ensure we’re doing everything we can to keep our team and customers safe in our stores, and this remains our absolute priority. We use technology such as team-safety cameras and VR training modules to both support and prepare our team members for instances where they may feel unsafe.
“However, the majority of our customers do the right thing and treat our team with respect - and we thank them for doing so.”
But is security effective?
A shoplifter frustrated with the rising cost of groceries said having a camera being directed right at their face “doesn’t deter” them, noting supermarkets would be “swimming in profits” whether they stole or not.
However, ultimately, heightened security will make most shoppers “hyper-vigilant” about stealing.
“People don’t want to be in an embarrassing situation if they are caught,” Garg said.
However, it will also drive some “deviants” to do the complete opposite and steal more.
“This is a consequence of psychological reactance; it pushes people to do the opposite of what they are told,” Garg said.
Recent research from Monash Business School’s Australian Consumer and Retail Studies group found more than a quarter thought retail theft was either a little, somewhat, very or completely justifiable, with self-serve checkouts skewing toward being more acceptable.
How many Aussie shoppers considered illegal acts a little to completely justifiable:
Taking an item without paying - 28 per cent
Changing price tags on products - 30 per cent
Not scanning some items when using self-serve terminals - 32 per cent
Scanning items as cheaper items at self-serve checkouts - 37 per cent
The Australian Retail Association has claimed a “steady increase” in shoplifting is costing the industry more than $9 billion a year.