It was an accident really.
I’m not a lawbreaker – at least not at heart. Up until now (except for a few too many speeding tickets and a hefty library fine) my record has been spotless.
But the other day at the grocery store, I just…
Well, I just lost it.
It was the Saturday before Christmas. I had a basket full of junk food and I was ready to check out. Being one of the faithful few who still believe it’s absolutely immoral to go through the express lane with more than 12 items, I got in line at one of those “unlimited goods” self-checkout U-scan terminals.
The line was long. When I finally got to use the terminal, the woman behind me was all too willing to dish out Christmas cheer by crowding me with her shopping cart. Her frozen stare screamed two words without actually saying them: Hurry up. I scanned my 15 items and looked at the price: $31 and change. Moving as quickly as I could, I scooted over to the end of the terminal to bag my own goods. Then I was out the door.
I was halfway through the frigid parking lot before it dawned on me that I forgot to pay.
I've just stolen groceries, I thought. I’m a criminal. A shoplifter. Any minute now, a cop with an uncanny resemblance to Joe Friday is going to plant my nose in the pavement, take me downtown and book me in a cell with rats the size of small dogs.
The bottom line is I turned around, marched right back into the store and threw myself on the mercy of the court. The kind, old lady behind the service desk was more than happy to run my debit card and let bygones be bygones.
It was embarrassing, but it got me thinking.
According to this article by the Press Association, the U.K.’s national news agency, roughly 2 million Britons admitted to stealing goods when using supermarket self-checkout terminals. The admissions came during a survey conducted by British security firm G4S. That’s a disturbingly high number, but not entirely unexpected. It’s much easier to abscond with the crown jewels when the Royal Guard is looking the other way. The term “self-service” means exactly that: You serve yourself. There are no cashiers giving you one-on-one supervision at the POS.
When you put it that way, it’s not surprising that dishonest people choose to behave dishonestly. But what about the poor saps like me who aren’t looking for loopholes — we just happen to trip and fall through them?
The store was crowded, noisy and I was in a hurry. Add to that the fact that this was one of the high-volume U-scans with a long ramp: the bagging area is several feet away from the touchscreen terminal, where the speaker is located. In a crowded store, it can be difficult to hear the speaker’s constant mantra of, “Please select payment method … Please select payment method … Please select payment method” from that distance.
Fortunately for the store, one alert cashier happened to spot my faux pas and call after me. Unfortunately for the store, she wasn’t very athletic and I was out of earshot by the time she made it to the door.
I hate to say it, but it was easy for me to snatch, grab and make my escape: So easy that I did it inadvertently. And if it’s easy to do it now, then what about in the future when we take self-service to the next level?
For instance, take a look at this story written by my colleague, Patrick Avery, editor of Self-Service World. It paints a vivid picture of the future of retail self-service: a future in which checkout lanes are eliminated altogether and customers carry handheld barcode scanners which enable them to check, bag, and pay as they go.
One can just imagine the security challenges that will face the industry then. How many people will try to run off with the scanners? How many will forget about them and accidentally leave them in their shopping cart or purse? (Perhaps a carefully-placed RFID tag could be used as an alarm trigger if someone tried walk out the door with an unauthorized scanner.)
The ultimate in self-service checkout, of course, is described by Joseph Grove in this story, in which the handheld scanner is done away with altogether in favor of a system which would instantaneously detect, scan and price all the items in your grocery cart.
Assuming those groceries have an RFID tag. Sure, most grocery items can be fitted with the tag, but are you going to stick one on everything? What about produce? How do you put an RFID tag on a grapefruit?
Don’t get me wrong: far be it from me to shoot down progress. I’m counting down the days until RFID checkout becomes the norm. We just have to realize that, as we give consumers more freedom and less supervision, we’re going to have to confront some issues head-on.
Some things we can learn from all this:
Lesson No. 1: Security for a self-service device means more than stopping the malevolent malcontent who wants to make a grab at getting some free groceries. Sometimes it means having a “fool-proof” plan in place to keep klutzes like me from throwing a cog in the works — and getting some free groceries.
Lesson No. 2: Self-service is an amazing technology, but it will never completely replace the vigilant employee. If ever there was an argument for having your employees closely involved with the implementation of your self-service project, my Christmas experience does a pretty good job of qualifying.
Lesson No. 3: As the self-service industry moves forward, security will continue to be a pressing issue. The more the industry empowers consumers (including the malevolent and incompetent ones), the harder it will have to work to seal any security gaps. That means being proactive and spotting those gaps before the bad guys do.
I’m sure the hardware and software gurus will be burning the midnight oil over the next couple of years as we take it to the next level. And I’m sure they’ll make the transition as smooth and secure as possible.
In closing, I just want to get one thing straight. After reading this commentary, you may be left wondering whether or not this editor is a crook.
Well, I’m not a crook.