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Mobile scan and pay could encourage retail theft, warn criminologists

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Retailers in search of an ever more flexible shopping have looked to mobile scan and pay technology to create an easier customer journey through the store or supermarket. It’s now common to see customers scanning and paying for products in store, before walking out with them.

But criminologists from the University of Leicester who have analysed the approach in a new report today warn that it risks making it easier to steal for shoplifters, while also reducing the perception that there are legal consequences to theft because there is no human interaction.

The report, Developments in Retail Mobile Scanning Technologies: Understanding the Potential Impact on Shrinkage and Loss Prevention, finds that the technology also gives shoppers a ready-made excuse for not scanning their goods, since they can say the technology didn’t work, or that a product barcode was faulty.

Co-author Professor Adrian Beck said: “Both loved and loathed by consumers, with the phrase ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’ striking dread into many a shopper, self-scan technologies are growing in use and likely to become even more prominent as we begin to be encouraged to use our own mobile devices to both scan and pay for products in the stores we visit.

“From the retailers’ perspective, the benefits seem obvious – less investment required in staff and checkout technologies, with the former being the biggest expense they face. For the shopper it could mean the end of checkout queues as product scanning and payment can in theory be performed anywhere in the store at their convenience. To borrow a well-warn Top Gear phrase, ‘what could possibly go wrong’?

“Well, our research found that quite a bit could and does go wrong, with some potentially rather worrying long term consequences.”

Those consequences, suggests the report, include making theft easier and lowering perception of risk associated with shoplifting, since the payment process takes human interaction out of the process. Retailers find it difficult to know if customers accidentally missed scanning individual items, argues the report, which says available data suggests self-scanning technologies have rates of loss that are 122% higher than the average rate of loss.

Co-author Dr Matt Hopkins said: “Retailers are becoming aware of these problems and introducing ways of ‘amplifying’ risk in the mobile scan and pay environment, trying to ensure that all that ends up in the basket also makes it onto the receipt.

“All innovations in retailing are a business choice – hopefully done to make the shopper happier and the business more profitable. But those same choices can also produce negative outcomes as well, such as increased opportunities for losses to occur.”

The report, by Professor Beck and Dr Hopkins from the University of Leicester Department of Criminology and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), is available on request by emailing

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