The Students Using Self Check-Out to Rob Supermarkets

"With my own money I could maybe buy a baguette and a tub of hummus per day, certainly no smoothies or sushi."
A photo of a girl wearing  scanning a juice at a supermarket.
Image via Getty Images. The individual in the photo does not appear in the article (and isn’t stealing, as far as we know).

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

Since their introduction in the 90s, self-scan checkout machines have posed quite a conundrum for supermarkets. On one hand, they make customers feel like they’re speeding up their grocery shopping - but they also seem to increase the opportunities to shoplift. In fact, in a 2022 survey of retailers, respondents estimated that up to 23 percent of their total store losses could be linked to this checkout method. 


In 2015, a study looked at the impact of the closely-related mobile scanning self-checkout method, where customers use an app to scan their groceries as they go. It concluded that the system likely encouraged theft “by removing any human contact throughout the shopping process” and, possibly most importantly, “removing human contact at the final payment stage”. Mobile scanning also provided shoplifters with ready-made excuses as to why they didn’t scan the products, including blaming technical malfunctions or forgetfulness. 

Opportunity makes the thief, as they say, and temptation is especially strong now inflation is through the roof. More and more people struggle to get to the end of the month, particularly students. But stealing is also extremely stressful – most supermarkets have some way of checking customers, from random audits to weighting systems. So how do you make sure you don't get caught? And can you really do this long-term?

We spoke with three students who regularly shoplift their groceries and asked them why they do it and how they justify it to themselves. All three asked to use aliases to avoid legal repercussions.

Tammie, 23, steals about €400 ($440) worth of stuff every month

VICE: Hi Tammie, when did you first start stealing?
I was nine and stole something from a toy store. As a child, I was already aware of how expensive things were – walking out of the store with a bunch of free toys felt great. To me, stealing is actually comparable to smoking: The first time you mostly do it to act tough, but eventually, you get hooked.

Are you addicted to stealing?
I don't think so, though it can be quite the thrill. I've been stealing from Albert Heijn [a Dutch supermarket chain] ever since I started uni. The self-scan checkout just makes it very easy – loads of students scan eight products and take ten home. 


I’ve started stealing larger quantities since last year. I just didn't know how to get by anymore – rent is so high, then there are school fees, insurance, inflation. I don’t dare ask my mother for money, because she has to make ends meet, too. 

During the past year, I’ve stolen thousands of euros worth, which is really bad. Once I’m in the store, I just fill up my shopping bag, pay for one product, and walk out. The first few times, I was so stressed I nearly blacked out – now I only have heart palpitations. Yes, it’s bad, but there’s also a philosophy behind it.

A philosophy that justifies your behaviour?
A friend of mine who studied philosophy challenged me ethically on this, and through our conversations, I came up with a few guidelines. I only steal what I need – vegetables, fruit, nothing ridiculous. I only do it at Albert Heijn, maybe I’d also do it at Amazon if they had a physical store. I think it's okay to steal from big companies, they make enough anyway. 

I do feel guilty about my privileged position, I’m aware I’m abusing it. Recently, I was at the supermarket with a friend of colour and he was shocked when he saw how much I stole. As a white student, I'm just not seen as the typical shoplifter – that makes me feel bad sometimes. 


I also ask homeless people at the entrance if they want something, and then steal it for them – some kind of crazy Robin Hood complex. It's actually quite insufferable that I'm trying to overcome my guilt like that.

Will you stop stealing once you make more money?
That's what my friend asked me too. He doesn't think it's OK that I steal. Maybe this is a bad thing to say, but I don't think I'll stop until I get caught. Maybe after this article people will publicly destroy me and I’ll stop because of the embarrassment. I’m a little scared of what people might say.

Luuk, 20, steals about €300 ($330) worth of groceries every month

VICE: Hi Luuk, why do you steal?
I used to be very anti-theft. When my friends stole, it made me very angry – but that changed at the end of 2021. I stood at the self-scan checkout with raspberries, tangerines, and a sushi box. When the sushi turned out to be €17 ($19), I decided to steal it – it was so easy, I started doing it more and more. First I’d steal then euros worth, but I also went through a period of stealing €100 ($110) worth, three days in a row.

My friends were impressed and asked me to bring stuff for them, too. It really became a thing and then I kind of had to go through with it. I even left with a fully loaded shopping cart once – four cases of beer, champagne, and lots of snacks for the whole class. Some classmates were waiting around the corner to load everything into a car. 


How do you steal so many groceries using a self-scan?
That shopping cart really was an exception – when I'm alone, I have other techniques. Once I’m in the supermarket, I grab a shopping bag, fill it completely, and scan only the bag. I wait for the moment when the employees are busy with other customers. My bike key is already in my back pocket and I have my bank card on hand, so I can leave as quickly as possible. If I do get checked, I just walk back into the store and pretend I forgot something. Then I try again.

When I walk out of the store with a bag full of groceries, without being caught, I feel superior to everyone else for just a moment. The idea of harbouring this secret when everyone thinks of me as a nice guy triggers something in me – it sounds almost perverse. 

It’s a whole thing: I first build a relationship with the employees so that they think I’m friendly and don’t suspect me as much. I'm outgoing, I have a chat with the people working there. Once, I even deliberately left my bike keys behind so I could go look for them together with an employee.

That goes beyond a poor student who can't make ends meet.
With my own money I could maybe buy a baguette and a tub of hummus a day - certainly notsmoothies or sushi. But honestly, I don’t really care about stealing expensive products when it’s from a large supermarket chain. Theft is already factored into the prices – I don't think I'm putting anyone's personal financial situation at risk. I’m quite the anti-capitalist and those big companies are already making tons of money.


I do find stealing more difficult lately, though – you have to be very confident. If I believe I’m not doing anything wrong, they’ll believe that too. But lately, I’ve become more and more afraid of getting caught. By now, I’ve stolen about €7,000 ($7,700) worth of stuff. 

Do you really believe you’re doing nothing wrong?
Of course, not. I also know it’s unfair to people who spend their hard-earned money at the supermarket. I could also just look for a job, but I won't – that’s very egocentric.

Once I graduate, I’ll stop stealing. Besides, I don't even like it that much anymore, it's really purely practical.

Sacha, 23 steals about €220 ($240) worth of stuff a month

VICE: Hey Sacha, why did you start stealing?
: I was quite a rebellious teenager: I’d steal pants from clothing stores, even though I could easily afford them. It was for kicks, but also to get attention from my parents, I think. When I was 17, I got caught shoplifting at H&M. I was in jail for a day, but because I was a minor, I didn't get a criminal record. After that, I didn't steal again until I was 20, when I discovered self-scan checkouts.

At that time, I’d just started living on my own and had to pay for a lot of stuff myself. A friend explained to me how easy it is to steal and I was convinced. You scan half of the products and not the other. If an employee checks your bag, you just show two debit cards and say you’ll pay for the rest separately. It started out very small, but eventually, it became worse and worse.


As a teenager you stole for kicks. Does it still excite you now?
Yes, especially if I simultaneously make eye contact with a security guard and smile at them. My adrenaline goes through the roof – it’s quite a nice feeling. When I unpack my bag at home and realise I didn't pay, that also makes me feel excited. I don’t feel guilty. 

My room is full of junk I’ve stolen from Kruidvat [a drugstore] and Action [a discount shop] – at this point, it goes beyond just groceries. I’m a kleptomaniac, really. When I feel empty inside, I’ll steal scented candles or a new teapot; I’ll take ashtrays from restaurants and fragrance sticks from toilets. It’s become compulsive, and it’s purely for fun – I don’t need fragrance sticks.

Kleptomania is a condition that involves not being able to resist the urge to steal.
Yeah, I was diagnosed with it in June. Every month I discuss it with a psychiatrist, but it doesn't make me steal any less. It’s precisely because of that diagnosis that I feel that I can accept it – apparently, this is who I am.

Will you try to steal less in the future?
I have mixed feelings about it. I feel like I'm maturing in so many ways, and this behaviour doesn't fit the person I’m growing into. I just doubt that I can stop on my own – it’d be good if I got caught once more. Getting caught at H&M helped me in a way, but, of course, I really don’t want to get caught – I’m no longer a minor. 

As a teenager I used to steal to get attention, then I continued stealing to make ends meet. Now, it’s out of control. If my parents found out, I’d have to rebuild our trust from scratch, they’re just so proud of me. I used to want them to find out about the stealing, but now I'm ashamed of my behaviour.