How to Sell* a Lot of Carrots

Carrots are good for you. You probably don’t need that established here — they’re vegetables, and vegetables are generally a healthier choice than say, cookies. They don’t taste terrible; they’re naturally sweet and cooking them makes them much sweeter. Oh, and they’re cheap, especially compared to most other fruits and vegetables. In some places, a 2-pound bag may cost you less than two bucks, which is less than a single head of broccoli. If you’re looking for nutrition on the cheap, it’s hard to find a better option than carrots.

Especially if you introduce modern grocery store technology to the equation.

Starting in around 2014, grocers in the United Kingdom and Australia started to see a big uptick in the sale of carrots, puzzling some store owners and managers. The sales data was especially confusing because while the registers claimed lots and lots of carrots were being purchased, there always were plenty of the vegetables left in the produce aisle. One store even brought in Emmeline Taylor, a lecturer from the University of London to investigate the issue, and as Taylor told the press, that supermarket “discovered it had sold more carrots than it had ever had in stock.”

How is that possible? As Taylor explained, the sudden interest in carrots — to an impossible degree — “wasn’t a sudden switch to healthy eating, it was an early sign of a new type of shoplifter.”

Over the last decade or so, many retailers — and grocers in particular — have added self-checkout lanes. In theory, these aisles should reduce the costs of operating the store, as you need fewer employees working the register. And in practice, that may be the case, but it also allows for a little bit of chicanery by consumers. Self-checkout aisles work well when you’re buying packaged goods — you scan the UPC code and the machine automatically knows exactly what you’re buying. But when buying produce, you’re often bagging the items yourself, so there’s no UPC code to scan. Instead, as Taste of Home notes, “customers typically look up the item by name.” The scanner weighs the item, multiplies that by the price per pound or kilogram, and gives you the price.

But as noted above, not all produce costs the same. Carrots may sell for about $1 per pound (or about £2 per kilogram), but fruits and other vegetables can be much pricier — avocados, for example, end to cost about four times as much for the same amount by weight. If you put some avocados on the scale and tell the machine that they’re actually carrots, you end up getting roughly 75% off. Sure, it’s illegal and unethical, but apparently many people didn’t care. The proof? As Thrillist notes, “British shoppers have reportedly been sneakily weighing a variety of items as ‘carrots’ at self-checkout stations, and over the last four years this has totaled up to $4 million in theft.” Some scofflaws are particularly brazen, too; as Thrillist reported, “in one case, someone purchased 40 pounds of carrots in a single trip.” Per the BBC, some retailers even rolled back the self-checkout aisles as a result of the scam.

More than five years later, the scheme is still common at the checkout aisle. In July 2023, CBC News spoke with criminologist Adrian Beck, who told the outlet that “the carrot trick” (to use their phrase) is incredibly hard to combat: “[The thief] simply say, ‘You know what, I’m sorry, I’ve obviously made a mistake. The machine was difficult to use.’ The real issue that retailers have is they find it very difficult to prove that I am a thief as opposed to a poor scanner.” And while there are some efforts to use AI and machine learning to stop the practice, the technology isn’t quite there yet.

Bonus fact: Perhaps the most aggressive cousin of the carrot trick occurred in 2019, when a teenager successfully purchased a Playstation 4, retailing for roughly $375, for about $10. How? As the Independent reported, the 19-year-old from Nice went to a grocery store (which, apparently, sold video game consoles as well as carrots), “weighed the machine on scales provided in the store’s fruit and veg section,” and “then stuck the resulting price sticker on the console and paid the amount stated – €9.24 ” He walked away without an issue, but then made a critical mistake: he decided he needed a second Playstation 4 (likely to sell). He was caught during his second attempt.

From the Archives: Seeing Orange: Carrots are good for you, yes, but the “fact” that they help improve your vision? It’s mostly a myth.