Self-Checkout at Spar – Convenience at a Price

By Ben Kiem

Collage by Maria Mazurek

The self-checkout – the reification of one person’s fears and the other’s dreams – has replaced much of the traditional cash register and reshaped the way we buy our groceries. On its conquest of the retail world, it has increased revenue, efficiency… and shoplifting. It also found its way into our local Spar.

By now, the do-it-yourself scanners are unavoidable in the Netherlands. From the big supermarkets to the mid-sized Spar, in nearly every store belonging to the major chains the machine can be found. Around lunchtime at Spar Science Park, customers flock into the store, yearning for a croissant or one of Spar’s signature frozen pizzas. Despite the high customer volume around this time, one rarely has to wait more than two minutes to pay and leave. This is made possible by the four self-checkout machines that the store’s owner, Vincent Leighton, installed around three years ago.

Photo by Maria Mazurek

Since then, customers have only been able to pay by card in Leighton’s store, as he decided to replace the traditional register completely with the autonomous machines. Intuitive reasoning might suggest that the decision was mainly economically driven, but retailers in Amsterdam resort to this measure mostly as an answer to the tight labour market. “It is basically impossible to find workers these days”, says the manager of the Albert Heijn Molukkenstraat, who prefers to remain anonymous. “People do not want to work as a cashier anymore and the self-checkout simply needs fewer people”, he says. At the self-checkout area, he needs at maximum two employees to monitor over 20 self-checkouts, whereas every cash register requires one employee each. 

However, the self-checkout comes at a – quite literally – great price to the retail owners. Self-checkouts caused a rising tide of theft. Shoplifting occurs both deliberately and involuntarily, with the latter occurring mostly due to system errors. “There are a lot of transactions stopped, blocked, failed and the people are already out”, says Leighton. This is the reason he bought the new machines, which automatically print a receipt as soon as the transaction is successful. Together with new exit gates that can only be opened with a valid receipt, Leighton was able to crack down on the number of involuntary thefts. 

Because Spar stores are independently owned, as opposed to for example Albert Heijn, the financial loss because of shoplifting directly affects the owner, Leighton. He emphasises that students are not stealing from a big corporation, “They steal from me as a person”. Next to this, he donates a percentage of his profits to the NGO ‘Kinderhulp Afrika’, meaning that the money “does not only get stolen from me as the owner but also from the children in Uganda”. In contrast, Albert Heijn’s vast majority of stores are owned by the chain itself, meaning only the multi-billion corporation suffers from theft.

Despite the efforts, the amount of shoplifting at the Spar Science Park remains high, with nearly 2000 euros of stolen goods at 50,000 revenue per week. Students, who make up around 60 per cent of Leighton’s customers, are a considerable part of the issue, being repeatedly caught red-handed or later on camera. 

For comparison: The relative numbers of shoplifting for Albert Heijn Molukkenstraat are significantly lower. With a loss of 7,000 euros on a turnover of 400,000 euros, the Albert Heijn records damages of less than half the percentage of the Spar. At Spar, most customers steal single items, while at Albert Heijn, customers with shopping carts full of groceries are frequently caught having scanned only one item.

More recently, Leighton has been able to decrease this number by introducing random checks and CCTV cameras. After an initially high rate of thefts caught thanks to the measures, the number has declined as shoplifters grew aware of the monitoring. While Leighton has not determined the effect of the measures in absolute numbers, they have been effective, but unable to eliminate shoplifting entirely. 

When it comes to cases of theft from self-checkout machines, the legal basis for employees to take action varies depending on who you ask. According to Leighton, a punishable crime is only committed as soon as the perpetrator leaves the store with items that they did not scan. So, as the random check occurs before a customer leaves the gates, not having scanned items does not constitute a crime. As a result, Spar and Albert Hijn tend to not call the police in those cases. 

Photo of Leighton by Maria Mazurek

The police themselves, on the other hand, have a different interpretation of the law. Police officers act based on a ruling of the Amsterdam Court of Appeal, which “has established that there is a completed theft if someone has pressed the ‘checkout’ button”, according to a statement of the investigation coordination (Onderzoekscoördinatie Staf Korpsleiding) upon request. This means that a non-scanned item found during the random check is a punishable offence, as the random check only takes place after the customer has pressed “Checkout”.

Inasmuch as random checks are effective for the Spar, they require labour and do not resolve the issue of shoplifting entirely. A possible solution: new CCTV cameras are now able to detect ‘troubling behaviour’ in customers – without the need for any human assistance. For instance, if a customer places a product in their bag without a prior scan, an AI will send a notification with a mugshot to the employees.

Yet, the technology, which was first introduced in Japan, is rife with legal and ethical concerns, as customers must be aware of the collection of their data and their data has to be highly secured. Thus, Leighton, who wants to acquire a similar system for his Spar, has to wait for approval and implementation by the Spar company – the only provider he is allowed to obtain the system from. Due to these legal concerns, Spar is reluctant to give out the system without exhaustive prior security checks. 

Further concerns about the use of AI cameras include accuracy and discrimination. Indecisive behaviour such as taking items and putting them back can be misidentified as suspicious and lead to undeserved and discriminatory scrutiny. On top of that, conflicting error rates were found across demographic groups, with face recognition being 34 per cent less accurate for darker-skinned women than for lighter-skinned men, according to a 2019 study by the MIT Media Lap. 

As a result of the multitude of concerns, the European Data Protection Board and the European Data Protection Supervisor called in a joint opinion for a general ban on “any use of AI for automated recognition of human features in publicly accessible spaces,” as they “interfere with fundamental rights and freedoms to such an extent that they may call into question the essence of these rights and freedoms”. The Albert Heijn Molukkenstraat intends to implement such cameras at every self-checkout station as early as next year, according to the manager.

The far-reaching implications of self-checkouts with its theft prevention measures are not likely to vanish in the future; rather, the opposite will be the case. Albert Heijn has brought forward the next generation of shopping: The Grab and Go store, a store that requires no checkout anymore. An AI is able to decipher the customer basket through cameras and upon checkout, the customer just has to leave the store and the money is automatically transferred. While it is unlikely that this fully-automated shop will replace the Spar Science Park in the foreseeable future, technological progress seems to increasingly be making inroads into our supermarkets.

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