Australia’s two biggest supermarkets are stepping up efforts to tackle theft and violent behavior in their stores – but experts say it could lead to a sense of “distrust” and “trauma” among customers.
Retailers say the measures are necessary to combat a $9 billion-a-year problem, but they are criticized by privacy advocates as overkill and likely to unfairly target the most vulnerable members of society.
Coles announced this week that it would introduce a series of high-tech security measures in stores across the country, including overhead cameras to track customers’ every move, enhanced AI cameras at checkouts and “smart gates” that automatically lock if people try to make a runner with goods they haven’t paid for.
The store also revealed that body cameras – similar to those used by police or bouncers – would be used in some of its most high-risk stores to protect staff from an alarming increase in violence.
Coles body cameras to be trialled in supermarket giant’s stores
Australia’s two biggest supermarkets are stepping up efforts to tackle theft and violent behavior in their stores – but experts say it could lead to a sense of “mistrust” and “trauma” among customers.
Woolworths has also beefed up security, with the rollout of improved cameras monitoring customers at self-checkouts receiving mixed reviews.
“It is important to note that the majority of customers do the right thing in store. Measures like this are for those who don’t do it,” Coles the spokesperson said.
Privacy advocates say the added security measures are an unnecessary burden on people going about their daily lives.
The new security will only add to the “fear of being constantly monitored”, said Mary Ilias, a lecturer in criminology at Deakin University.
The cameras will also “exacerbate feelings of trauma and mistrust” in vulnerable people, according to Dr Ilias.
She fears that innocent people who appear unstable or fragile, perhaps due to physical or mental problems, may be unfairly targeted by the new security measures, causing unnecessary distress.
Retail advocates countered by saying the new technology wouldn’t be rolled out if customers weren’t happy with it.
“New technologies such as body cameras are being tested by some stores here and abroad and doing so in compliance with privacy laws and with careful attention to feedback from staff and customers,” said Paul Zahra, chief executive of the Australian Retailers Association.
Retailers say these measures are necessary to combat a $9 billion-a-year problem
Retail staff will wear the new cameras to combat theft and violence in Coles stores
“It is in retailers’ best interests to ensure the convenience and convenience of their customers in stores and this type of technology is primarily aimed at ensuring the safety of frontline retail staff and customers.”
Woolworths introduced a similar bold safety measure in a bid to ensure the safety of its employees in 2021 this was widely praised by buyers.
“The use of these cameras has significantly reduced the number of abusive and physical incidents that members of our store teams have faced,” a Woolies spokesperson said.
Responding to privacy concerns, supermarket spokespeople said footage from the new cameras would not be kept for “more than a few weeks” and that the cameras complied with Australian laws.
However, while consumers welcome measures to protect supermarket staff, many have also raised concerns over the growing number of cameras in stores.
Controversial AI checkout cameras, installed at self-service checkouts at Coles and Woolworths, have been widely criticized, with customers saying the relentless surveillance is “completely unacceptable”.
Some images recorded during a recent trial of body-worn cameras
Many customers took to social media to express their frustration (pictured, a Woolworths self-checkout)
Ultimately, the question comes down to whether the new measures go too far for companies to protect their bottom lines, experts say.
“I think Coles should perhaps consider other approaches that don’t rely on surveillance by default,” said Monique Mann, vice-president of the Australian Privacy Foundation.
“Let’s think about why are we seeing an increase in shoplifting? Why are people aggressive towards staff? People are struggling. At the same time, Coles and Woolworths are recording massive profits (over $1 billion) amid a cost of living crisis. Maybe they should think about it and try to alleviate cost of living pressures rather than just expanding surveillance and their profits,” Dr Mann said.
Mr Zahra said theft costs Australian retailers around $9 billion a year, although he said many crimes still went unreported.
“Retailers use these technologies in compliance with strict privacy laws and have strict protocols in place.”