Theft at unmanned shops on rise alongside surge in cost-of-living

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A shopper selects dumplings from a freezer in an unmanned shop of the Gyoza-no-Yukimatsu chain in Chiba before inserting cash into a box for payment.

CHIBA — There has been a spate of people taking items without paying at unmanned shops, which have been spreading as the coronavirus pandemic has prompted the need for no-contact service.

The variety of goods sold in unmanned shops has expanded from food — such as dumplings, packaged ramen noodles and meat — to daily necessities such as diapers and handkerchiefs.

Such shops have been spreading because they require few labor costs and initial expenses are low.

But operators of the shops have been concerned about how to prevent crime, mainly this kind of theft.

“It finally occurred,” lamented Koichi Isobe, 43, president of KD Kikaku, when a theft was detected in one of the unmanned shops run by the Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture-based company.

Around 1:10 a.m. on Nov. 23, a man wearing a down coat entered the shop, searched for goods in a freezer and put them into a bag one by one. Then he pretended to be inserting cash into a payment box and left the shop.

Cases of theft at the unmanned shop go back some time. A police officer standing by the back door arrested the man on the spot on suspicion of theft. He was a 23-year-old unemployed resident of Nagareyama in the prefecture.

The man’s bag contained 17 items such as ramen noodles that were worth ¥17,000 in total.

The company opened the unmanned shop in September last year by utilizing part of its parking space.

The shop sells items like frozen ramen noodles and puddings. To minimize labor costs, a payment box is placed inside the shop for customers to insert cash into.

A security camera was installed in the shop as a crime prevention measure. Isobe said: “I had accepted a certain degree of risk. But if criminal acts increase further, I cannot take any effective measures.”

In November, a 51-year-old unemployed man was arrested on suspicion of stealing frozen dumplings and other items at an unmanned dumpling shop in Funabashi in the same prefecture.

The background to the increase in thefts at unmanned shops seems to be the surging cost-of-living and the recent economic downturn.

Gyoza-no-Yukimatsu, a chain of frozen dumpling shops, operates unmanned shops in 430 locations across the nation. Its staff always monitor the feed from security cameras inside the shops and rush over if trouble occurs.

Kengo Takanouchi, marketing division chief of Tokyo-based chain operator YES Corp., said that the sales scheme “is based on a belief that human nature is fundamentally good, as our main premise.”

But he added, “We want to take crime prevention measures without fail.”

Yui Yamaguchi, a crime prevention adviser of the All Japan Security Houses Promotion Agency, said that the introduction of automatic vending machines is effective for preventing theft as goods do not come out unless cash is inserted.

However, if the high initial costs present a problem, Yamaguchi said, “It is important to let customers know they are being watched by human eyes even in unmanned shops by putting up posters saying, ‘Live videos are being webcast,’ for example.”