Students
Self-checkout registers at the Albert Heijn Korenbeurs Photo by Reyer Boxem

Students routinely steal from supermarkets

Eh, it’s not like I’ll get caught

There isn’t a single supermarket that doesn’t have self-checkouts. It’s really convenient for people who don’t want to wait in line. It’s also convenient for students who are struggling financially. ‘It doesn’t really feel like stealing.’
By Jelmer Buit and Fay Odijk / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

‘Does taking a bag count as stealing?’ asks Lisa, a twenty-year-old FEB student. ‘I always just take those.’

Of course it’s stealing. Even if a bag only costs ten cents and no one is going to jail for it, it’s still stealing. And bags aren’t the only product that people forgo scanning at the self-checkouts at supermarkets like the Albert Heijn and Jumbo. Many students don’t think twice about not paying for certain products or using other tactics to avoid paying the full amount for their shopping.

This has only become easier with the installation of self-checkouts at nearly every single Albert Heijn and Jumbo store. Customers scan their own groceries and then pay for them. Supermarkets save on hiring staff by giving customers more responsibility. While that is certainly true, students often abuse the system.

Strategies 

But how do they do it? What if they get selected for a random check? That would get them caught.

Delinquent behaviour 

Sociologist René Veenstra isn’t surprised that students don’t think shoplifting is a big deal. Researchers have known for years that adolescents and young people are the most likely to engage in delinquent behaviour.

‘Young people don’t have a lot of money, but they do have a lot of needs’, Veenstra explains. ‘On top of that, they think it’s exciting to try new things and have no trouble justifying it.’ But, he emphasises, taking products without paying for them is still theft. 

Nevertheless, we don’t have to be concerned about today’s youth, he says. Extreme behaviour like in drillraps gets reported on a lot, but delinquent behaviour among young people has decreased by 60 percent over the past ten years. 

What happened? ‘Young people are less bored. They don’t hang around outside as much and in-store security has become so good that shoplifting has become really difficult.’ Shoplifting from the self-checkout registers is easy as pie, and even if you do get checked you can still get away with it.

Finally, Veenstra points that this behaviour is normal in a society where people no longer have personal contact with their shop owners. ‘I would never steal books from my local bookstore or records from my favourite record store. I know those people personally and I don’t want to betray them. But I don’t have connection with anyone at the Albert Heijn.’

It’s not that hard, says Lisa. Students especially appreciate products that need weighing. ‘Sometimes Albert Heijn sells shrimp by weight and the machine prints out a bar code after you’ve weighed them’, says Lisa. ‘One time I just added another scoop of shrimp after I’d weighed them.’

Another method is to lift up your bananas, apples, or avocados while you’re weighing them; the machine will charge you less for them.  

Another popular strategy involves the order in which you pack your bag. ‘I stuff my things in the bottom of my bag’, says business administration student Joris. ‘They usually only check five products and once they’ve scanned those, they’re fine. They don’t check the rest of my bag. Anything in the bottom I can just take for free.’

International business student Marjolein agrees. ‘Just hand them a few products whenever someone checks you’, she says. ‘The workers don’t really care anyway. They usually stop after scanning a few products.’

Other students opt for avoiding being checked by supermarket employees as much as possible. ‘I always pick the register that is farthest away from the employee’, says journalism student Jonathan. ‘That way, I run the smallest risk of being checked.’

Kick

The students don’t really seem to care that what they’re doing amounts to stealing. Maaike, who studies international business, is motivated by laziness. ‘The other day I was 50 cents short, so I just didn’t scan the last product.’

Secretly, Marjolein thinks it’s the Albert Heijn’s own fault. ‘One time, I didn’t pay for a package of salmon,’ she says. ‘Salmon is expensive, obviously. But it also feels as though the Albert Heijn upped the prices on some of their products in an effort to undo the effects of stealing. Like, they made eggs 3 cents more expensive. So I was like, whatever, I’ll just take some stuff. It’s fine if they up their prices, but I’m just a poor university student.’

Just pretend you forgot to scan the product when you get caught

Jonathan says he mainly did it because he got a kick out of it. He’s since given it up. ‘I’m not a kleptomaniac or anything’, he says, laughing. ‘I only did it when I was low on funds but still wanted to buy stuff I couldn’t really afford. I know that’s a bit messed up, which is why I stopped doing it.’

Consequences

The students don’t really worry about getting caught or anyone calling the police on them. ‘If you do get caught, just apologise and pretend you overlooked or forgot the product you didn’t scan’, says law student Hannah. ‘They won’t suspect a thing.’

Are Albert Heijn employees allowed to check your bag?

You’ve decided to sneak some products by the self-checkout registers without paying for them when you’re selected for a random check. But are the self-checkout employees even allowed to check your bag?

Yes and no. You can refuse them. Shopkeepers don’t have the right to rifle through your personal belongings. At the same time, when you’re on Albert Heijn or Jumbo property, you are subject to their rules. And they might decide that they have a right to look at your stuff. Stores can announce their policy through signs, for example. Entering the store means you agree to comply with their rules.

If you do refuse, the store has the right to kick you out, since you’re violating a tacit agreement.

Marjolein has simply never suffered any consequences from stealing from supermarkets. ‘There’s been nothing to be scared of. But if I ever do get caught and there are consequences, I’d probably think twice about taking something next time.’

Just because nothing’s ever happened to Marjolein doesn’t mean there aren’t any consequences at all. Maaike would occasionally underpay by a lot for a full bag of groceries, but then a friend of hers got caught stealing and had to spend a night in jail. ‘Now I’m scared to take anything.’  

Guilt

For Albert Heijn, people stealing their products is just another day. The company knows all too well that students regularly shoplift, but there has been no significant increase in thefts in stores that use self-checkouts. ‘If there had, we wouldn’t be providing this service in so many stores’, a spokesperson says. ‘Besides, there is always an employee in the self-checkout area who can help out and do random checks on people.’

I can justify taking things

Do the students feel any guilt about what they’re doing? ‘It doesn’t really feel like stealing to me’, says Hannah. ‘I don’t take any expensive products. I don’t take stuff that costs 4 or 5 euros, I sometimes take a cucumber that costs a euro. That doesn’t really feel like stealing. Or not as much, anyway.’

‘I know it’s really bad’, says Marjolein. ‘But I do think the supermarkets calculated that even though people steal, having to pay fewer employees means they still make a profit. That allows me to justify it and not feel so bad. They could’ve known this would happen.’

The names of the people interviewed here are fake. Their real names are known to the editorial staff.

Nederlands