Two stores in China trialled unstaffed shops this week, in an experiment to see whether customers would pay up without being prompted.

Convenience stores in Beijing and Hangzhou were temporarily replaced with automated payment systems and advertised as “completely unstaffed”. Sadly, the experiment was not an unqualified success. While most customers proved to be honest, some chose to pay only a fraction of their bill, and in some case nothing at all.

At an am/pm branch in Beijing and a Vanguard in Hangzhou, customers were directed to pay for their goods either with their smartphone or by leaving cash in a box. The social experiment was designed to test people’s honesty when they believe they are not being watched and were not in danger of being caught and reprimanded. Most customers paid the correct amount, but the study revealed that overall takings were down 20 percent on what was owed.

To give specific examples, three customers took high-value items without paying a cent, and another paid just 10 yuan (US$1.61) for their shopping – nowhere near enough to cover the cost of the expensive items they took. The shops’ takings should have come to 13,700 yuan (US$2,200), but the experiment resulted in a one-day loss of around 3,000 yuan ($484).

For many customers, this was their first experience with a self-service payment system. It’s worth pointing out that real self-service checkouts (in other countries, anyway) usually have at least one staff member around, both to help out, as well as to dissuade anyone with sticky fingers. Also, the honesty box system in this experiment meant that if customers chose to pay by cash no change was given.

▼ Shoulda put one of these in.


Despite the losses, a representative from Sesame Credit, which ran the experiment jointly with the two chain stores, called the project a success, saying the customers who stole were exceptions to the rule. Chen Liucheng of Vanguard also said he expected to see more self-checkout systems in the future.

Would you always pay up at an unstaffed convenience store, or would you be tempted to treat yourself from time to time? Let us know what you think of this experiment in the comments section below!

Sources: Naver Matome, Global Times, The Nanfang
Featured image: Poppy Thomas-Hill