I’m old enough to remember when self-service checkouts arrived in supermarkets… and my initial disgruntlement has not disappeared. In fact, it’s turned into a semi-regular battle to see what I can get away with. Literally. I’m a casual shoplifter.
The news earlier this week that M&S now puts one steak on display to deter thievery is not entirely surprising – it wasn’t long ago that a rival supermarket introduced security tags on its larger packs of Lurpak butter, while impenetrable black plastic caps on bottles of booze are a familiar sight.
That doesn’t deter me – I don’t see myself as a career criminal looking to con big business out of big money – I just pick and choose the odd item to take without paying, as a quid pro quo for price hikes, useless technology and the endless draining away of anything resembling service.
It started back before you could beep and pack as you go, scanning at a checkout onto weighted surfaces. I had loose echalion shallots but couldn’t find them on the screen so put them through as brown onions. Easy, and cheaper.
It’s not just me and it’s not just that technique, of course. Shoplifting rose by 22 per cent in England and Wales in the year to September, according to the Office for National Statistics, with many people doing it for the first time because of the cost of living crisis.
I’ve seen people eating their way through a packet of something as they traverse the store, only to leave the wrapper on a shelf, or add more carrots to a bundle they’ve already weighed and printed a ticket for. Every little helps, as the shop surely wouldn’t want us to say.
Now I have the apps and use my phone or an in-store scanning device, it’s hard to resist. I buy things like mint tea in bulk, so I’ll scan one box and put five in my bag, clicking ‘4 in trolley’.
It’s not an “idle suburban mum gets her kicks from crime” plan because a lot of what drives me to it is what we all have to contend with. At the supermarket closest to my dad’s home, half the store has no signal so I’ll be scanning stuff on my phone when I go out of range somewhere around the Yorkshire tea bags and it doesn’t come back until the other side of the loo roll aisle. I’ll put stuff at the top of the trolley to zap but it’s easy to forget or miscalculate.
Of course, food shopping is not a free-for-all. Whether a cheeky freebie or a genuine error, anyone doing this runs the risk of getting stopped by a security guard or being called aside for the dreaded rescan. This happened to me once in one of the smarter supermarkets and the rescanning device failed and I had to get every single item back out of the bags and start from scratch, another 30 minutes of my life I won’t get back.
I do worry. Imagine how publicly embarrassing it would be to be caught and for all your neighbours to find out?
But here’s the thing: a couple of months ago I did “the big shop” in a medium-sized town centre supermarket, using a self-scan device. It came to £170 and I diligently went through the on-screen hoops at the end. I drove home, unpacked my bags then realised I hadn’t actually done the last bit of the process – paying.
I went back to the store and tracked down an assistant to explain. Happens all the time, he said with a world-weary look, giving the distinct impression that the store doesn’t pursue it very often. That must be doubly depressing for a diminished workforce whose only engagement with the customers is to take the aforementioned cap off a bottle of booze or assist when the money-off token refuses to scan. The fact that I fessed up and paid up has made me think I’m allowed to carry on pilfering for a while yet.