How Customers Exploit Self-Service Checkouts To Save Money

How Customers Exploit Self-Service Checkouts To Save Money
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Self service checkouts are a great invention. Sure, they may have taken a few jobs away but gone are the days where you have to make idle chit-chat with a not so fresh-faced teen while they slipped groceries into a planet-destroying plastic bag. Now, you can do it all yourself! Scan, bag, pay and leave.

Which means the system is rife for exploitation.

It’s Evil Week at Lifehacker, which means we’re looking into less-than-seemly methods for getting shit done. We like to think we’re shedding light on these tactics as a way to help you do the opposite, but if you are, in fact, evil, you might find this week unironically helpful. That’s up to you.

The self-service checkout areas in major supermarkets are generally filled with registers and not too many attendants. Ever since their introduction, I can only imagine that supermarkets are bleeding money but to get rid of them now would see customers abandon the store in droves (probably because they’re stealing a ton of stuff… Yes, stealing as in the crime).

In this weird, wonderful time we call 2017, self-service checkouts have somehow normalised shoplifting at a supermarket. I’m not sure I want to be a part of this revolution, but it’s a revolution taking place right under your nose and there are already many people that use these methods to get away with theft.

Here are some of the ways that people exploit self-service checkouts:

Woolworths vs Coles

The self-service checkout areas at Australia’s two major supermarket chains slightly differ in functionality. At Woolworths, placing an item in the bagging area unexpectedly does not cause issues. However, at Coles, if you are placing items in the bagging area that do not at least partially correspond to what you’ve scanned, the system will flag it as an ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’. This is a loss prevention measure used to prevent theft.

Thus, exploiting the self-service checkout is slightly harder at Coles than at Woolworths. Woolworths don’t have the same loss prevention measures, which may be detrimental to their bottom line.

Banana Not To Scale

The weights in the register aren’t always the most precise, so by placing bananas or any other weighable products off the edge of the scale, the balance is fooled. This is probably even easier when you’ve got a big bag of nuts. Holding the top of the bag off the scale gently will prevent the entirety from being weighed. The less the weight, the less it costs.

The more likely you are to get a criminal record, though.

Fruit And Veg Exploits

The fruit and veg department must be a constant source of sadness for supermarket employees. There are so many different ways that are used to take advantage of it – many that I’ve heard from friends and colleagues:

  • Bag by colour: Purchasing a few green capsicums and decided that some snow peas would also go well with your dinner? Placing the snow peas into the same bag will deceive any watchful eyes. When you get to the register, just run them through as green capsicums
  • Wrong item, right colour: Alternatively, picking up pink lady apples and putting them through the register as red delicious is usually going to rack up a smaller total. A lot of exotic red apple varieties are more expensive, so looking for the cheapest apples per kg and running that through the register is one way to take advantage of the system. Attendants are unlikely to double check.
  • Banana trick: Even more devious is weighing expensive food items like meat or confectionery as bananas or any other inexpensive fruit. It seems as long as you’re scanning something, it doesn’t look too suspicious.

Two For One

When moving products from trolley to bag, if you have two items that are the exact same and can fit them both in one hand, pick them up, scan one and place them both in your bag. The Two For One may not work at supermarkets where the bagging area is receptive to fluctuations in weight and will flag the attendant to come and check your bags.

Oh, and it’s stealing. Which is a crime.

Reduced To Clear

If you tend to shop late at night, the bakery section is usually doing their best to clear as much stock as possible before the store closes. Often, you will find that there are numerous reduced to clear barcodes planted on bread rolls, loaves and things like scones and donuts that are about to get chucked. If you can get that barcode off, stick it to a fresh product and you’re on your way. You could also try keeping that barcode and bringing it back in the future.

I haven’t tried this myself, but if the barcode is the same every day, what’s to stop you from using it again and again?

Oh, that’s right. The fact that it’s a crime, obviously.

Get Caught? Feign Ignorance.

Just when you think you’ve got to the end of the line and you’re pushing your trolley out the door, an employee stops you.

“Did you pay for that?”


“Seems like you scanned in a different item?”

“Oh, sorry? This is an onion right!”

“Sir, that is a watermelon”

“I’m… so sorry. I was so confused. How can I pay for this?”

Alright, so the above example isn’t perfect, but pressing the wrong button and carrying on isn’t unheard of so employees are generally forgiving. If you feign ignorance when questioned and offer to pay back what you originally avoided then, to save everyone the hassle, you’re likely to get out of there with your pride still (somewhat) intact. (Just don’t push your luck at the same store more than once.)

There’s also some wisdom that you would be better off doing this later in the evening, when managers have gone home and the only staff that remain are kids and teens that just got out of school and can’t wait to go home.

Of course, Lifehacker doesn’t condone or encourage any of these behaviours and always puts their capsicums through correctly because shoplifting is a crime – one with real world punishments. Putting through a potato the wrong way? That’s stealing.

Shoplifting is a crime. If you’re caught doing any of these things, you may be prosecuted.


  • As much as Coles and WW exploit customers by the seriously overpriced items in their stores and then claiming 50% off on some which should be their real price I think this article goes too far. Should have worded it in a way to say that “Thieves are exploiting self service and this is how they are doing it” because it really is stealing even if they deserve it like the banks do

    • We like to think we’re shedding light on these tactics as a way to help you do the opposite, but if you are, in fact, evil, you might find this week unironically helpful. That’s up to you.

  • this one’s grose, though i like the other article in the evil series. This one is too criminal. This one is not about beating the system but is pure and simple stealing. Does not meet my sensibilities. Not cool lifehacker. And yes please don’t flash your disclaimer about shedding light non-sense to me. I know these articles are supposed to be in good jest but this one is plain stealing.

  • It’s pretty incredible how much more I spend on potatoes, and how much less I spend on literally every other type of food since the advent of self-serve checkout.

    I just think potatoes are neat!

  • What a cop-out. Keep telling yourself that if it helps you sleep better.

    A complete BS disclaimer like that at the top of the article doesn’t change to tone or intent of the rest of it.

  • Great article! I was at one of the stores that had self serve where a person was scanning meat as fruit and getting great discounts! They even got a video taken of their success and scored a tour to the managers office! 😀

    I’m not sure what happened after, but I bet that would have been the best day for them!

  • @ChrisJager

    “We like to think we’re shedding light on these tactics as a way to help you do the opposite, but if you are, in fact, evil, you might find this week unironically helpful. That’s up to you”

    Your argument is akin to publishing instructions to make an explosive device so ethical people don’t ‘accidentally’ make a bomb…. poor show Lifehacker.

  • I recently bought some mince at Coles that was 1 for $5.00, 2 for $8.00 or something similar. After finishing at the self-serve checkout I realized I had only scanned one and hence underpaid by $3.00.

    I went to the service desk to try and remedy that, but they told me that since I had already paid I’d have to pay full price for the second one as they needed to go through the one transaction. Therefore my mistake was going to cost me an additional $2.00.

    So they’re happy for you to self-serve, but don’t give you any authority to serve yourself well.

    This got me thinking – where does the line between genuine mistake blur into willful ignorance? For example, if a product scans at an obviously lower price than what it should be, do I have a responsibility to tell them and have it corrected? If I believe the scales are weighing under, is that my responsibility? To not do so, is that stealing?

    Similarly, everyone makes mistakes – checkout operators would have a reasonable band of accuracy to operate within. But if I scan my apples as the cheaper variety am I culpable even if I genuinely don’t know the difference?

    There’s a good reason that they usually separate the responsibilities between the vendor and the purchaser as otherwise there’s a slight conflict of interest …

  • I’m pretty sure writing an article detailing how to steal, and encouraging theft is illegal. Or at the very least Coles and Woolies can probably so you.

  • Interesting read as I am into tech and there are system deficiencies pointed out here.

    But I’m pretty sure you can do better than lifehack articles that are guides to shoplifting.

    I think you may find that this article is illegal in Australia.

    I don’t think your site needs to print things like this… leave it to the places more dodgy people frequent.

    Watch Coles and Woolies dont take you to court on this. You have named them and given guides relevant to their specific systems. If they can prove a spike in loss after this article was published, I wouldn’t want to be the owner of lifehacker.

    Again, interesting read. But needed to be published for the average joe to read? No.

  • meh, good luck to them.
    coles went from “field tomatos” to “gourmet field tomatos” to “gourmet tomatos”…

    went paying from rock bottom to a few weeks ago, more expensive than the truss tomatos…

  • I was soo sleep deprived from the baby waking us up, i selected unwashed potatoes instead of washed. When i had to get assistance for a product that didn’t weigh she spotted it and told me off.

  • I simply refuse to use the self serve check out & told a store employee so at a recent visit. She launched into a company policy speech where she claimed the store was driving prices down to the bare minimum and self serve was the way they were doing that. My time is worth 69c per minute based on my current remuneration, so if they are prepared to pay me that much for processing my own groceries, then I might use their self serve checkouts. In the meantime I will continue to use the manned checkout, thus providing casual employment for a number of school kids, single parents etc,. All of whom need money to spend in stores and on life’s necessities.

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