The head of one of Britain’s largest retailers has said self-serve check-outs are fuelling a surge in “middle class” shoplifting.
The chairman of food and clothing giant Marks and Spencer Archie Norman said self-serve was encouraging theft among people who might never normally do so in other situations.
There was an attitude of, “I’m owed it,” Mr Norman said.
The M&S’ bosses comments come a week after another British supermarket chain said it was removing almost all self-serve check-outs from its stores.
On Monday, Mr Norman told UK radio station LBC that shoplifting was a “global problem” but nobody could fully pinpoint why the rise in stealing was occurring.
“It’s too easy to say it’s a cost of living problem. Some of this shoplifting is gangs. Then you get the middle class.
“You see it with the self-check-outs, there’s a little bit of that creeping in,” Mr Norman said.
“With the reduction of service you get in a lot of shops, a lot of people think: ‘This didn’t scan properly, or it’s very difficult to scan these things through and I shop here all the time. It’s not my fault, I’m owed it’.”
Rival UK supermarket chain Co-op said shoplifting was 43 per cent up year on year and in 2023 there had been 300,000 instances of theft.
Major Australian supermarkets have said theft and food wastage is up 20 per cent in a year.
Nonetheless, Mr Norman said shoplifting was less of an issue at M&S, which has 1000 UK stores, than many other retailers.
He put that down to the chain primarily selling own brand products, like an up market Aldi, which were less attractive to thieves who preferred brands they could then sell on.
Other UK retailers were cracking down on theft by, for instance, installing gates after the check-outs. But Mr Norman said that made supermarkets like “prison camps”.
Instead the chain was trying subtler methods.
“Our approach is to be open and welcome. We do little things like make sure the steak is positioned in the right place so people can keep an eye on it.”
Indeed, rather than cut down on self-serve check-outs, Mr Norman said M&S would increase their number as they were more efficient.
That’s in sharp contrast to Booths, which aims for the same grocery shoppers as Marks and Spencer, and has 27 branches in England’s north.
Booths managing director Nigel Murray told industry publication The Grocer last week that it would be ditching self serve tills in all but its tow busiest stores.
Mr Murray said neither the supermarket nor its customers were a “great fan of self check-outs”.
“We pride ourselves on great customer service and you can’t do that through a robot.”
Mr Murray said the technology can be “problematic” and can cause customers to have to wait longer, for example, when workers need to check ID for alcohol or when weighing an item.
However, there has been some speculation that the expense of theft from self-serve check-outs as well as the cost of updating the technology maybe too expensive for more modestly sized retail chains.
Self serve in Australia
Managing director of food market research firm Freshlogic Martin Kneebone said it was unlikely self-serve check-outs would vanish from Australian supermarkets.
“Self-serve check-outs offer more check-outs in the same area, and therefore, they will process more customers in shorter time frames.”
He added the robot registers were suited to the shopping habits of Australians who preferred smaller baskets over trolleys.
In light of Booths’ move to ditch self-serve, both Coles and Woolworths have been at pains to say the same will not be happening in Australia.
“We know some customers prefer to be served by a team member and that’s why there is always that option in all of our stores,” a Woolworths spokesman told news.com.au.
“Millions of transactions are made using our self service check-outs every single day.
“Customer feedback shows our self-serve check-outs are popular for their convenience and speed.”
A Coles spokesman said self-serve check-outs are a “great option” for customers as they deliver “convenience and efficiency”.
“Because of this they are the checkout of choice for more than two in three customers, and we continue to see these numbers increase,” the spokesman said.
“Over the past year, we have seen greater customer satisfaction and uptake in our self-service options.
“Of course, if customers prefer to be served by a team member, someone will always be available in the service area to serve them.”
– with Eliot Nash.