Dishonesty and social presence in retail

  • Susan Siebenaler

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The independent style of scanning and payment at self-service checkouts (SCOs) has resulted in areas for concern. The reduction of employee involvement may reduce the social presence perceived at a SCO. Social presence is when a user experiences the perception that there is another intelligence or entity within their environment (Short, William & Christie, 1976). If customers are not influenced by the social presence of the employees at a SCO then it may affect their behaviour. Using a mixed methods approach, with a combination of qualitative and quantitative data gathering, this thesis investigated dishonest behaviours at self-service checkouts and the effects of a social presence on consumer behaviour. The overreaching research question then guiding this dissertation is: What effect does a social presence have on thefts at self-service checkouts and can social presence be effectively implemented via technology? Three exploratory qualitative (Studies 1-3) and two empirical studies (Studies 4-5) were conducted to investigate issues surrounding thefts at SCO with reference to social presence. Study 1 consisted of in-depth observations of customers within supermarkets to gain an understanding of everyday behaviours associated with self-service checkouts. Both customers and staff seemed to be frustrated at the amount of times the technology did not work properly and the customer would appear disadvantaged when they required assistance. With an understanding of the salient factors and behaviours associated with self-service checkouts, Study 2 then explored SCO staff perceptions of thefts at self-service checkouts (Creighton et al., 2015). Qualitative semi-structured interviews were used to investigate the perceived influence of social presence at self-service checkouts by staff and its perceived effect on dishonest customer behaviour. Twenty-six self-service checkout staff took part in a series of semi-structured interviews to describe customer behaviours with self-service. With respect to actual physical social presence, such as the recognised presence of an employee, staff reported that more customer thefts occurred when the self-service checkouts were busy and their social presence was reduced. To further explore social presence within a retail environment and validate the perceptions from SCO Staff, Study 3 investigated the role of the security guard in terms of their social presence and explored their perceptions of thefts at self-service checkouts. Interviews with 6 security guards were conducted to determine factors surrounding theft as their role is to monitor this type of dishonest behavior. There was an overall agreement from security guards that there were more thefts at self-service checkouts when the store was busy and that there were more thefts at self-service checkouts overall, compared to traditional manned checkouts. The first empirical study (Study 4), consisting of 2 Experiments, considered the effects of a social presence within a self-service checkout interface on user behaviour. This study examined whether a social presence in the form of a computer designed onscreen agent at a simulated SCO, with design features varying in ‘humanness’, i.e. agents that displayed more or less-human-like features (eyes in Experiment 1, and human shapes in Experiment 2), would have an effect on opportunistic behaviour (cheating) in a simulated checkout scenario. Ninety-one participants interacted with a simulated SCO while their eye movements were tracked via a Tobii TX300 eye-tracker. Hypotheses that predicted a social presence would receive attention and result in fewer instances of theft when integrated within an interface were supported, suggesting that implementing an agent designed to suggest some level of humanness e.g. with eyes, within a SCO interface may reduce levels of theft as customers are likely to notice it. However, Study 4 showed mixed results for the effects of varying agent appearance alone. Research has shown that social presence can also be induced by varying agent behaviour (Burgoon et al., 2000). Study 5 thus varied interactivity (i.e. personal vs impersonal nature) of the agent via voice implementation on the SCO, using the same agent as in Study 4 (Experiment 2). The research highlights the need for the current designs of SCO to be updated to reduce operational issues which could be contributing to thefts occurring at SCOs. It is also concluded that further research is needed on the effects of interactivity and agent presence during a SCO interaction to explore dimensions of social presence and how they are being experienced by the user, which may ultimately lead to a reduction in thefts at SCOs.
Date of Award21 Sep 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Abertay University
SupervisorAndrea Szymkowiak (Supervisor) & Paul Robertson (Supervisor)


  • Self-service checkouts
  • Dishonesty
  • Social presence
  • Retail surveillance
  • Mixed methods
  • Agents
  • Eye tracking

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