Around 18 percent of students that visit the campus supermarket have now and again deliberately not paid for one or more products, a research study shows. The study was undertaken among 538 respondents by a group of Behavioural Economics master students.

In fact, one in ten students indicated they regularly liberate goods from shops. In their research study the Behavioural Economics students experimented with a ‘bayesian truth serum’ to induce students to provide candid answers: half of the respondents were asked an additional question, as to which charity the researchers should donate money. In 21 percent of cases the students within this group admitted to now and then having spirited away food products. Students not asked this question only did so in 16 percent of cases.

Behavioural Economics student Luc Schneider, who together with Daniel Harding, Merel van Hulsen, Yuhan Huang and Andreea Beznea carried out the research study regards the outcome as ‘reasonably high, yet not shockingly so’. He did though encounter many notable responses from the participants. “A number of them were fearful we would report the theft. Also striking was that the students who themselves steal from time to time, could think of more justifications for theft than those who never steal. Some regarded stealing as acceptable if you’re temporarily short of cash, or if you only do so incidentally.” He suspects that thanks to the ‘truth serum’ the majority of the thefts have been exposed.


The Spar supermarket on the campus only has self-service check-outs. The supermarket is part of DenkDifferent, a group of supermarkets across seven university sites. Erwin Binneveld who works for the company isn’t astounded by the research study outcome. “We also undertake our own research, by means of spot checks and by monitoring security footage. On the basis thereof we assume that 2 to 3 percent of customers are notorious thieves, 85 percent are honest, and around 12 percent are impulse thieves. So that fairly concurs with the results.”

When the self-service check-outs were installed, Binneveld indeed anticipated an increase in thefts. “In a standard supermarket you expect 0.7 to 0.8 percent loss of revenue through theft. When we switched over to the self-service check-outs we estimated an increase to 1.5 to 2 percent. But that hasn’t happened as far as we can tell.”

Impulse thieves

For that matter the Spar doesn’t easily reconcile itself to an increase in thefts. Binneveld regularly runs training sessions to help keep staff alert to the problem. “Professional thieves won’t be caught: they behave far too coolly and unremarkably. We focus instead on the impulse thief who has an inclination to steal, finds it thrilling and still hesitates at the check-out. I train my staff to recognise that behaviour: entering and leaving intently, whilst exaggeratedly looking around.”

Within five minutes

‘Statistics show Applied Sciences students have a different mentality.’

Erwin Binneveld

Yet it frequently goes wrong. “Recently I was at the Spar in Rotterdam and within five minutes I’d nabbed one”, tells Binneveld. “A student. He started to shout a great deal. I took him outside and talked to him in a voice just that bit too loudly for his liking. Eventually he got off without a fine, but he did look a fool though. That’s what I have in mind: that, say, we gift a cake or something to the hundredth thief walking out of here without paying. That’s the worst that can happen in their eyes: that other students see it.” Recently a Law student was fined 181 euros for stealing. “When the police arrived they said to, ‘oh, it’s you again’.”

Applied Sciences alongside the campus

“But you must be careful before you start accusing someone of theft: sometimes there is no deliberateness to it all”, qualifies Binneveld. “Or, someone wants to pay for a cheese croissant but can’t find it on the screen, so selects a regular croissant instead. Self-service isn’t always that easy to use; so the staff starts off calmly: ‘I see your payment isn’t working, can I help you, perhaps?’ If they’re in the middle of stealing something, they’ll get a fright.”

Of all the campus supermarkets, Rotterdam sees the most thefts, says Binneveld. “More than in the smaller cities, but also more than in Amsterdam.” The key difference in Binneveld’s opinion: here we have a University of Applied Sciences (Hogeschool) alongside the campus. “Statistics show that Applied Sciences students have a different mentality.”

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