Shoplifting: Easier to Commit and Justify than Ever Before

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Criminologists are concerned that self-service checkouts are gradually normalising the act of shoplifting.

Easier to Steal

Professor Larry Neale from Queensland University of Technology’s business school believes the absence of humans at every checkout makes the act of stealing easier on both a physical and psychological level.

“Self-serve checkouts provide that distance between you and the organisation or an identifiable victim,” he says. “The customer can’t point to someone and say, ‘that person is going to lose money if I steal from this store’.”

Backlash Against Supermarket Giants

Growing consumer resentment towards large supermarket chains also helps justify the act of stealing, especially given reports that Coles and Woolworths are exploiting Aussie farmers to make huge profits, while employing less workers and skimping on penalty rates.

One talkback radio caller echoed the sentiments of many: “If they are going to make me self-serve and reduce the employment for our youth, I will make sure I hit their bottom line. They are just putting so many people on the unemployment line and it disgusts me.”

Indeed, Coles and Woolworths have been caught-out underpaying some of their workers, while putting suppliers under great pressure. A recent consumer backlash was against the decision by both juggernauts to sell cheap milk – a move that is threatening the livelihood of Australian dairy farmers.

The Human Touch

Research suggests that most shoppers prefer to be served by a person.

“Five out of six people would much rather be served by a human being than to actually administer their own automated checkout,” Marketing consultant Barry Urquhart said. “The problem is that 40 to 60 per cent of checkouts are now automated.”

Supermarket Response to Shoplifting

A number of supermarkets have responded to the rise in shoplifting by attempting to shame suspected thieves. Some have even printed and posted images of suspects, both in-store and online.

Lawyers say this is dangerous territory for store owners, exposing them to potential defamation claims. “They run the risk of defaming persons they put on the wall, because if they’ve not been convicted of any offence then they can hardly be portrayed as a thief,” said solicitor Tim Abbott.

He argues that even if CCTV depicts a person taking an item, there may be factors such as mental health issues which prevent them from having the necessary intent to be labelled a ‘thief’.

Extent and Cost of Supermarket Theft

One in six customers aged in their thirties admits deliberately failing to pay for an item in a do-it-yourself scan and bag area. Overall, almost one in 10 shoppers admit stealing products in this way.

Professor Adrian Beck from the University of Leicester says that payment fraud cost Australian retailers a whopping $380 million last year alone.


Professor Beck believes the most powerful protection against theft is better customer service and an improved public image, which could reduce the moral justification for stealing.

In relation to automated checkouts, he says the reduced cost to supermarkets outweighs losses incurred through additional theft.

What are the penalties for shoplifting?

Shoplifting is a type of larceny, and the penalties depend on the value of the goods stolen.

For goods worth $5,000 or less, the maximum penalty is 12 months imprisonment and or a fine of $5,500.

However, if the amount stolen is worth over $5,000, the maximum penalty increases, to two years imprisonment and/or a fine of $5,500.

If you are charged with larceny, it is most likely you will face a fine, not prison time.

But a fine still carries a criminal record, so engaging in theft, even a minor one, could have long-term consequences.

You may be able to avoid a conviction by convincing the Magistrate to grant you a ‘section 10 dismissal or conditional release order without conviction’ (which means guilty but no conviction recorded) or by making a mental health application which, if successful, will mean there is not criminal record or finding of guilt.

A criminal defence lawyer can advise you about these possible outcomes.

For shoplifting, it is also possible that you will not go to court at all – a Criminal Infringement Notice (CIN) can be issued instead.

A CIN works as an on the spot fine and it can be issued for stealing goods worth less than $300. The fine is $300.

Like other fines, you have 21 days to pay it, or you can take the matter to court if you want to fight it.

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