Ikea Gives Weight Restrictions Little Weight In European Self-Checkouts

A new report from Planet Retail says Ikea, the world's largest furniture retailer with nearly $29 billion in annual revenue, is taking a risky approach when it comes to preventing theft at self-checkout kiosks at some European stores. Although most other retailers heavily rely on weight-testing technology, Ikea doesn't; instead it relies on spot-checking orders.

A big headache for retailers with self-checkout kiosks has always been dealing with theft prevention in a way that isn't cumbersome and doesn't alienate consumers. What honest shopper doesn't cringe when the machine flashes a red light and tells the whole area about an "unexpected item in the bagging area"?

But Ikea, one of the few non-food retailers in Europe to install self-checkout kiosks, "refuses to invest in weigh scales like other stationary self-checkouts have," said Planet Retail's Research Director Retail Technology Bjorn Weber. He is the author of Planet Retail's new report, titled "Self-service Checkouts: How the next generation of self-service changes retailing."

Ikea representatives did not respond to our requests for comment.

Weber said he took note of Ikea's minimalist approach because it doesn't seem logical, given the capabilities of today's technology. "It makes sense for retailers to deploy systems that have built-in theft control that is actually part of the scanning and payment process and to avoid the situation where they have to re-scan or double-check customers who've already completed their checkout process, as you have with all these guys doing self-scanning with mobile devices," he said. "Someone has to scan at least some of the products or the whole trolley and that's annoying for the customer, because he's under suspicion and because he was promised to save time by using the self-checkout and now he's not saving time."

The report said self-service checkouts are being rolled-out at a fast pace in Europe by big players including Carrefour and Ikea. But it questioned Ikea's laid-back theft-prevention attitude.

"They have a real issue here [in Europe] because [Ikea has] no anti-theft controls built into their machines," Weber wrote, noting that new anti-theft technology can handle large, non-food items, such as furniture and is being used on self-checkouts installed at British home improvement supply retailer B&Q's stores. "For B&Q, Wincor Nixdorf developed [an approach] that can even weigh roof battens and cement bags," he wrote.

But Ikea has eschewed the technology and is attempting to limit stealing in other ways. "The furniture giant limits the use of these [self-checkout] machines to purchase [as many as] 15 items and does not enable the multiply button. For example, if shoppers want to buy 12 identical cups, they have to scan each and every one of these," the report said. "Nevertheless, the risk of theft for Ikea is very high. If the attendant, each responsible for four self-checkouts, is helping a customer at one of the other machines, they will not notice if customers do not scan each and every item."

Weber said Ikea officially contends that its shrinkage rates did not increase after the self-checkouts were installed. "As Planet Retail learned from informal talks with Ikea managers, the scale-less self-checkout has caused arguments within the company. For some countries, the software has been reprogrammed so that it now randomly stops in the middle of the scanning process and requests an attendant to intervene."

But that common technique of random auditing won't always work. "Retailers deploying self-scanning or self-checkouts without integrated theft protection are faced with the problem that not scanning all items is, so far, not a criminal offense," the report said. "If un-scanned items are detected in rescans, staff can only advise customers how to scan everything in the future. Calling the police would not be effective. Customers can always claim that the technology didn’t work properly and that they tried really hard to scan everything correctly. So far, not scanning an item is, also in a legal sense, not the same as hiding an item from the cashier at a manned till."

It's not clear how universal that lack of laws is, with law enforcement in the United States periodically charging some self-checkout shoppers with theft.