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Retail robots could be personalised to curb self-service check-out theft

Benedict Brook, June 14, 2017 5:50PM News Corp Australia

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WOULD Australians be more honest at the self-serve checkout if the machine seemed more human and less robotic? What if the automated voice greeted shoppers by name?

Self-serve check-outs have been adopted into Australian supermarkets in recent years but the rise of the machines has coincided* with an increase in grocery theft.

A team of researchers at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) are hoping to curb the thieves with guilt by employing subtle* methods at the self-serve stations.

They want to look into whether “moral triggers” and “extreme personalisation” will nudge us towards being honest shoppers.

Self-checkouts survey media_cameraFamily using the machines at Coles South Melbourne. Picture: David Caird.

They also want to know if the behaviour of hotel guests choosing whether to wash or not wash towels daily can provide an insight* into the behaviour of shoppers when it comes to loose produce.

Last year police launched a campaign at a Coles supermarket to remind customers that self-serve checkout theft was still theft. Industry experts estimate several billion is lost through Australian self serve tills annually.

Coles spokeswoman Martine Alpins said at the time there had been “a normalisation of theft at self-service check-outs”.

The QUT research is about strategies to push back our “deviance* threshold”, Research Fellow and QUT’s PwC Chair in Digital Economy, Paula Dootson said.

“Everyone has a deviance threshold, everyone can be bad up to a point but all of our grey areas are a bit different.

Coles Mareeba has just introduced self serve checkouts. media_cameraSelf-serve check-out. Picture: supplied

“Some say they would never (scan inaccurately*) while some say they swipe inaccurately all the time. But this is about changing the behaviour of people that steal just a little bit because that’s actually worse for the supermarkets than the few people that steal a lot.”

Dr Dootson said self-serve technology — which has divorced shoppers from actual staff — had dulled* Australians’ conscience when it came to checkout theft.

“People struggle to understand who the victim is when committing deviance to a seemingly faceless organisation.”

Some of the techniques being explored in the research include:


What if the checkout seemed to recognise shoppers once they scanned your rewards card?

“It might say, ‘Hi Paula, welcome to Coles, please scan all your items,’” said Dr Dootson.

Would that see an increase in shoppers scanning all of their items?

In an example of what’s known as “extreme personalisation” some stores overseas recognise their customers through their phones and ping them special offers while they are in store based on their past purchases.

Grace Ursini (83), uses the self-serve checkout at the Coles supermarket in Burnside, South Australia. She finds it quicker than queueing for a staffed checkout. media_cameraSouth Australians at the check-out. Picture: supplied

“It’s just customer service but it reduces deviance because your know you’re no longer anonymous and you might feel more uncomfortable stealing.”


Another technique is the “moral trigger”. This would use existing self-serve technology but flash messages on screen encouraging shoppers to do the right thing.

Research from 2012 showed people were less likely to lie on insurance forms if they had to sign a statement saying they were telling the truth at the beginning rather than the end. Highlighting honesty upfront seemed to spur* people to do the same.

“Triggering notions of right and wrong means people are less likely to lie,” Dr Dootson said.

“It’s not asking them not to steal, it’s just triggering an idea of good behaviour.”


Another place researchers have learnt about human behaviour is in the bathroom at hotels.

For some years hotels have included signs asking guests to consider not having towels washed to lessen their environmental impact. About a third of guests choose this option.

SA Weekend - Wine and Roses bed and breakfast at 39 Caffrey Street, McLaren Vale - bathroom towels and handbasin. media_cameraHotel towels. Picture: supplied

In 2008, US researchers did an experiment where they changed the signs to read that ‘75 per cent of guests’ choose to limit their towel washing.

The number of guests who chose not to have their towels washed then jumped to almost half.

This technique seems to proves that most of us want to be in the club.

“It could be an external or an in-store campaign that says the vast majority of people choose to scan the right way.”


coincided: happened at the same time as

subtle: gentle

insight: understanding
bad behaviour



Activity 1. Strategy summary

The article details three strategies that supermarkets could use to reduce theft at their self-serve check-outs – personalisation, moral triggers and social proofing.
Write a one sentence summary for each of these, explaining how the strategy works.


Supermarkets would need to choose their words carefully when using moral triggers.

They need to get their message across about doing the right thing, but if they word the message incorrectly they could upset customers. Think of three simple but polite sentences to remind customers to pay for their items.

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity

Curriculum links: English

Activity 2: It all adds up

People who steal at the supermarket checkout may think that it doesn’t matter if they neglect to pay for one or two items, but when lots of people do it, the amount stolen quickly adds up.

Cut out ten items from a supermarket catalogue.
Put them in price order from the most expensive to the least expensive.
Now circle the third least expensive item and imagine this is the item from their basket that a customer steals.

Work out the cost of the items stolen if 10 people did this.

Now work out the cost if this then happened at 100 stores.

Finally, work out how much it adds up to when 10 people steal the item from 100 stores every day for a year.


Do you think there is any circumstance where it would be acceptable to steal from a supermarket?
Write a paragraph to justify your answer.

Time: allow 40 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum links: Mathematics, English, Ethical Capability


(Vocabulary, Connectives, Openers and Punctuation)

Swag bag vocabulary challenge

Pick at least one interesting piece of vocabulary from the article. Make it something you consider a wow word and challenge yourself. You could choose a glossary word.

Then you need to learn about that word.
You may want to look up the glossary definition or a dictionary definition.

You then need to put that word into a new sentence or two to practise it.

You need to try and use that new word subtly in speech during the week.
This can be with a peer, teacher, parent or carer etc.

But the trick is to try and not get caught using it, just sound like you have known that word forever.

Once you have managed to use the word, tell your teacher when, who and how you used it so they can add it to the vocabulary wall.

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity

Curriculum Links: English, Big Write and VCOP

Activity provided by Andrell Education







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