Self Checkout Shoplifting: A Solution That is 100 Years Old

“A shopper in her 60s was left in “complete shock” when cops slammed her with a petty theft citation after she failed to scan some items.” (Bradford and Louder, 2023.)

The US Sun recently reported how lawyers warned about the dangers of self checkout theft accusations that affected seniors. I believe that the self checkouts create situations where seniors become suspects, Artifical Intelligence (AI) creates false flags, and AI racial profiling could become the new weapon against shoplifting. There’s a solution that’s over a century old dating back to the general store and lasted well into the 1990’s at big and small retailers alike: Customer Service.

Customer service isn’t what it used to be. Back in my day in the 1990’s when I worked retail I was trained that the best deterrent to shoplifting was good customer service. This involved greeting customers, making eye contact, assisting customers, asking their needs and greeting them upon exit. This is the lost art that I believe has impacted shoplifting – and there was an art to it from the greeting to the eye contact all within the first 7 seconds of an encounter.

There’s no greeting, eye contact or assistance at many Walmart self checkouts. In my experience at  Five Below and Target, those retailers seem to have self checkout attendants that greet customers, offer assistance, and look up at customers –  not down at their phones / handhelds – Walmart in my experience just has employees that look down all the time at their devices. I’ve even walked up to one close enough to kiss them and they do not look up (Mt. Juliet, TN – Eriayanna was the name on the tag).  But it’s not just shoplifters it affects – it affects the clumsy too.

I’ve dropped things as well and the attendants offer no assistance. Walmart’s new designs don’t help as now the self checkout is split up and you can’t see the attendant to ask for help as one big area has been split into several lanes in many of the new remodels. Walmart seems to me like a disaster for self-  But those aren’t the only ones.

Walmart isn’t the only place I’ve seen this – I’ve seen it at Kroger too. I believe they have AI that slows down the checkout process if shoplifting is suspected. I always shout out “the AI thinks I’m shoplifting!!!”  and the funny thing is there’s never been an instance where I missed an item and the attendant would know that if they weren’t busy chit-chatting with coworkers or looking down at their phone.  I tend to try to pick the checkout closest to the attendant for help.

The attendants should be the eyes on the checkout. They can help people when they need help and deter shoplifting by simply being present. Not physically present but mentally and socially present. Instead, AI is relied upon to detect shoplifting and slow down the self checkout process under the guise of something going wrong in the checkout process. Dan Berthiaume of Chainstore age reported how associates are alerted of checkout issues via a handheld device.

“For example, if a shopper fails to scan an item successfully, the self-checkout system will flag the error on screen and prompt the customer to self-correct. If the customer is unable to resolve the issue themselves, the system will alert a store associate via a mobile device, so they can intervene and rescan the item.” (Berthiaume, 2022)

I do not believe it will be long before self checkout AI can do racial profiling. I believe AI driven racial profiling is going to be a problem down the line with self checkout. The team at took a look at the potential issues with AI and racial profiling.

A Latinx family was shopping for groceries. They had a full cart and made it past the cash register with no trouble. But as they were leaving the store, an employee stopped them to check their bags — just because they were speaking Spanish.   …As machine learning is quickly developing, some researchers worry machines and artificial intelligence can internalize bias and stereotypes as well, because the training data they use may include biased language and human prejudice. (Team Grubbrr 2020)

I truly do believe there is a better solution, and that solution has been in place for over a century – good customer service. Of all the Walmarts and all of retail I shop, I’ve only encountered a handful of employees who come out from behind the counter, look up, assess customer’s needs, and genuinely care that there is a customer in the store. Most of the time the customer seems like a target to be busted for shoplifting by either AI or the self-checkout attendant.

Can we go back to old fashioned 20th century retail customer service at the self-checkouts? If customers were seen as the paycheck to employees and not suspects for Walmart’s diversion program, wastes of time for law enforcement calls, and the enemy of the store management, maybe theft would go down?

Works Cited:

The US Sun. (2023, February 17). I’m a lawyer – why Walmart shoppers should be careful about using self-checkout. The US Sun.

Dan Berthiaume Senior Editor. (2022, September 21). Kroger Rolls Out Visual AI-based self-checkout. Chain Store Age.

GRUBBRR, T. (2020, August 10). Automation and racial profiling at supermarkets. GRUBBRR.