Safeway Self-Checkout Security Hole Illustrates The Importance Of Button Sequence

The self-checkout software at a Safeway chain in California, Vons, lets the shopper move directly to the payment area and then still buy more items. This bit of flexibility likely seemed a good idea at the time, until it was discovered that it meant that the next shopper could scan groceries and those groceries would be charged to the payment card of the first shopper.

Nearby stores within the Ralph's and Albertson's chains avoid this issue by simply forcing the shopper to close out the order before proceeding to payment, according to a California TV station's report.

A shopper who got his groceries for free tipped off the TV station to the glitch. The Safeway stores had a "finish" button but was it not required that it be hit before proceeding to payment, the report said. "We are working on a solution that would prevent this problem from occurring," the chain said in a statement. "In the meantime, we have placed signage at our self checkout terminals to remind customers to collect their receipt prior to leaving the store to ensure that they have completed their transaction."

Of potentially greater concern, though, is that the store apparently knew of the hole and opted to watch for it and fix it after the fact, rather than tweak the software to prevent it. "Customers can swipe their debit card and enter their Club Card number and PIN at any time during their transaction, but their transaction is not complete and their payment does not go thru until they hit 'finish and pay,'" said the statement. "Our system has flags that monitor the progress of each transaction and the attendant assigned to our self-checkout area is trained to monitor for these situations, but there still are rare instances where customers do not complete their transaction."

One wonders how much time was spent watching and fixing these holes and creating and distributing the signs, as well as dealing with customers who were apparently paying for other shoppers. It's also possible that many of those ripped-off shoppers never detected it, but they will now that media coverage has kicked in. How will those shoppers feel about Safeway's "let the glitch happen and we'll fix the individuals who notice later" approach? Compare all that to how much time it would have likely taken IT to simply force that the "finish" button be hit before payment was accepted? Ahhh, the wacky world of retail cost-benefit and analysis.