Secret Service's Home Depot Arrests Add To Self-Checkout Woes

When the U.S. Secret Service arrested five men last week on charges that they stole hundreds of items from the self-checkout areas of 74 Home Depots in six states, it certainly didn't help the security reputation of self-checkout. This comes after Costco detailed its own self-checkout thefts and several chains abandoned self-checkout, citing theft as one key reason.

Some self-checkout advocates concede that these types of self-checkout thefts are very real, but that they are often the result of sloppy self-checkout deployments, with some stores not activating all security functions, using insufficient staff around self-checkout, not bothering with security cameras and ignoring other self-checkout best practices.

Self-checkout critics say the very idea of a non-attended checkout is asking for shoplifting trouble and that it comes off as non-customer-friendly. The truth, as usual, lies in between. Different types of stores and different kinds of customers can have a huge impact, which is why similar stores in different states can have such diametrically opposite results from self-checkout.

Also, some of these best practices run into practical issues. For example, the sales reps selling self-checkout systems are hesitant—rightly so—to bring up the need to do a lot of security tweaking. First, it reinforces the fear that self-checkout is not secure. Second, it makes the purchase seem like more work. The rep just wants to make the sale and keep the customer happy. He/she will be long gone when any inventory losses happen.

The retailer, too, is at fault. The key benefit of self-checkout is being able to redeploy associates elsewhere, in more profitable areas of the store. So there's a strong incentive to deploy the minimum number of associates possible to support self-checkout.

Then there's basket size. Self-checkout vendors quickly admit that the ideal self-checkout experience is when the customer has 10 or fewer items. Much more than that and it becomes far too slow. When was the last time you saw a self-checkout lane with a sign "Ten or fewer items, please"? The more customers who want to use it, the better. Better for whom? Large baskets slow down the lane for everyone, generating some of that customer unhappiness and confirming the perception of a lack of customer service that self-checkout opponents cite.

In the Home Depot case, the men were accused of stealing with very non-high-tech methods. One of the suspects was charged with distracting the Home Depot associate watching self-checkout as his accomplice maneuvered a high-priced item directly into a bag without using the self-checkout system at all, among other tactics.

The Costco case involved weight mismatches and the IBM self-checkout system's inability—said one Costco official—to demand an associate intervention for such a weight problem. Brian Taylor, worldwide product manager for self-checkout at IBM, disagreed, saying the software has that exact capability but that some retailers don't bother to activate it. He wouldn't specifically say if Costco had failed to activate it.

"The way a retailer deploys self-checkout is much more important than the technology itself, in determining shrink," Taylor said, adding that some retailers do not focus enough effort to make their self-checkout systems succeed. "Some are somewhat neglected, left to run itself," he said.

Maybe part of the problem is with the name? A self-checkout system certainly sounds like it can be left alone. But as long as thieves won't, you really can't either.