How does theft happen at the supermarket checkout?
October 1, 2012 4:00 AM   Subscribe

How do supermarket employees steal from the store and/or customers at the checkout stand?

I wasn't surprised to read in a recent article (which I can't seem to locate now) that supermarkets lose more inventory to internal theft than to shoplifting. However, I was surprised to learn that most of the employee theft at supermarkets actually occurs right in the open at the checkout stand itself, rather than in the back rooms as one might expect. The article was specifically discussing inventory loss, rather than payment shenanigans (such as sweethearting*, cash drawer shortages, overcharging, identity theft, etc). Also, it turns out that customers are often the victims and not just the stores. What kind of sleight-of-hand or other trickery are these employees using to steal merchandise out in the open? How can customers (and stores) protect themselves from this?

I'd love to hear stories from people who've had lots of experience working in retail.

* Sweethearting refers to not charging items at the register for known customers/accomplices.
posted by Socky McSock to Work & Money (24 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
It's not exactly stealing as some money would change hands, but someone I knew years ago told me that when he worked in a Sainsbury's, they'd mark down prices on goods (as in, goods that were reduced for quick sale as they were almost expired) for each other far lower than they would for the shop floor. This would have been in the late 90s though, so they may have introduced rules since to prevent it.
posted by mippy at 4:06 AM on October 1, 2012

[A couple of comments deleted; the situation OP is asking about is fairly specific: theft involving inventory loss that happens at the checkout stand itself and is not related to failure to charge for friends.]
posted by taz (staff) at 4:49 AM on October 1, 2012

I suppose it's as simple as purposely not putting items in the bag (for groceries with dedicated baggers).
posted by Thorzdad at 4:51 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

My ex and I lived together and both worked graveyard shift at a big grocery store in Kentucky. One night I learned that less than about 5% of the groceries he brought home were paid for. I was not thrilled. He "provided" for us in two ways:
1. While stocking the shelves from totes during the night he would keep a separate tote of the items he wanted. At the end of the night he would transfer the tote contents to a box, which he would place outside the back stockroom door. Then pick it up on his drive off after his hard day's night.
2. During the day, his coworker buddy and him helped each other at the cash register by not-really-scanning all the items.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:52 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was oblivious to it at the time, but yonks ago I worked at a bookstore and what happened was that a "customer" would come up to a cash register run by an accomplice employee who would then appear to ring items through and not actually ring all of them up, so you would get a big bag going out with a receipt, but very little paid for. This was especially popular with magazines. Also there was a scam going with refunding or voiding items that weren't actually bought at the shop or were still kept by the customer, so they got the refund and kept the item. I remember the store manager scrutinizing registers that had more than a certain number of refunds processed because of this.

There was also scanning barcodes for items that were on specials, so you would deliberately scan the wrong item so the "customer" walked off with a $99 item for $9.

You could also manually run a credit card number - you were supposed to have a credit card imprint and check against a paper blacklist, but if you didn't have someone checking on that, you didn't need a customer present to go ahead and ring up an order on a credit card. Issuing a credit card refund was super easy too, if you wanted to charge things to someone, then have them refunded so they wouldn't complain, but in the meantime you kept the stuff.

Every cash register is supposed to be kept to a staff ID, but when I worked with one and now when my kids have worked with them at supermarkets, staff swapped in and out all the time. My kids working part-time at the supermarket had stories about staff just taking stuff from the shelves for snacks, but that seemed to be condoned by the store manager as a reasonable perk.
posted by viggorlijah at 4:55 AM on October 1, 2012

I suspect that keeping things visually subtle is key.

My second-hand knowledge is that many larger stores employ third-party security to surveil the place. The cameras are abundant, their definition is at minimum pretty good, and everyone in the joint is considered a potential violator.
posted by mr. digits at 5:13 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not exactly what you're asking about but kind of related, back in my student days a lecturer or someone similar told us all a story (may not be true) about how he'd been called into a supermarket to figure out where stock was going missing left and right apparently they tried adding all sorts of security, including mandatory pat-downs of all employees when they left and they found nothing. Until someone happened to be looking at the building plans and realised that there was one more in reality then were on the plans, someone in management had somehow got an additional checkout installed and the money for everything that went through it was siphoned off into his account.
posted by purplemonkeydishwasher at 5:27 AM on October 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

From what I remember working retail, the "damaged" box was one of those things that didn't get nearly as much attention as it should have - we just chucked things into the box if they were messed up (like if a customer was checking out and realized the item was defective in some way.) Periodically, as in every week or two, a manager would pick up the box and go through it and make sure everything was "damaged" and record things and dispose of it all, but that box sat there for weeks sometimes, and no one paid much attention to it.

I suspect the go-backs (the box where you put all the stuff the customers decide they don't want) are another hot spot. My local grocery store has started emulating Wal-Mart, with the go-backs shelved in a prominent location right by the Customer Service desk, but there are still plenty of things sitting at each register waiting for someone to take care of them.

When I worked retail, the fox units definitely considered employees to be just as big a concern as the guests. And every register had a dedicated camera on it, like at a bank. That's the "nice" thing about damaged goods and go-backs: everyone expects the person at the register to be cavalier about chucking things in there, and everyone expects people to be putting things in (and sometimes taking things out) and at various points moving the box.

Also, of course, any one instance of sneaking a mug or box of candy out through the damages box costs the company a lot less money than one instance of switching a $5 for a $50 in your drawer, so the attention is typically placed on the drawer and on verifications/counts. On a busy day my drawer would get verified three or four times.
posted by SMPA at 5:49 AM on October 1, 2012

I had to get a manager to unlock the door to the dumpster because corporate had instances of employees throwing perfectly good merchandise in, then going around later to dumpster-dive. I'm not sure if it's just corporate fake-fixing since we run the compactor every time we put in trash.
posted by mightshould at 6:03 AM on October 1, 2012

When I worked at a supermarket we were allowed to buy and take items from the shop into the break room for lunch. We were supposed to show them and the receipt to the supervisor first, who stuck a big sticker on them, so that it was visually obvious that we had paid for them. But a lot of the time we wouldn't bother with this step as we only got 15 minutes for break, and we trusted each other. So I'd walk from a checkout to the break room with my bag, past the supervisor, wave some food at her and say, "Just bought this for lunch" and she'd wave me past and say "okay". If I were dishonest, I could probably have skimmed a few items off a customer (by not bagging them when they weren't paying attention) or off the shelves near my checkout, and done the same "wave and smile" thing. Then I could have eaten them for free for lunch, or put them in my bag in the breakroom and repeated the same trick at each break. Over time that could have really added up.

I don't know if people really did this, though. But it struck me as something that could obviously have worked.

Also, sometimes we'd be asked to take boxes of rubbish out the back on the way through. If no one was watching, you could probably stuff a pile of stolen food into one of those boxes, take it out the back, and then transfer it into your bag. I think cameras would make it likely you'd get caught pretty quickly though.
posted by lollusc at 6:09 AM on October 1, 2012

A friend who used to work loss prevention told me about overnight stockers putting things like Xboxes in a box fan box (or something similar). They would then put that box on the shelf so that they would know which one it was. The next day, them or a friend would come buy a $20 "box fan" but pick up the package that has the electronics in it. I believe it was discovered when a random customer picked up the "wrong" box fan and returned the Xboxes to the store.
posted by MultiFaceted at 6:25 AM on October 1, 2012

On the very unsophisticated side of things--a smaller town grocery that we were regulars at had one main manager and a very generous attitude towards customer service. For example, if you didn't like something, you could just go in to the customer service desk (without the container) tell them what happened, and get coupons and refunds. OR this manager, if you did something like leave the giant pack of TP on the bottom rail of the cart in the parking lot, would just accept your story and replace without question.

We went about the same time every week and since there were only a couple full-time cashiers, used the same cashier. One winter, at least every other week, I was getting home without items I was SURE I had purchased, but weren't on the receipt so I assumed low blood sugar or something. Then, one of these times, the items WERE on the receipt, but had not gotten home, so I went back to the store to explain that I must have forgotten the bag with those items in my cart.

As the manager was pulling them for me, I starting chatting with "our" cashier. Their stands were the old-fashioned ones that wrapped around and there was a shelf underneath for the cashier's belongings. From the edge of a large tote, I saw both the top edge of a pasta box and the end of a bottle of sauce that were things I was missing that the manager was currently on the floor replacing (if I had seen just one, I wouldn't have thought a thing of it, it was both together). The cashier saw me see, and turned bright red--I did, too. It was insane AWFUL. There is a way that I wish I had never known--we saw this cashier all the time, knew little things about their life--and now I knew we were a regular target.

When the manager came back, the cashier started crying, and I wasn't sure what to do. He came around to ask what was wrong, and the cashier said that "She's going to make you mad at me." Manager was confused, looked at me, and I just said that I had been talking to the cashier next to their station and noticed her tote, and the manager took it from there as I left quietly. Of course, we didn't see this cashier again.

So, add to all of these lower-level more complex financial schemes the fact that even minimally reasonable people may start to take advantage of a particular workplace dynamic. In this case--a trusting and congenial manager as well as the small town employees he serves. The situation I described was also the first time, I believe, that the cashier had ripped off both me AND the store (previously, just the store as the cashier would simply keep one bag close with chosen items that were not scanned and fail to put it in my cart. This store did not have separate baggers--it was more a straight up sleight of hand that cashier managed while we were socially chatting)--perhaps the cashier was escalating or maybe I wasn't as distractible that time.
posted by rumposinc at 6:26 AM on October 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

I got a CC stolen once, and the guy who stole it had a friend who was a cashier at a local Kmart. In the transaction, the cashier not only knowingly used a stolen CC, but passed things over the belt without scanning them. (Why she did this, I don't really know).

Being a credit card thief's accomplice is not only dishonest to the person whose card is being ripped off, obviously, but eventually the store gets ripped off because there's going to be a chargeback.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:37 AM on October 1, 2012

I worked at a store a while ago where one employee would ask the customer whether they wanted their receipt or not before completing the transaction. If the answer was no, he'd void the ticket instead of entering the payment, and pocket the cash by sleight of hand. The register made all the same noises, and the voided slip was disposed of. He did this maybe 3 or 4 times per shift. The drawer was never short. A customer eventually noticed and told the manager.
posted by expialidocious at 7:20 AM on October 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I worked in supermarkets for three years and I never knew anyone who stole from customers. Among other employees, sweetheart set-ups were common, though, as was just grabbing food off the racks and heading to the break-room without paying.

Honestly, I wonder if the article was exaggerating as a scare tactic. The area behind most registers where I worked was crowded, without any room to store things we'd taken from customers.

(previously, just the store as the cashier would simply keep one bag close with chosen items that were not scanned and fail to put it in my cart. This store did not have separate baggers--it was more a straight up sleight of hand that cashier managed while we were socially chatting)

Honestly, I can't tell you how many times I ran after customers with their bags yelling at them to stop because they'd forgotten something. I'd hate for people to think this incredibly common occurrence is mostly an issue of theft, because from cashier experience I can tell you that, by and large, it wasn't.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:53 AM on October 1, 2012 [10 favorites]

I remember a case when I was working at a law firm where we obtained video of the clerk ringing up a bogus customer (that is, an acquaintance) bagged everything but then the card came up as declined. Cashier turned her head away to apparently "resolve" the issue, customer wheeled an entire cart full of unpaid but bagged goods right out the door. I don't think that is very common, though, especially with security cameras everywhere. I think these people were busted, IIRC.
posted by kuppajava at 8:01 AM on October 1, 2012

Awhile ago my brother, a cashier, was caught scamming the supermarket he worked for. In this case there was a loophole when buying gift cards. It was possible to add money to a gift card without it affecting the drawer count. This meant an employee could ring up a gift card for like $100 without putting the equivalent amount into their drawer. Then later they could use the gift card to make purchases.

Eventually the store caught on to the situation and charged several employees with embezzlement. Lucky for my brother the evidence they had on him was below the amount necessary to make it a felony.
posted by Green With You at 8:22 AM on October 1, 2012

There was a convenience store near my old apartment that used to be notorious among friends for scamming customers. Sometimes they would give incorrect change, but often they would just scan a few items into the till before you got there, then press clear so the screen that faces customers looked clear but still had those items rung in. The total would come to 3 or 4$ more than it should have, but customers didn't often notice. The employee would then later do a refund on these 2 items, either that or they just had a free snack. I started asking for receipts when the total didn't seem to add up and had found out what happened. I called customer service for the chain but I don't know if anything was ever done. Eventually we just started shopping elsewhere because the person doing the scam was the manager so I no longer trusted that store.
posted by photoexplorer at 11:45 AM on October 1, 2012

In my experience you're playing with fire if you try to take a lot of groceries without paying for them, but many people grab stuff of the shelves for their break meal and no one bats an eye.
posted by jinkoh at 12:09 PM on October 1, 2012

I worked for a small town gas station/convenience store that had frozen yogurt and fountain drinks, and the boss let employees get free yogurt/drinks. So a coworker, when customers would buy yogurt/drinks, would just hit clear on the register, tell people the price, and put the money in the far right section of the drawer. Then at the end of the night, he'd pocket most of the yogurt/drink money, figuring the missing yogurt/drink cups would be factored into the free-for-employee stuff.

I didn't know about this at the time, but was told some years later. Our boss at that place used to constantly tell us how she had hidden cameras EVERYWHERE but clearly she didn't.
posted by routergirl at 12:49 PM on October 1, 2012

Paid stickers are your friend for break room snacks.
Just leave it loose so you can claim the receipt came off.

Doing it at the checkout seems like a high-risk, low reward scenario, but you certainly could "forget" to bag something then take it home later.
posted by madajb at 12:55 PM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I knew a kid in high school who worked as a supermarket checker. He had an amazing memory and would write down the names, CC#s, and expiration dates of customers' credit cards, usually during a lull, and use those to buy stuff online.
posted by MonsieurBon at 4:04 PM on October 1, 2012

What I have seen done quite frequently when working at a 7/11 kind of place

We had to gather all expired and damaged items. Well, many of them were "just" about to expire (as in in a month), and they would consider an item damaged if the price tag was crooked.

All these "undesirable" candy/ramen soup/what have you would be packed in boxes, the boxes would be sealed and then "dumped" (placed neatly behind the dumpster, from where people would pick them up at the end of their shift)
posted by Tarumba at 6:15 PM on October 1, 2012

Not a supermarket, but at a fast food restaurant where I worked, the cash register was never 'right' at the end of the day. It was almost always a dollar or two higher or lower than it should have been. One manager would always pocket any bills over what the drawer should have held, then mark the drawer as only being over by the loose change. It was a little every day, never more than five dollars at a time, but it added up.

Another scam (again, not supermarket, but a similar scam is possible), there was a rewards card that sent out $5 gift certificates for every $50 purchase. If anyone purchased more than fifty dollars worth of stuff, they automatically qualified for the gift certificate, but a lot of customers still didn't want to deal with the hassle. The manager at that store would go back for any sale where an eligible customer turned down the card. He would re-do the sale, and sign them up for the card, but he would either (I don't clearly recall) change the address to his own (not the smartest move) or leave it blank (in which case it would go to the store?). He managed to do this for years, stealing thousands of dollars from the company. I heard, when they finally caught him, he was given something like 5 years, and his wife was charged as an accomplice, since they'd used the money for vacations and such.

Two different ways, both basically register theft, possibly doable at a supermarket.
posted by Ghidorah at 12:39 AM on October 2, 2012

« Older Will He or Won't He?   |   £1000 for a sealed box? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.