Self-checkout, plastic bag bans trigger shoplifting debate

Anecdotal reports suggest that self-checkout and a ban on plastic bags provide more opportunities for shoplifters.

Anecdotal reports suggest that self-service checkouts and a ban on plastic bags could lead to increased shoplifting at some stores.

The move by stores toward more self-service checkout counters and fewer plastic shopping bags may be good for consumer convenience and the environment, but is it also a boon for shoplifters?

Several mostly anecdotal reports suggest that one or both retail trends could be leading to a rise in store thefts, though experts warn the evidence is far from conclusive.

Related: Los Angeles latest city to ban plastic bags

Self-checkout and plastic bag ban could lead to increased shoplifting: Employees hand out free reusable grocery bags at a Whole Foods Market.Getty Images: David McNew, File

Employees hand out free reusable grocery bags at a Whole Foods Market.

The theory is that bad guys find it easier to sneak goods past self-checkout machines, or to hide unpaid-for items in reusable bags that they bring on their own.

"We understand the shoplifting offender and who they are, and opportunity is a big piece of their motivation to steal," said Barbara Staib, a spokeswoman for the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention. "Anytime you create more opportunity, you certainly create the potential for more theft."

Some reported problems:


• A recent survey of nearly 5,000 people by British consumer website found that nearly a third of shoppers have admitted to stealing from grocery stores while using self-service checkout lanes.

• USA Today reported last year that supermarket chain Big Y removed its self-checkout lanes because of complaints about scanning problems and theft.

StopLift, a Cambridge, Mass., company, has developed video analytic technology that allows stores to track each item through the entire checkout process and minimize "scan avoidance" at the self-checkout. Company founder Malay Kundo told USA Today last year that theft — intentional or not — is up to five times higher with self-checkout than when cashiers are working.


•  Several dozen cities across the US have banned or are considering banning or charging fees for plastic bags. In Seattle, where a plastic bag ban went into effect in July 2012, one of every five business owners surveyed by Seattle Public Utilities reported that increased shoplifting due to the city's plastic bag ban was a problem.

•  In Brownsville, Texas, shoplifters were known to make off with shopping carts of merchandise from stores shortly after a bag ban went into effect in 2011, a police spokesman told the Austin American-Statesman.

Anecdotal reports aside, security experts say they're not aware of any scientific study that has linked bag bans to increased store theft.

"Plastic bags are primarily used in grocery stores and some drug stores, and to coordinate statistics with the usage of bags would require a lot of tracking," security consultant Chris E. McGoey told MSN News.

That's not to say self-checkouts and bag bans aren't a possible lure for shoplifters.

"Any time there's an opportunity there are going to be more and more opportunists seizing that opportunity," Staib said. "If a reusable bag is not issued at the register after they pay then, yes, the potential is there just by virtue of the system to miss items that are not properly recorded."

"The shoplifters that have the mind to steal in that manner, they're not opposed to bringing in their own bags," added McGoey. "There's been shoplifting long before plastic bags were in use. Shoplifters will merely adapt to whatever's available."

Related: Forest Whitaker talks about 'humiliating' shoplifting accusation

Related: China's plastic bag ban reaches fifth anniversary 


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