An Australian woman named Kayla wrote to lawyers and sisters Alison Barrett and Jillian Barrett with a troubling query. Kayla explains that her friend uses a “self-checkout trick”. Essentially, she “regularly puts through more expensive veg — such as avocados — as brown onions”. As in, she purposely underpays for her groceries. But Kayla’s friend said, “It’s not stealing as you’re still paying for something and that the supermarkets work the cost of ‘self-check-out fraud’ into their prices”. Plus “everyone does it”. Kayla tried to convince her friend that this seld-checkout trick is actually stealing, but she didn’t listen. So the lawyers stepped in with the legal facts.
Is This Self-Checkout Trick Legal?
“Kayla, it doesn’t matter how your friend tries to justify her behavior, her deceitful conduct in intentionally not paying full price is against the law,” the lawyers respond. “…This dishonest behavior, unfortunately, affects us all by pushing up grocery prices.”
Self-checkouts rely on their customers’ integrity to make honest transactions. Unfortunately, some people view this as an opportunity to “beat the system” — just like Kayla’s friend.
“Your friend’s technique of using the self-service checkout to pass off more expensive items as cheaper ones cheats the system by underpaying. Her fraudulent behavior is just one of many tricks employed by self-service thieves to avoid payment.”
In the meantime, supermarkets are initiating ways to prevent such self-checkout tricks, including undercover security officers, according to Alison and Jillian Barrett. “If they believe a theft has occurred, security officers and store staff have the right to search your friend’s bags to check the goods and the prices paid. An excuse like getting avocados confused with brown onions is likely not going to cut it.
Is It Worth the Risk?
“Your friend has the right to refuse a search, but the grocery store can call the police if they suspect she has been dishonest,” continued the lawyers. “In South Australia, shoplifting – including the underpayment of goods – is a form of larceny (theft). Minor incidences of shoplifting… are dealt with by the police rather than the courts. As long as the supermarket consents, the police will issue an on-the-spot shop theft infringement notice. This involves a requirement to pay the full value of the goods your friend stole (or underpaid), as well as apologize to the store. The police would caution her about not engaging in this conduct again and she would need to submit an undertaking agreeing to this.”
But this isn’t the end of it. If she had stolen more than $30 worth of products, she may be issued community service. And if she doesn’t cooperate, the police could fine her up to $1250 and charge her with theft. This could land her in court. And if she is a repeat offender, they may immediately charge her with theft. Unfortunately, in Australia, a theft conviction could earn up to a decade in jail.
“You have to ask, is saving a few dollars on avocados worth the risk?” the lawyers conclude. 
A New Type of Shoplifter
Unfortunately, Kayla’s friend isn’t the only one using this self-checkout trick. In fact, Emmeline Taylor, a senior lecturer in criminology at City, University of London, discovered that this trend took to Britain as people swapped more expensive items for carrots.
“I was working with retailers to reduce shoplifting when one major supermarket discovered it had sold more carrots than it had ever had in stock,” said Taylor. “Puzzled by this development it looked into its inventories and found that in some cases customers were apparently purchasing 18kg of carrots in one go. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a sudden switch to healthy eating, it was an early sign of a new type of shoplifter.”
Taylor added that product switching has become so commonplace, many people have forgotten that they are regularly committing a crime. “This behavior is perceived as cheating the system or a way of ‘gamifying’ an otherwise mundane routine,” she explained. 
There is also the element of anonymity. “If I think nobody’s watching me and nobody’s seeing what I’m doing, I’m far more likely to misbehave,” said Barbara Staib, spokesperson for the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention in the U.S. “That’s just human nature.“
Additionally, industry experts explain that people tend to rationalize their behavior. For instance, they blame their thieving on machine glitches or on the fact that the store even has self-checkout stations. For example, they rationalize that if they have to bag their own groceries instead of a cashier, they are “entitled to a discount”. Plus, they assume that if they get caught, they’d just feign ignorance.
The End to This “Self-Checkout Trick”
However, the good news is that increased technologies such as more surveillance could lower the number of these crimes. As U.K. criminologist Adrian Beck explained, “Your part-time thieves, they’re very easily nursed back to honesty because they definitely don’t want to get caught and be embarrassed by this.” 
- “Sisters in Law: Woolies and Coles self serve checkout act is stealing.” News.com.au. Allison Barrett and Jillian Barrett. July 8, 2021
- “Sneaky Shoppers ‘Use Carrots To Swipe Avocados In Self-Service Scam’.” Huffington Post. Jasmin Gray. May 26, 2018
- “A crime of opportunity: Why some shoppers steal at self-checkout.” CBC. Sophia Harris. November 17, 2019