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Shoppers OK with theft as cost of living bites

Business

Over one-quarter of consumers surveyed said it was “a little” to “completely” justifiable to steal from retailers.

By Christine Chen 10 minute read

The cost-of-living crisis has altered consumer behaviour and many are willing to bend the rules while shopping to cope with stretched budgets, a survey has found.

Over one-quarter of 1,000 consumers surveyed by Monash University said it was “a little” to “completely” justifiable to steal while shopping.

This included 37 per cent of respondents who said that it was justifiable to scan items as cheaper ones when using a self-checkout terminal.

The survey also found one-third of respondents said return fraud was justifiable, such as lying about the reasons for returning a product. 

Lead researcher Stephanie Atto from the Australian Consumer and Retail Studies group, which produced the Cost of Living and Consumer Deviance Spotlight report with Monash Business School, said the survey's goal was to find out how consumers' spending habits had been responding to economic conditions.

“We wanted to understand if and how consumers are changing their spending habits to relieve these financial pressures, and how justifiable certain deviant behaviours such as retail theft are to consumers in the current climate,” Ms Atto said.

The survey’s findings showed that so-called consumer deviance has been on the rise as consumers feel the pinch from falling real wages and high interest rates. 

While the CPI dropped in the year to July to 4.9 per cent, a 17-month low, 60 per cent of respondents reported that their essential groceries increased considerably in the past six months.

Over 60 per cent of respondents also reported an increase in their housing-related costs, including rent, mortgage and utility bills.

Consumers found their basket sizes on essentials had stayed the same while their costs increased. To cope, the survey found that consumers cut back on non-essentials such as takeaway, clothing and electronics.

But for some consumers, especially in younger age bands, these cost-cutting measures were not enough. Respondents 18 to 34 years old were more likely to justify theft, with 53 per cent saying that it was “a little” to “completely” justifiable to take an item without paying for it. 

The vast majority of consumers over 55 considered retail theft "not at all" justifiable; 93 per cent of older consumers said it was unjustifiable to take items without paying and 88 per cent said the same for not scanning all items at self-checkouts.

“Fears of opportunistic consumers have been growing amongst retail businesses who not only face the issue of decreasing consumer spend but also the need to be wary of consumers looking to save money through more deviant means,” Ms Atto said.

The survey’s findings of increased consumer deviance come as major supermarkets reported an annual 20 per cent rise in stock loss, largely attributed to a rise in retail theft. 

While this had failed to dent profits, retailers had implemented controversial biometric trackers and self-checkout cameras to counteract shop-lifting and protect their inventory.

The survey also found that changes in shopping habits were uneven among age groups while consumer pessimism was shared. Over three-quarters of consumers expected to be in the same financial position or worse off in the next 12 months and half of consumers expected poor business conditions over the next 12 months.

According to Ms Atto, inflation and interest rates would need to further abate before consumer behaviour or confidence could improve. 

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Christine Chen

Christine Chen

AUTHOR

Christine Chen is a graduate journalist at Accountants Daily and Accounting Times, the leading sources of news, insight, and educational content for professionals in the accounting sector.

Previously, Christine has written for City Hub, the South Sydney Herald and Honi Soit. She has also produced online content for LegalVision and completed internships at EY and Deloitte.

Christine has a commerce degree from the University of Western Australia and is studying a Juris Doctor degree at the University of Sydney. 

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