Guest Column | July 12, 2021

How Secure Are Unattended Retail Stores?

By Shannon Flynn

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You can think of unattended retail stores as an innovation similar to self-checkout stations. However, instead of a shopper not interacting with a cashier when paying for something, the consumer can go through the entire shopping process and never see a worker at all.

Some locations have a few employees on-site for particular reasons — such as to provide made-to-order foods. For the most part, though, these locations operate without direct intervention from employees. Loss prevention is a significant issue in retail, and it’s no surprise that people wonder how secure any store can be without in-person supervision.

Some People Set A Theft Goal

Unattended retail has become a hot topic on social media, particularly as more AmazonGo and AmazonFresh stores — which operate on that concept — open around the United States. Some users boldly stated their intention to steal from the stores. Another said he’d “lose faith in humanity” if people didn’t do it. You also can find YouTube videos and tech blogger accounts of people who specifically try to commit theft and document their results.

Interested parties have made it their mission to trick the stores’ security. Many of them probably feel extra brave due to the lack of an employee presence. In a traditional store, people usually see security cameras mounted on the ceiling. Plus, they know there are workers tasked with watching those feeds and physically intervening if necessary.

Unstaffed stores have high-tech cameras and sensors, but no one on the premises to quickly stop a theft. Even if a worker watches store data remotely and calls law enforcement after noticing something suspicious, the thief could leave before they arrive.

A Person Fools An Unattended Retail Store With A Wardrobe Change

Many unattended retail stores collect plenty of information about shoppers. First-party data comes directly from customers or the target audience, and retailers generally perceive it as valuable.

For example, when a person shops in an AmazonGo store, the company gets statistics on the length of their trip. Those details could help Amazon’s team understand more about people’s shopping behaviors, such as whether they typically buy enough to cover several days’ worth of what they need or only a few immediate essentials.

In one 2020 case, a tech blogger went into one of the larger AmazonGo stores and tried to take produce without paying for it. During the more than two-hour visit, he engaged in strange behaviors intended to fool the surveillance system, such as picking up several pieces of fruit at once and putting them back.

However, he eventually realized that he’d entered the store carrying rather than wearing his jacket. He wondered if putting it on inside the restroom would be enough to trick the cameras.

The person left the store with $6 worth of merchandise bought after his wardrobe change. He even clarified he didn’t do anything sneaky when grabbing those things. Indeed, merely putting on a jacket seemed enough to circumvent the high-tech camera system.

A Smaller Unattended Retail Store Uses The Subscription Model

Amazon’s unattended retail stores are arguably the most well-known, but they’re not the only options. The e-commerce giant’s success may work against it. Some people probably think, “Amazon makes so much money that it won’t hurt them if a relatively small percentage of shoppers steal apples or bags of chips.”

However, they may have a different perspective of a smaller business. Minnesota’s Main Street Market offers 24-hour access to its unstaffed store for people who pay $75 subscription fees. People also can visit during staffed checkout days three times a week.

The store has security cameras, but they’re not as advanced as what Amazon uses. Shoppers use a smartphone-based scan-and-shop system or self-checkout. Store owner Alex Ostenson said the store mostly operates on an honor system.

However, he believes the subscription fee creates a deterrent. “If people buy a year membership for $75, would they risk losing it by stealing? We know who is coming and going as each person has a unique access code,” Ostenson pointed out. He can remotely deactivate a person’s membership privileges at any time with a smartphone app.

Security Shortcomings Exist

Some people see stealing from an unattended retail store as an intriguing exercise. Others get specifically assigned to trick the system. Examples like these show security gaps, but it’s unclear whether the problem will become severe enough to make the operating model unsustainable. About The Author

Shannon Flynn is a technology blogger who writes about AI and IT trends. She's also the Managing Editor of and freelances for sites like IoT for All, ChatbotNewsDaily, and more. Follow her on Medium or MuckRack to read more tech news.

About The Author

Shannon Flynn is a technology blogger who writes about AI and IT trends. She's also the Managing Editor of and freelances for sites like IoT for All, ChatbotNewsDaily, and more. Follow her on Medium or MuckRack to read more tech news.