I Don’t Feel That Bad About Stealing From Coles, But I Feel Bad About Not Feeling Bad

About two years ago, Australian supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths installed self-service checkouts and single-handedly turned an adult generation of amateur snatchers into sophisticated George Clooneys of the trolley queue.

Jonno Seidler

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When I was ten, my family took a trip to the Donald Bradman museum in Bowral. On the way home, my mother discovered that I was playing with a signed cricket ball in the backseat of the car, and after some light interrogation, figured that I had swiped it from the gift shop. I had to send it back in an envelope (seriously, how the fuck do you even get a spherical object into an envelope?) along with ten dollars and a note saying how sorry I was. I didn't shoplift again for a very long time. Not only because I was scarred from the Bradman experience, but also because as I got older, grew a beard, and looked more like a terrorism suspect, it seemed increasingly impossible to do it.

About two years ago, Australian supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths made the impossible possible again. Installing self-service checkouts in a move to reduce the cost of hiring actual humans and increase efficiency, they single-handedly turned an adult generation of amateur snatchers like me into sophisticated George Clooneys of the trolley queue. And by George Clooney, I refer to Ocean's 11, not that movie where he's the fat CIA agent. Though that would also be pertinent to the discussion given how many tubs of ice-cream I've passed off as garlic lately.

Because the onus is now in the customer to scan all their items, shoppers can feasibly buy 90 percent of their groceries super-cheap by weighing them in as loose spinach, brown onions, and parsnips. This allows enterprising minds to get creative at the self-service checkout, and decide exactly what they’re willing to pay. As a result, a pair of money-grabbing, greengrocer-crushing, milk-war-initiating giants are now at mercy of the average Australian conscience for profit.

There have been a few pieces in the news on those of us who pretend that cherry tomatoes are potatoes, or weigh up lamb as continental cucumbers. The general answer, and the inherent problem with the entire argument, is always the same: Well, I'm Still Paying At The End Of The Transaction, So It Isn't Actually Stealing, Mate. Agreed, it isn't. At least not in the conventional sense of the word. But that’s like saying that buying a cheap bronzer and walking out of a department store with six lipsticks and a watch in your jacket isn't stealing. There is a strange justification complex that makes messing with the big kahunas of groceries somewhat okay.

There are other seemingly compelling reasons to mis-swipe your groceries. For a start, Coles and Woolies are a duopoly. Between them they control almost 80 percent of the market, which puts not only farmers, but also other small businesses in a difficult position. They battle to the bottom line on everything from bread to milk, take over petrol stations to keep you in the loop, and do a great job at stocking their own shitty in-house brands so you never need to consider buying Kellogg's Cornflakes again. They also really love finding ways to remove staff from the equation. By 2023, do not be surprised if your local supermarket is entirely robotic.

Then there’s the piss in the ocean theory. You can argue that, in firing people and replacing them with machines, Coles have saved millions of dollars and they likely rationalised little pricks who game the system into their spreadsheet to find out that it still works out cheaper for them in the long run. You can also debate the validity of your mega-markets pricing structure, and why they're allowed to get away with overcharging for shit you need and luring you into buying four loaves of some weird Helga's Frankenstein flavor, just because they have a two for one deal. And then there's the simple fact that living in Sydney is officially one of the most expensive things you can do in the world.

Last week, I did an experiment to see how far I could push self-service checkout before I got busted. I walked out with around $100 of groceries and a $62 bill. I was helped by the only guy working the floor, who came up to wave through a registered, illegal purchase of salmon-pears with his swipe card when I made a sad face. I'm not even a very good con artist. In that sense, I'm more like Matt Damon in every movie ever. But it's just too fucking easy. A friend had told me that he’d put steak (which comes in a barcoded package) in a bag with apples and scanned the entire thing through. I didn’t believe it was possible, but guess what I’m eating for the next fortnight.

If you get off on a Robin Hood mentality in the same way Anonymous think they’re the Atticus Finch of the Internet, then fucking with Coles seems entirely reasonable. There is absolutely no way that I’d steal cucumbers from the Chinese family who run the local shop at the end of my street. I mean, I can see their faces the second I walk in. I would feel totally guilty, which is the opposite of what I feel every time I see Curtis Stone’s mug or hear that fucking Status Quo song playing over and over.

Everything about these statements is problematic, of course. Coles and Woollies, while pitting suppliers against each other, are also responsible for their livelihood. If people keep paying less than full price for basil, it stands to reason that basil growers will eventually lose out. On what scale, I’m not sure. I grow my own basil and only ever steal rosemary.

Follow Jonno on Twitter: @jonnoseidler

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