Daily Tedium

Switching Labels

Hey, shoplifters: Trying to pull a fast one on a retail outlet by changing the price tags or barcodes is serious business, even when Legos are involved.

By Ernie Smith

Recently I had two pretty good six-packs of beer for $3.99 each. I had scored a deal because I wasn’t picky—the beers were rebranded by a grocery store to celebrate a special event that happened months prior, but the tell was on the cap—these beers, despite the labels, had been brewed by a well-known local craft brewer, and were the same beers that were in the “beer cave” for seven dollars more.

Anyway, the pricing must not have been intentional, because when they rang up, they showed up at their full price. The cashier ran all the way to the back of the store, however, and confirmed the price—and I walked out of the store, having saved $14. Next time I went to the store, however, the store-branded beer was suddenly $10.99 again. I wouldn’t be getting an extreme discount twice in a row.

Anyway, I bring this up because of a situation I spotted in the news the other day: A Walmart shopper in Florida (always Florida; why?) who tried to buy $1,800 worth of goods by switching the tags, going to the self-checkout, and paying $3.70 instead.

The situation that leads someone to try to shoplift that much in goods by switching the tags certainly isn’t a good one, and I only bring light of the specific case because it highlights an interesting issue.

With barcodes attached to products and RFID tags common these days, the motivation of “ticket switching” is tempting, and is a major cause of inventory shrinkage at many retail outlets—a problem the National Retail Federation says led to $48.9 billion in lost revenue for retailers last year alone. NRF puts tag-swaps in the "organized retail crime" category—think the Mafia, but with fabric softener.

Of course, as common a crime as ticket switching is, it’s surprising we don’t hear about it more often, and only in an extreme case like the one last week.

Fun fact: That’s not the most extreme case. We can credit a former executive with the technology firm SAP for that. In 2012, Thomas Langenbach was arrested for an elaborate scheme in which he custom-printed his own labels that he then pasted onto Lego set boxes at Target—boxes that he then sold on eBay at a profit. (The police investigated his property and compared the scene to Legoland, because of course they did.)

The irony of the situation, of course, is that he was an executive at a Fortune 500 company and could probably have afforded to pay full price for all the toys he bought. The result, though is that he spent time in prison over the situation.

Hearing about incidents where people try to steal computers or Legos may make one think that this is funny business, but it’s no laughing matter for retail outlets. Case in point: In 2007, a Wall Street Journal editor found herself interrogated and given the fifth degree at a Kmart because she accidentally bought a pair of shoes that had been placed in the a box for a cheaper pair.

“My stunned protestations and explanations were summarily dismissed,” she wrote in the piece. “My driver’s license and credit card were temporarily confiscated, I was told to expect a civil notice of a fine by mail, and finally, I was advised never to return to the store.”

I changed no labels and went by what the sign said, but suddenly, I feel a little more nervous about that beer I bought on a two-thirds discount.

(Random Retail/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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