The End of Self-Checkouts: Reasons Major Stores Are Shutting Them Down

The End of Self-Checkouts: Reasons Major Stores Are Shutting Them Down

The Decline of Self-Checkout: Major Retailers Removing Them Due to Rising Shoplifting Rates

Self-checkout lanes revolutionized retail shopping by empowering customers to scan and pay for their items. However, due to surging rates of shoplifting, costing stores billions, major chains like Target and Walmart are quietly removing self-checkouts across the country.

Evidence of Disappearance

A recent viral image depicted a Walmart in California with all self-checkout aisles roped off, sparking speculation of widespread removal. When questioned, Walmart declined to comment on the potential removal of self-checkouts.

Source: Flickr/Nathan Bush

Source: Flickr/Nathan Bush

Target and other major chains have also refrained from commenting, preferring to keep the disappearing self-checkouts quiet.

Behind Closed Lanes

In certain San Francisco stores, Target has opted to completely shut off self-checkouts as part of a strategy of “defensive retailing,” a move that may soon become more widespread. In locations where self-checkouts are still available, chains like Target restrict their usage to small purchases only, while larger carts are checked out through traditional methods.

Source: Flickr/Mike Mozart

Source: Flickr/Mike Mozart

While retailers remain silent publicly, the truth is that increasing rates of retail theft are making expensive self-checkouts more troublesome than their convenience may justify.

Rising Shoplifting Rates

Police data and national retail surveys indicate a significant uptick in retail theft. LAPD statistics reveal a 16% increase in retail theft in 2022 alone. Additionally, incidents of mass shoplifting by organized “flash mobs” are on the rise, overwhelming retailers and depleting inventory.

Source: Mother Jones

Source: Mother Jones

Nationwide, retailers reported over $112 billion in theft losses last year. With figures like these, the risk of shoplifting associated with self-checkouts is deemed too significant.

Accessible to Thieves

Self-checkouts simplified shoplifting, granting thieves unrestricted access to scan items selectively or not at all. Moreover, the consequences for getting caught were often minimal, with many jurisdictions opting not to prosecute shoplifters. Now, stores are recognizing the financial toll and taking action.

Source: Flickr/Sunshine Photos

Source: Flickr/Sunshine Photos

Some research indicates that theft increased by 30% after stores introduced self-checkouts. Given the already high rates of shoplifting, enabling criminals through self-checkouts is no longer sustainable.

California’s Retail Crime Wave

California has experienced significant challenges with shoplifting and retail theft. The emergence of flash mob robberies is particularly concerning, as large groups rush into stores, overwhelm staff, and swiftly steal thousands of dollars’ worth of goods in mere minutes.

Source: Flickr/Scazon

Source: Flickr/Scazon

Organized retail crime costs California business owners $30 billion annually—a staggering loss that has pushed some smaller stores into bankruptcy. Removing self-checkouts is a desperate measure to combat this widespread theft crisis.

It’s Not Limited to California

While California garners attention for its retail theft epidemic, it’s a growing national issue. States like Texas, Illinois, New York, and others are grappling with alarming shoplifting rates that have steadily increased over the last five years.

Source: Flickr/pointnshoot

Source: Flickr/pointnshoot

As more jurisdictions opt not to charge shoplifters, criminals encounter minimal deterrence. Mass shoplifting incidents and organized “smash and grab” theft rings are spreading beyond the West Coast, compelling retailers to restrict opportunities for crime.

Disabling Easy Access

Given that self-checkout shoplifting contributes significantly to major retail losses, disabling these lanes removes a significant avenue for crime. Retailers observe that when self-checkouts are deactivated, shoplifting rates decrease noticeably. While this may inconvenience honest shoppers, restricting self-checkout sends a clear message that theft will not be tolerated.

Source: Flickr/Chris Eichler

Source: Flickr/Chris Eichler

Paired with lobbying efforts for stricter penalties and investments in security technology, removing self-checkout represents the initial step in retailers’ efforts to combat this epidemic.

AI Assumes Control

For retailers committed to retaining self-checkout despite the risks, innovative artificial intelligence provides a high-tech solution. Stores like Kroger have implemented AI systems capable of detecting unscanned items and suspending transactions until the discrepancy is addressed.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

If customers cannot resolve the alert triggered by AI, staff are summoned for auditing and theft prevention measures. As AI technology advances, the likelihood of circumventing self-checkouts diminishes significantly. Although it may not completely eliminate the need for removal, AI aids in mitigating escalating losses.

Customer Frustration Increases

While the closure of self-checkout lanes may decrease theft, it also entails drawbacks. Primarily, it frustrates customers who prefer self-checkout options. Longer lines and understaffed checkouts result in complaints from shoppers about wasted time and poorer in-store experiences.

Source: Flickr/Spencer Tirey

Source: Flickr/Spencer Tirey

Some customers may opt to switch stores solely based on convenience factors. Retailers must carefully consider whether recovered shoplifting losses outweigh the risk of driving customers away due to restricted self-checkout access.

What’s the Next Step for Stores?

With shoplifting rates on the rise and no signs of slowing down, retailers face a challenging dilemma. Should they persist in removing self-checkouts, sacrificing convenience? Invest in advanced anti-theft AI technology for transaction auditing? Or advocate for stricter legal penalties for shoplifting to deter crimes in the first place?

Source: Flickr/Retail Retell

Likely, a combination of strategies will be adopted, but the future of shopping transactions appears to be increasingly low-tech. Fewer self-checkouts, coupled with enhanced security measures, seem to be the inevitable outcome of unaddressed retail theft.

A Ripple Effect

Should major chains like Target and Walmart persist in removing self-checkouts, it could set off a ripple effect throughout the broader industry. Other large retailers, particularly those in areas prone to shoplifting, may proactively disable their lanes to prevent unsustainable losses. Smaller stores may also follow suit to deter becoming easy targets.

Source: Flickr/Mike Mozart

Source: Flickr/Mike Mozart

The era of convenient self-checkout, spanning from corner bodegas to hardware warehouses, may soon come to an end if shoplifting trends persist. Ultimately, losses from theft outweigh the benefits of technological innovation.

Reverting to the Past

In many respects, the removal of self-checkouts represents a regression in retail innovation. Less than a decade ago, stores rushed to install them, heralding the high-tech experience with great fanfare. However, with theft significantly impacting profits, a return to low-tech solutions and human intervention may be the only viable option remaining.

Source: Flickr/Walmart

Source: Flickr/Walmart

Shoppers frustrated by consistently busy cashiers and extended checkout lines can attribute their woes to self-checkout thieves. Unless the crisis is tackled at its core, retail transactions appear destined to revert to slower staff-only models reminiscent of the pre-mobile payment era.

A Lesson Learned

The narrative surrounding self-checkouts serves as a cautionary tale for retailers contemplating innovations. Introducing new technology without adequate fraud safeguards can render businesses susceptible to exploitation. While self-checkouts were designed with the assumption of honest usage, they overlooked vulnerabilities that thieves swiftly exploited.

Source: Flickr/Mike Mozart

Source: Flickr/Mike Mozart

Innovations like cashier-less stores that track customers using sensors may face a similar fate if the same mistakes are repeated. Without robust fraud prevention measures and appropriate legal penalties to keep pace with retail technology, inevitable abuse could jeopardize future innovations, much like how shoplifting signaled the demise of self-checkout lanes.

The End of a Chapter?

Amid years of escalating shoplifting incidents, self-checkouts transitioned from heralded pioneers of retail to discontinued relics of the past. Their removal renders stores less convenient but also less susceptible to rampant theft. Only steadfast action to deter criminals, combined with advanced anti-fraud measures, can empower retailers to reintroduce self-service transactions with confidence.

Source: Flickr/Mike Mozart

Source: Flickr/Mike Mozart

Until then, the era of scanning your groceries while avoiding “Unexpected item in bagging area!” alerts appears to be heading for the history books.

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