Australian supermarket giant Coles is considering introducing new technology to reduce their annual $1.1 billion theft debt at self-serve checkouts.
Retail sources have told news.com.au that Coles is looking at machine scanners that can more cleverly identify specific fruit and vegetables by a combination of weight and image recognition.
Research reveals that shoppers are more likely to steal at a self-serve machine, partly because customers are distanced from the human face of the business.
Coles did not respond to questions about the introduction of the new technology. It denied it would employ two staff at self-service areas in some supermarkets to "meet and greet" shoppers and put a human face on the areas to reduce theft, saying a number of Coles supermarkets already have more than one self-service supervisor.
Supermarket theft is compounded by the ease at which self-serve machines allowed shoppers to pass off more expensive fruit, vegetables and bakery products as cheaper products.
The "swipe everything as carrots" mentality was prevalent among young customers, who confessed to supermarket research body Canstar Blue that they had ripped off supermarkets at the self-serve.
Canstar Blue told news.com.au that while younger customers had embraced self-serve because they actively tried to avoid interaction with others while shopping, they also practised the "five-finger discount".
Australian Retailers Association executive director Russell Zimmerman told news.com.au that theft in supermarkets was costing chains up to three per cent of their revenue of tens of billions of dollars.
Zimmerman said in-store stealing was a serious concern to the supemarket conglomerates, and that companies were looking at other new technology such as creating barcode tags for loose fresh produce like capsicums.
Canstar Blue found that one in six customers aged in their 30s said they had deliberately not paid for an item at a self-service checkout.
Almost one in 10 shoppers of all ages admitted they had cheated supermarkets in the self-serve section, Canstar Blue found in its survey. Men were more likely to steal than women.
Coles has already used technology to recalibrate machines in its Victorian stores to speed up self-service shopping.
Coles estimates that its customers spend an average of three minutes at self-service checkouts, where identifying individual fresh items on the screen can slow down shoppers.
Professor Larry Neale, of Queensland University of Technology's business school, told the ABC that, psychologically, self-service checkouts made stealing easier because they "provide that distance between you and the organisation or an identifiable victim".
"The customer can't point to someone and say, 'That person is going to lose money if I steal from this store'," Professor Neale said.
Shoppers also used resentment towards the major supermarket chains by industry groups as an excuse to wrongly enter information or drop items into their bags without scanning them.
"Some of their reputation in the community as being against farmers gives reasons for shoppers to do the wrong thing," he said.
For the 2014-15 financial year, Coles revenue was reported as $38 billion, while Woolworths reported sales of $61.1 billion.
Industry estimates are that up to 3 per cent of these profits disappear in theft, potentially costing the big supermarkets as much as $2.97 billion annually.
Earlier this year, a British study found that hundreds of millions of pounds were being lost at self-service tills.
The British survey found more than £1.6 billion ($3 billion) worth of items were stolen from supermarkets every year, with one shopper in five taking advantage of the opportunities for theft offered by do-it-yourself checkouts.
Canstar Blue found that nine in 10 Aussie shoppers aged 18 to 39 preferred to stay "in the zone" and shop without personal service.
But only half the number of shoppers surveyed over 60 had mastered self-service and were frustrated by the machines. Older male shoppers in particular did not like using them.
"Younger people prefer to be in their own little world, wearing headphones, in the zone, when they don't have to relate to people," Simon Downes of Canstar Blue said.
"Some people get frustrated and just put an item in the bag. Or there are people who think: I come here every week, every month and I spend thousands and if there's an opportunity to get something free from the supermarket then I'm going to do it and it's not going to hurt Woolies or Coles.
"Of course if everyone did that we'd be in big trouble, but I think people don't see it as a traditional type of stealing.
"It's not like putting something in your jacket. They don't see it as mainstream theft so there is less guilt.
"But just because a person doesn't get caught does not mean they haven't been seen or aren't being watched on camera.
"Coles aren't stupid. They have to record and review the situation. They don't want to sit back and take the losses."
Coles did not respond to questions about theft at their stores, instead releasing a statement saying: "Changes in customer shopping habits, including more frequent visits with smaller purchases, have driven the rollout of assisted checkouts.
"We see more than five million assisted checkout transactions each week so our customers are clearly enjoying the convenience."
TOP REASONS PEOPLE GAVE FOR STEALING FROM SELF-SERVICE CHECKOUTS IN THE UK
• Gave up trying to scan something that wouldn't register: 57 per cent
• Less likely to get caught: 51 per cent
• The machine is easy to fool: 47 per cent
• Didn't have enough money: 32 per cent
• At the time I didn't realise it hadn't scanned: 6 per cent
Top items people admit stealing from self-service checkouts
• Fruit/vegetables: 67 per cent
• Bakery: 41 per cent
• Confectionery: 32 per cent
•Toiletries: 26 per cent