Go Ahead, Take The Banana

My long-departed (from my house, not from this earth) first wife had a lot of suggestions for me during our marriage: Stop skipping work! Don’t leave stuff all over the kitchen! Quit buying things you don’t need! Tucked in among those absolutely ridiculous ideas, however, was a rather brilliant one. She thought I should write a book called Self-Service Nation about the bizarre lengths to which modern corporations will go in order to offload labor from employees to customers. I told her I’d get around to it as soon as I cleaned up the kitchen, which never happened.

Too late now, of course. We now expect as a matter of course that we will be self-servicing much of our interaction with everybody from Wells Fargo to Kroger to Google to the airlines, via Byzantine web forms with unique logins and mandatory 12-character passwords that expire every afternoon at 3:01. We understand that when we call for help that we will be forced to navigate through a deliberately confusing touch-tone questionnaire in which the penalty for making a single mistake is to be disconnected and pressing the “O” key out of frustration results in a snippy-sounding recording of a stoned Valley Girl saying, “Hmmm… I didn’t get that.” Bitch, of course you didn’t get that! You’re not real!

They promised us that service and retail work would replace the factory jobs that were sent to China, but the minute people got uppity about wanting to earn the inflation-adjusted equivalent of 1968’s minimum wage the corporate cash taps get opened and all of a sudden an insane amount of money is being spent on machines to replace those service and retail jobs. The most obvious and obnoxious example: the self-checkout machines at grocery stores and Wal-Marts across the country, which cost about $20,000 per lane and last five years, thus theoretically saving money over the $60,000 per year it would cost to staff a checkout lane sixteen hours per day.

The numbers really work. You could arguably have $250,000 worth of additional theft and shortages over that five-year period and still come up ahead compared to a human cashier. That’s about $150 a day of theft that you can just wink at.

Well, if recent reports are any indication, there’s a lot of winking going on.


The Atlantic just published an article about stealing from self-checkout lines. There’s some attention paid to the various methods used, most of which you can find in a dozen other articles online and in the Reddit shoplifting forum, but for me the true interest of the article is the why, not the how. Why do up to a third of self-checkout users knowingly steal from the machine?

What I’d like to suggest is that human beings react badly when they see a social contract being broken, and that they often feel released from what they consider to be the obligations of that contract. You might never have thought about it, but when a grocery store opens in your area there’s an unspoken social contract, and it goes something like this:

* We (the store owners) won’t knowingly sell dangerous or expired food.
* You (the customer base) won’t just bum-rush the place as a group and take everything.
* We will try to charge a reasonable price.
* We will hire local people to work here.
* You won’t act crazy in the store.
* You won’t steal from us.

The reason there are no conventional grocery stores in most “ghetto” areas is simple: the social contract can’t be maintained. The less trust you have between parties to the contract, the more constrained things become. At the top of that scale is the Whole Foods in your local suburb, filled with FREE FOOD for the eating and stocked to the gills with hyper-expensive boutique products. At the bottom of the scale you have the Philly convenience stores where you hand dollar bills through a bulletproof turntable and receive overpriced generic stuff back. Between those extremes you have a thousand tiny gradations that affect how the store operates.

I’ve worked in the grocery business from both retail and brokerage sides. I can tell you that people steal more from dirty stores, they steal more from stores with tired-looking facings and fixtures, they steal more from stores with dim yellow lighting. They will even steal more from stores when the overall noise level in the building goes up, as is the case on weekends. It’s all part of their unfortunate but very human response to the slight perceived breakdown of that social contract between them and the store.

Adding self-checkout machines to a store doesn’t necessarily increase that sense of theft entitlement — when they are an option. The minute they become the only choice, however, it’s on like the proverbial Donkey Kong. Because the hyper-attuned sense that makes people feel more entitled to stead when the floors are dirty — well, it runs absolutely rampant when stores are obviously trying to save money on labor. It dehumanizes the store, and that’s bad because unlike the Supreme Court the average American doesn’t consider a corporation to be a “person”. This has been shown time and time again, particularly when it comes to online shopping and shopping with no human interaction.

Stealing from a person feels like a crime, even if that person is “just” an employee. Stealing from a faceless company can feel like a game. I’m curious to see what’s going to happen with these “unmanned” Amazon Go stores. For some people, every trip to an Amazon Go store will be an attempt to steal — and what’s the worst that happens? You end up getting a bill for something you were going to buy anyway.

This is all more important than it seems. As we move at fast-forward speed into a world where the majority of our interactions are with unmanned devices, the effects of basic human psychology on the situation will become increasingly important. Imagine a future where flatscreen displays are made in China on completely automated lines, then packed by robot onto container ships, then loaded by robot into an autonomous tractor-trailer. If you “hijack” that tractor-trailer electronically and make it bring a couple hundred free flatscreens to your neighborhood, what kind of crime is that, exactly? Is it even a crime, since you haven’t stolen a single moment of a single person’s time or life? If it just a crime against capital?

In the end, I’m reminded of an apocryphal story about someone showing Henry Ford II a bunch of plans for a roboticized assembly line and The Deuce asking, “How many cars will the robots buy?” In the long run, the future of Western society probably depends on the answer to that question nearly as much as it does on the current demographic changes taking place from California to the former East Germany. In the medium term, however, the more relevant question might just be: “How many cars would the unemployed people steal?”

45 Replies to “Go Ahead, Take The Banana”

  1. Joe

    I have long thought that the Detroit big 3 have been laying off a small chunk of their customer base, Wall Street would love to see more of this, when I walk in to Kroger, the seething begins as soon as I walk past those self checkout lanes, reminds me very much of the same loss of full service gas stations,time marches on and this will continue until we are in the utopian worlds of Plato’s Republic, great article

    Reply
  2. Ryan

    Linus Tech Tips posted a video last week where he proceeded to steal from an Amazon Go store. Not really a big YouTube guy, but I thought it was pretty interesting:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vorkmWa7He8

    I am guessing that the lack of employee salaries more than covered what their expected shrink would be. I wonder how the math works out when you factor the sheer amount of technology packed into the stores.

    Reply
    • Charlie

      That guy has some decent content, but it’s buried in schtick aimed at 12 year olds. I remember years ago his PC build videos were actually informative, if a bit amateurly produced.

      Reply
      • Ryan

        Agreed. I watched a handful of his videos after being sent this one. Everything seems to be along the lines of “ZOMG $30,000 gaming rig with 18k monitor.”

        I seldom watch YouTube videos, but my buddy recently turned me onto this “AvE” guy who does power tool teardowns. It’s pretty gimmicky too, but not nearly as bad as other channels I’ve watched.

        Reply
  3. JustPassinThru

    Correlation is not causation.

    Your observation that people steal more from dirty, noisy or poorly-run stores is also my observation; but those stores seem to be in areas that are in a downward spiral…and the owners of the store either placing lesser-performing managers in it, or are slowly preparing to close it.

    Cleaning up a dump of a store in a dump of a neighborhood, is not easily done. Clerks and stocking personnel are hired locally – and good workers with good work ethics don’t want to work where they’re likely to be shot arriving or leaving. It’s a LOT more work cleaning up a store behind consistently dirty and larcenous customers, than it is where people behave themselves.

    Finally, the Minimum-Wage meme. You can point out what the 1968 Minimum Wage translates to in today’s inflated funny-money; and that’s true. But wages ought not be a function of government edict. We tend to forget, in the heated-up economy of the late 1990s…minimum wage was $3.35 an hour. Nobody paid it. In Denver, where I lived at the time, fast-food outlets were paying $10 an hour. That’s what it took to attract candidates of some sort of quality.

    Today, the work ethic is in the toilet, and businesses, many of them, cannot AFFORD to pay $15 an hour for entry-level unskilled work. The capital in automation is a heavy price, but is amortized in a couple of years.

    Much is made of the wages paid in Mexico, or Costa Rica, or Vietnam…much, much lower even for skilled work. That’s how it is in a poor society – everyone is poorer. We were not so rich right after WWII; many people didn’t have cars or telephones and some families lived in $25/month tenements. Well, after this debt spree and financial manipulations from Washington, we are not as wealthy as we were 25 years ago, either.

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      “Your observation that people steal more from dirty, noisy or poorly-run stores is also my observation; but those stores seem to be in areas that are in a downward spiral…and the owners of the store either placing lesser-performing managers in it, or are slowly preparing to close it.”

      That’s fair, but what I’m referring to is comparisons between two stores in similar neighborhoods under similar socio-economic conditions.

      As an example, I worked for a grocery store where they had managed to get into a very hoity-toity retail mall during an economic downturn. The mall wanted them gone because they weren’t paying market rates, but we had a 15 year lease. So they begged us to put more money into the store, which we refused to do. We just ran the facility into the ground. Finally, we agreed to revamp. Stockloss sank.

      Reply
      • JustPassinThru

        And that’s probably an accurate observation.

        So…you’re a grocery shopper. Middle-class and moral. You don’t expect to feed your kidlets bon-bons out of the bakery aisle while you do your other shopping; and you’re not there to stick $50 worth of meat inside your shirt.

        Do you go to the clean, well-run Giant Eagle? Or do you go to the dirty, depressing Foodland, where they’re having a legal issue on their lease, and are letting the store go to hell?

        Of course you pick the clean store. Even if prices are a bit higher. Not so the SNAP buyer or the larcenous non-customers.

        Reply
    • yamahog

      ” But wages ought not be a function of government edict.”

      That ship sailed when the Government created a wage-funded welfare state and started controlling the immigration policies.

      Now we’re arguing about where to spread the costs.

      Reply
      • safe as milk

        thank you. these less regulation about wages arguments would make a lot more sense if we actually lived in a free market economy. when you have amazon workers on food stamps, it means that our taxes are subsidizing amazon. yes higher minimum wages will eliminate jobs but the jobs that are left will be real jobs.

        Reply
  4. Ronnie Schreiber

    A lot has to do with the individual store manager. That was true of the grocery business years ago, you could see some stores in a chain were run better than others, and now it’s true of big box stores that also sell groceries. Management matters.

    The Meijer store where I shop, at 12 Mile & Telegraph in Southfield, easily accessible from Detroit’s west side and with a predominantly black customer base, is not as well managed as the store at Maple and Hagerty, out in West Bloomfield near where my mom lives. It’s not as clean and more items that I shop for are out of stock. The difference is dramatic, almost like they were different companies. The headquarters in Grand Rapids has to know that there’s a difference. I would hope that there’s nothing racial about it and it has more to do with socio-economics.

    Regarding automated cashiers and tellers, I’ve had to learn not to shop at Meijer around midnight. At 12:00 every night, the network for their automated cashiers goes down for about 10 minutes. For a company that operates 24/7 that’s got to cost them a lot of money in customers walking out.

    Also, Meijer’s machines, at least at that store, literally snatch the money out of your hand so fast that if a human cashier did that you’d be offended.

    Then there’s my credit union’s ATM that choked on some bills so it swallowed what it had already processed and flashed me a “See your financial institution” message. It was a Saturday night. The 24/7/365 phone line was useless, they weren’t going to do anything until Monday morning. Monday morning? Still nothing. Almost at the end of the business day, actually while I was on the phone with them I got another call. “You should take that call,” the CSR said. Apparently when they ran a balance on the machine that morning, no overage came up and it was only because I was complaining so much that they checked the ATM’s journal and found my $102. The deposit was supposed to cover some credit card payments I was going to make. Fortunately I had some cash to spare but would the credit union have paid my late fees?

    This isn’t a new thing and doesn’t necessarily have to do with technology. I’ve been shopping at Durst Lumber in Berkley, MI for more than a half century. It’s an Ace franchise now but they still will sell you single pieces of hardware. I used to wonder how they made money selling you one washer for 8 cents. Surely shoplifting shrinkage has to be significant and then there’s the transaction cost and paying the cashier. Then I looked at the price of a box of 100 washers: $3.00. The individual screws and nuts etc have the highest margin in the store.

    Reply
    • Kvndoom

      Oh man! I had an ATM eat $90 a few months back. I am so lucky that the bank was open at the time. It still took 3 or 4 days for them to fix it.

      Reply
  5. arbuckle

    The only nice thing about self-checkout lanes is that I don’t need to be embarrassed when I go through the line with 5 ‘Banquet’ dinners, Crisco shortening, an Amy Grant CD, diarrhea medicine, and condoms.

    Reply
    • sabotenfighter

      Sounds like one hell of a Saturday night!

      Only reason I would ever step into a Walmart is to buy 5qt jugs of motor oil and the large boxes of condoms, usually at the same time. Guess I could have spiced it up and bought some slutty looking lipstick, pantyhose and the latest issue of Field & Stream to go with it.

      Reply
  6. John C.

    I wonder if the execs of companies that buy self check out machines have an accurate grasp of the level of thievery with human cashiers vs self check out. The vendors making the pitch are incentivized to downplay the risk and probably imply your existing cashiers are crooks already. I would not assume the execs are smart enough to be fully cognizant of the issue. Pulling the machines out later would be embarrassing but the decision makers would have moved on by then.

    Reply
  7. -Nate

    Interesting .

    The VON’s I used to shop at, installed these self checkout machnes then pulled them out again .

    It was a White Collar ‘hood (why I shopped there, cleaner) .

    The wallymart near my Son’s place has lots of these machines and plenty of hostile employees looking over your shoulder when you use them .

    -Nate

    Reply
      • David Florida

        My experience with the Sam’s app lasted for just two visits and the failure of a handheld device to scan my phone’s screen. Luckily for them, the checker at the exit door has been smiling at my kids and I for the better part of a decade and the system reboot didn’t take long. It kept me from giving the new Costco a try after twenty years as a Sam’s member.

        Reply
        • Lucas

          I’ve tried Costco, Sam’s and BJ’s. I love Costco the most out of all of them. But Costco is the most popular here and they don’t build enough clubs to handle the demand, so every time I go there no matter what day or time it is, they are packed… you have to circle the massive parking lot forever and compete for a spot a few blocks from the store and once you get inside someone is always in your way and you are always in someone else’s way, and it takes forever to get through the checkout lines. This is at 3 different locations around town. Sam’s carries the brands I like the most and they are busy but I can always get a close parking spot and get in and out quickly. BJ’s is always a ghost town which is convenient, but I don’t like the brands they carry as much.

          Reply
          • Rick T.

            We have memberships to both. My wife prefers Costco. The gas lines there are always horrific while at Sam’s I always get get access to a pump quickly. The savings from gas alone pays for the membership and anything else is gravy. I do concede that overall the products are probably better and more extensive at Costco.

            I will say the app rollout was a little rocky but the last few trips it’s worked very well.

    • JustPassinThru

      It all depends on the store. The neighborhood; and also ownership.

      Here in my 20,000-soul mountain town, Wally World has just installed a battery of NEW! IMPROVED! self-scan checkers. They work far-better than the previous generation. More surveillance, too – there’s a little LED screen halfway down from the lighted number post, that shows YOU! ARE! ON! CAMERA! So if you get cute, and store security checks…it’s all recorded.

      Nanny-state surveillance.

      At the other end…the Safeway/Albertson’s reorganization hit our community hard. We have four Albertson’s and had two Safeways; and by a court order, far away, Cerberus, the owner of both, now, was ordered to sell one or the other brands in overlapping markets.

      Albertson’s had no self-serve checkouts. Safeway had dedicated self-serve.

      The Safeways were the ones sold – to two local operators, grocers who had run stores in the area. Doing a good job, now – but they had problems with the self-servers, and closed them down.

      I rather liked the scanners. We’re a college town and young people, dazed on whatever drugs they’re using, have all kinds of problems making change, remembering or finding produce codes, and the like. I buy drinking water off the bulk purifier, and EVERY time I went through the line, the addled college scholar would have a deuce of a time finding the code.

      I know the code. Just let me punch it in, and be off.

      Frankly, in my asocial early-senior years, I rather like serving myself. It’s still a choice, everywhere; and even when self-serve becomes exclusive, there will still be stores that cater to those who would rather, for whatever reasons, have a real-live checker fumble with change.

      Reply
  8. stingray65

    The net profit margin in high volume retail (e.g. Target) and fast food (Burger King) is typically between 3 and 10%. Fast food labor costs as a % of sales is typically 25%. A recent analysis of Walmart found that if the company were to forgo all profits and give them instead to employees, it would average about $3.70 per hour raise. So when the government in their infinite wisdom decides to raise minimum wage by $3 to $7 per hour, force employers to provide expensive health care insurance, bump up Social Security contribution levels, etc. it quickly eliminates all profits, so it is no wonder that robots and self-service checkouts start to look very attractive.

    Reply
  9. Dirty Dingus McGee

    I have noticed that some stores are starting to go back to actual cashiers, which I am all for. It always struck me as stupid, that a store would install self checkout kiosk’s, then have an employee at the exit, checking your receipt versus what you have in your bag/cart (BJ’s, Wallyworld, etc). I think I have used the self checkout about 3-4 times, ever. You want me to do your job? Give me a discount. Otherwise, put a cashier in place.

    Reply
    • Tom KlockauTom Klockau

      You and me both. Those 3-4 employees giving the self-checkouts the stink eye could-wonder of wonders!-run an actual fricking cash register instead of standing around, like they’re waiting for the bus.

      I was in line at Target a while ago in an actual checkout line. An employee just standing around came over and said, “There are self-checkouts over there sir” and I said no thanks, I’m fine. I have used them once or twice, but actively avoid them now.

      Reply
  10. Bigtruckseriesreview

    Between outsourcing factories to Asia and importing more competition while under-educating American kids – I feel as if there is a massive anti American effort going on.

    I don’t like using the self scanners. It’s always a chore that requires me call a human cashier to help.

    Reply
    • rambo furum

      I cannot recall a self scanning transaction that ever went smoothly or quickly. It’s pretty clear by the rehearsed advice from the poor supervisor that the glitches and problems are constant.
      There is a connection with the quality of the checkout worker. The energetic and enthusiastic ones can zip through things with dizzying efficiency while delivering friendly customer service banter. But lackluster clerks are hapless dolts that lead to the point where the average shopper can do it themselves in less time and hassle.

      Reply
  11. Paul M.

    Tremendous article. And the link by Ryan to Amazon store is fascinating.

    Here in Atlanta area there are some comparisons that come to mind.

    Kroger vs. Publix. Kroger is aggressive in using these machines. Not just for people with less than 15 items. Not just in low income areas. But everywhere. Sometimes even on Saturdays they only have one cash register staffed by a human.

    Contrast that with Publix. One of the best grocery stores. They are usually smaller than Kroger. But so better run. Staffed registers. As soon as they see 2-3 people in line they jump and open a new cash register. The training they do on people in bakery, in Deli
    , in produce, is amazing. Even their baggers. Mix of whites, Indians, Hispanics, and Blacks. But everyone is an order of magnitude more friendly and better trained than Kroger. I believe they are always rated higher. Service sells.

    Same true for Lowe’s (better service) vs. Home Depot. Or Costco vs Sams. Sams is a joke.

    Companies are Moving to self service via web. There is no doubt that paradigm shift is real as younger generations prefer that to talking to people (think text vs. phone conversation). Still, service matters. The food business is a tough nut to crack for self service unless all you want is prepackaged sandwiches, cans and so fOrth. But if you like to smell your tomatoes and strawberries and Salmon and look at expiration dates for milk and egg, forget the Amazon model.

    Any how brilliant piece.

    Reply
    • Dean in AZ

      Heh. Lowe’s vs Home Depot. I always say Lowe’s has plenty of employees on hand to tell you they don’t have it, whereas at Home Depot you know it in there someplace but there’s nobody around to help you find it.

      Good Article.

      Reply
  12. Scott Seigmund

    Jack, These socioeconomic articles always get a lot of thoughtful commentary and I think almost everyone can relate to this topic. Well done.

    The notion of the social contract resonates with me, as I place a high value on caring service. This is the reason I shop at the True Value on Main Street in my very small town vs. the gray or orange box stores. The owners and employees are my neighbors, and they have intimate knowledge of every product in the store. Most importantly, they know my name. A satisfying life is about quality relationships and experiences, and technology and automation are steadily abrading this essential social fabric. Years ago I had the opportunity to visit the Detroit Institue of Art and the thing I remember most vividly after all these years is the Detroit Industry Murals by Deigo Rivera. Whether or not you subscribe to Rivera’s worldview, the murals stand as a powerful and emotional testament to the profound social and economic change resulting from the industrial revolution. Today we are experiencing an equally profound social change that is driven by globalization and technology. One of the consequences of the loss of individual social status and community is the meteoric rise of the power of Government and the celebrity of elected officials. How on earth can the likes of Maxine Waters and Bernie Sanders retain the power to govern over us except for continued support of those who perceive themselves to be powerless? People naturally gravitate to power and celebrity, and this is one of the principal reasons for the near total corruption of our supposedly independent news media increasingly made up of people who have little or no experience with traditional social contracts and therefore have lost sight of the obligation they have to their fellow citizens. It is now politicians who feed their need to feel valuable and important. In the future where people increasingly interact with technology owned by large corporations, it is the government that will assume near total power in form of the Regulatory State vs Corporations. In a world were people don’t know their own neighbors, they will always vote for the celebrity politicians who promise to protect them. When you peel back the layers, it is astonishing how socialized our economy actually is, and it is easy to understand the incestuous relationship between corporations and government. What we need is a tax and regulatory environment that is sympathetic to small businesses where people actually matter.

    Reply
  13. Lucas

    “How many cars will the robots buy?”

    The fast food companies are about to find out the answer to that question when it comes to hamburgers with the mandated minimum wages increasing to the point that they are threatening to replace their workers with robots. The problem is, the vast majority of regular fast food customers are of the same socio-economic background as the people they employ in their restaurants. If the government doesn’t start paying for those people’s hamburgers (that basic universal income stuff), McDs and the like are going to find out *really* fast that doesn’t work out so well for them in the long run.

    Reply
    • Spud Boy

      “McDs and the like are going to find out *really* fast that doesn’t work out so well for them in the long run.”

      McDs and the like are not the ones pushing higher minimum wages. They’re pushed by leftists who no nothing about the free market or business.

      Reply
  14. Ken

    I have my own store policy when it comes to these automated checkout machines – or better yet the handheld scanner. If the machine doesn’t work – its free.

    Reply
  15. Rick T.

    A shout out to our local Pinnacle Financial bank chain. Still have personal service. Get a phone call when our checks come in – we’ll just hold them in the vault until you stop by. Need something notarized? Faxed? Sure! Just ask!

    They advertise when you call customer service a real person answers. I had a question, called, and by gum a real person answered and answered my question.

    The big banks can have my passbook when they pry it from my cold, dead hands.

    Reply
  16. Spud Boy

    The fact that much of what we purchase today was made overseas has lifted literally millions of third-world people out of crushing, abject poverty. I wish everyone could take a drive around China or the Philippines and see how some other people live, particularly those who don’t have factory jobs.

    Yes, it’s sad that Joe Six Pack can’t buy that new bass boat he’s been eyeing, but perhaps he should take some consolation in knowing that he’s keeping someone in another part of the planet from starving.

    Reply
    • everybodyhatesscott

      I look at it this way: That’s their governments job, not our governments job. The United States government job is to look after US citizens first. Unless you want to bring back colonialism, let other countries handle their own problems.

      Reply
    • DougD

      Yup, spend a month working in a different country, spend a month hanging around actual people and you might think of them as actual people.

      Reply
  17. tresmonos

    I have been drinking a lot. Walking down to the bar and procuring alcohol from a human behind a bar. It’s expensive, but it washes away the guilt from the millions in capital I’ve been justifying to put 12 people per shift out of the factory.

    I suppose I should look at the bright side: at least it’s not taking value streams out of the country and into a 2nd world shit hole.

    Fuckn automation.

    Reply
  18. Jeff Zekas

    Jack: excellent. Every word you spoke is true. This stated by a man who has worked at Walmart (dirty stores with non-union wages) and at Albertson’s (clean store with unonized labor when I worked there).

    Reply
  19. Sean

    Many have their hand on the Banana. They just can’t seem to get a grip. Go read the comments at any GMG blog. We’re all doomed.

    Reply

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