Is there a bio-/psycho- logical reason why candy bars are stolen more than other snack room items?

We have an employee-supported snack room with candy bars, chips, sodas, etc. There’s a lock box where people leave money for the items they take. The door has a combo lock and we change it frequently enough that it should just be the employees on our floor that have access. We have a locked cabinet where we keep most of the inventory and we just put out what is needed.

We were having a problem where we weren’t making as much money as we should have. Everything was just one price, and we should have been making money, but we were losing a lot. Of course some loss is to be expected and the price was set to reflect that, but it was clear that lots of stuff was being stolen.

We started looking into usage patterns to see if we could notice anything. The candy bars stood out for a few reasons:

  1. The candy bars were the most popular, by far. Things like chips, granola bars, nuts, etc. didn’t get bought nearly as much. We’d have to restock the candy bars much more often.

  2. The bigger the pile of candy bars, the quicker they were gone. So the rate at which they went down was directly proportional to how many were out. If 10 Snickers were put out, they would quickly go down to 5. But if just 3 were out, it would take a long time before they were all gone. Losses went down as well, which makes it seem like when there are lots of candy bars, people were more likely to steal them.

  3. When we stopped stocking candy bars, there was much less loss and we started making a profit again.

  4. The inventory of the other items didn’t change very much when the candy bars weren’t stocked anymore. That is, the candy bar customers didn’t switch to chips or other items.

This is all very unscientific and not very well controlled, so it’s hard to draw any clear conclusions. But it does make me wonder if there’s something about the candy bars which causes people to be more likely to steal them. Does the intense, rich sweetness create some sort of pleasure loop in the brain which reduces the guilt of the theft? Does the person feel guilty for eating a candy bar, so they make it seem more unintentional by not paying for it? Is the candy bar being used to “self-medicate” for stress and anxiety, and someone in that mindset is more likely to steal? Whatever the reason, it seems that having candy bars out caused people to steal more than they otherwise would.

I don’t have a cite handy but have heard about some study (possibly unscientific) where posting a sign with a face on it significantly reduced such theft. The thinking was that it was psychologically like you were being watched, and people don’t feel comfortable swiping things while being watched. You could pretty easily try it with some variety of signs for fun: cartoon face vs photo, eyes without a face, etc.

Is it possible the candy bars go faster simply because they are tasty and someone is directly stealing cash from the box? That would explain why there never seems to be enough money in there.

My brother’s place had a similar “honor box” vending system and when he was low on money he would steal from the honor box and replace it on payday. I’m not defending or justifying that, just trying to add another possibility.

That’s an interesting idea about having faces in the room. We can try that and see if that increases the profit even more.

The money goes into a solidly locked immovable box with a slot on the side. For someone to get the money, they’d need to steal the box or destroy it.

Your boss should be paying for this stuff. That’s why they don’t pay for it.

I believe there is a psychological reason: a candy bar is small, and fits easily in your pocket, much more than a bag of chips or a soda can. Nobody wants to be seen with their stolen goods! They probably carry their loot to the toilet or somewhere else where they can munch away in privacy.

I first read about this in the “Bagel Man” section of Freakonomics.

I think even if people are being completely honest and paying for everything, there’s still a social aversion to “taking the last one”.

Of course, if they are stealing, a big pile of snickers makes taking one less obvious, (i.e. thinking, “did they really count the number of snickers they left out so accurately that they are sure one is missing?”) which makes it seem like less of a crime.

Don’t stop there. Conceal a camera in the eye so that when you catch the free loader you can give him the chair.

^ This. Candy bars are skinny and small and fit easily into a pocket. They aren’t filled with an air cushion like a bag of chips, and won’t crinkle as much. There’s probably no item better suited for theft, with the exception maybe of a pack of gum, but gum won’t feed you.

The ability to hide it might be a possibility, but there would be no reason to hide it. The snacks are in a locked room. If you come out of the door with a snack in your hand, no one would know if you paid for it or not. In fact, it might look weird if you came out without a snack since there’s no other reason to go in there. And it’s all on the honor system anyway. Some people pay for their snacks as they get them, others drop $10-20 in the box when they think they’ve taken that much.

One other data point is that the candy bars were the most expensive item. Since everything is just one price, the loss of a candy bar has a bigger effect than the loss of a bottle of water. So it could be that the percentage of candy bars that were stolen were consistent with the percentage of other items like chips and sodas, but the hit to the bank account was bigger from the candy bar loss. I wish we had done a closer accounting to know for sure. In any case, the losses made it seem that almost no one was paying for the candy bars.

Logically, it makes no sense, no, but as already stated, I think there’s a psychological dimension to take into account.
If you’re already paying for a bottle of water, what’s easier than also secretly sliding a candy bar into your pocket – especially as, if you said, it’s the single most expensive item, and there’s a stack of them on the table?

Better still, put up a webcam. Tell everyone about it and provide the online address (internally) so anyone can watch at any time through their web browser.

Your thefts will go down.

You may have just one thief. Who happens to prefer Snickers over chips. When 5 are set out he’ll take two leaving three. When 10 are set out he’ll take seven leaving three.

Didn’t the same book report something about different theft rates for different items?