Honesty gets a trial run

FOCUS: Trust may be creeping back into fashion. WH Smith and Safeway have introduced initiatives that allow us to prove what thoroughly decent folk we are - well some of us anyway
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Indy Lifestyle Online
AIRPORTS have for years been thought of as hotbeds of crime, and in some quarters the job title "baggage handler" is considered a euphemism for thief (this is undoubtedly unjustified, but aren't you always amazed when your unrifled bag finally appears on the carousel?). Yet a trial being carried out at Heathrow airport is also revealing just how honest people can be.

Retailer WH Smith has introduced honesty boxes in two of its stores for people who want to buy newspapers, but don't want to queue. All you do is pick up the paper you want, drop the exact money into a box (in fact, it's more like a dustbin and, consequently, slower members of the public have been trying to post their crisp bags and sweet wrappers through the coin slot), and walk away.

David McRedmond, managing director of travel retail for WH Smith, says customers have been honest. "We are not having any more newspapers stolen than before ... customers react well to something designed for them."

The idea came to McRedmond from spending several years working in the US, where newspapers are often sold from street-corner vending boxes that would allow the dishonest buyer to take several copies after inserting the right coins - but even in cities, the system works.

The Heathrow experiment has been such a success that WH Smith is ready to extend the trial to King's Cross station in February. And if it goes smoothly there, it could soon roll out across the country.

SO ARE we more honest than we thought? Can we be relied upon even when devilish temptation is placed in front of us? Well yes and, er, no.

On the upside is our behaviour in supermarkets. Safeway has pioneered a system called Shop and Go, where you register your name and address at your designated branch and are given an ABC loyalty card in return. Then, when you go the supermarket, you use the card to release a hand- held barcode scanner which lets you scan everything you want to buy as you go round the store. At the end of your trip, you go to a till and pay the total shown on the machine. Every so often you will be selected for re-scanning (where a check-out operator makes sure your haven't made any mistakes).

Clearly open to abuse, Safeway says that customers are very honest and do not try and sneak out with lots of unscanned shopping (theft from their stores has not increased as a result of Shop and Go). Safeway is now trialling an additional element that lets you pay automatically by credit card as you leave the store, so that you can do your shop without ever having to speak to anyone, or having to join a queue.

The Shop and Go scheme operates in 136 of Safeway's 455 branches and has about a 20 per cent take-up rate wherever it is featured. Rivals, including Waitrose and Sainsburys, are following suit with their own self-charging methods, confident that the public can be trusted. Before we pat ourselves on the back too vigorously, however, there are a few more points to consider.

An honesty survey for the current edition of Esquire magazine asked men the following question: If you were certain that there was definitely no chance of being caught or anyone finding out, would you steal a CD from a shop? Ten per cent confessed that they would promptly turn to a life of crime. Nine per cent also said that they would take the money out of a wallet before handing it in to the police - and another 7 per cent said that they would take the cash and throw away the wallet. Twenty- eight per cent said that they would lie to the police to provide a friend with an alibi if he had thrown a brick through the window of a girlfriend who was playing away from home (15 per cent said they would do the same if their chum then murdered her); while 52 per cent said that if they bought a coat from Oxfam and discovered a pounds 20 note in the pocket, they would return the cash.

Men in the Midlands were the most likely to pinch the cash from the wallet; men in the South had the greatest tendency towards shoplifting, and single men and those under 25 were your best bet if you needed a fake alibi. Sadly, Esquire did not ask: "Would you nick a newspaper from WH Smith if it was foolish enough to operate an honesty-box system?"

Last year, more damning evidence about our scruples, or rather worrying lack of, came from a World in Action survey into honesty. The programme's researchers set up a cashpoint to dispense pounds 10 too much every time a customer withdrew money. A third of people were honest and handed the money in to the building society (which tallies with a survey by More Financial Services, in which 58 per cent of respondents said they would take any extra cash doled out by their cashpoint, while 33 said they would be honest and return it). One wise guy returned 20 times in a bid to get rich and even attempted to snatch the bonus loot from other people using the cashpoint.

In another cunning move, World in Action sent cheques to people claiming they were refunds from a furnishings shop with the unlikely name of Honestly. The idea was to see who would pocket the money and who would return it. Car dealers were the real rogues, with 52 per cent banking the money, but vicars came a close second with 44 per cent paying the cheques in to their accounts. But, - and here a glimmer of hope for our national karma - overall, 88 per cent of the public sent the money back.

Then, in a test where shoppers were given too much change, it was found that in chain stores people tended to pocket the extra, but in tiny corner shops their conscience stopped them.

THE "they can afford it" mentality is also responsible for our stunning lack of honesty when it comes to holiday insurance claims. According to the Association of British Insurers, during 1997 we swindled an estimated pounds 595m on holiday claims, a rise of 6 per cent on the previous year. In a survey carried out by the ABI, 28 per cent of the respondents said that "insurers can afford to pay so it's worth having a go". The most common form of travel insurance fraud, accounting for 38 per cent of the total swindled figure, is inflating a genuine claim, followed by giving misleading information (30 per cent).

There's one place where women, especially, are completely dishonest - in bed. In a survey carried out last year, women who had said that the size of a man's packet doesn't matter were re-quizzed in privacy and 43 per cent then admitted that it was crucial. Sorry fellas.

There are, of course, two problems with all this. How do you know if people are honest in surveys? (There's plenty of evidence, including numerous wayward election polls, to indicate that people lie about lies). And what if I'm lying to you? According to Mori, 73 per cent of the public think that journalists tell fibs. Honest.