Big supermarkets are being warned that increased surveillance of shoppers, including close-up cameras on self-checkout screens, is more likely to anger shoppers rather than deter theft.
Consumer behaviour expert Nitika Garg from the School of Marketing at the UNSW Business School says it certainly won't do much to build trust with customers.
"Especially when, in Australia, we see the billions of dollars in profit that the two largest grocery retailers get," Professor Garg said.
"(Consumers) feel like 'you're making billions of dollars of profit off my back and you're doing this to me?'
"That will trigger people to engage in deviant behaviour."
While most shoppers do the right thing, cost-of-living pressures are driving up opportunistic theft, resulting in a surge in shoplifting across the board.
Australian Bureau of Statistics data points to a 17 per cent increase in retail location theft in 2022/23.
In August, Coles chief executive Leah Weckert said shoplifting by organised criminals and customers contributed to an annual 20 per cent rise in stock losses.
"We're certainly seeing a lot more reports coming through from stores where they see a loss that is quite large and targeted," she said.
Supermarkets say they have no choice but to increase surveillance.
Woolworths has announced plans to spend $40 million on CCTV upgrades, body-worn cameras and other surveillance measures. Coles is stepping up security guards at stores and introducing initiatives such as trolley locks and smart gates, and is trialling live camera surveillance on self-checkout screens.
But many shoppers have taken to social media to voice their disapproval. Some are worried about their privacy and what happens to the footage, while others are just angry about being distrusted.
The issue has been raised on platforms like Reddit and TikTok where users have variously described it as "dystopian" and "invasive".
"We always knew we were being watched ... but this sort of super surveillance is just making consumers feel less trusted," says Prof Garg.
The researcher also argues the increased scrutiny could trigger some to misbehave, given the propensity of people to retaliate when they feel their freedoms are being restricted or curtailed.
"This is a consequence of psychological reactance; it pushes people to do the opposite of what they are told," she adds.
One issue is the lack of communication from supermarkets about why they are increasing surveillance.
"A small campaign explaining to the consumer the impacts of shoplifting will help," Prof Gard said.
"The higher amount of shoplifting takes a hit on all consumers as the price of products is increased to account for the stock loss."
Major supermarkets like Coles and Woolworths have privacy policies that address the use of anti-theft measures and adhere to an industry code of conduct.
Raising grocery prices at a time when consumers are already feeling the pinch has landed supermarket duopolists Coles and Woolworths an unwanted gong in Choice's annual Shonkys awards.
The consumer group called the pair out for cashing in during a cost-of-living crisis, as the billions of dollars in profits raked in grate with customers struggling to survive rising inflation and interest rates.
Coles posted an annual profit of $1.1 billion this year and Woollies reported $1.62 billion in full-year profit after tax, up 4.6 per cent from the prior year.
"Rather than doing the right thing by consumers, our Shonky winners have only disappointed during this difficult time," Choice chief executive Alan Kirkland said.
"In a nationally representative survey Choice conducted in September this year, more than 60 per cent of shoppers believe the big two are making a lot of money from the price hikes, and less than 20 per cent think Coles and Woolworths are doing enough to keep prices low."
But a Coles spokesperson said the claim ignores the company's slim profit margin and the supermarket is committed to reducing prices for shoppers.
"For every $100 a customer spends, Coles makes $2.60," the spokesperson said.
E&P Capital retail analyst Phillip Kimber at the time said Coles' profit result was two per cent lower than consensus expectations and would be negatively received by shareholders.
Griffith University consumer spending expert Graeme Hughes said Coles and Woollies claim their increased profits are due to maximisation of internal operations and efficiencies but consumers have a right to question whether they have been treated fairly.
"I would say that most businesses have been putting profits before people and there hasn't been a lot of consideration for where that's going to lead them in the longer term," he said.
A Woolworths spokesperson said the company is acutely aware of the pressure placed on customers and is doing more everyday to help customers spend less.
Australian Associated Press
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