Stores have cash registers, give receipts to prevent cashier theft

Megan McArdle explains that businesses don’t have cash registers or receipts for the good of consumers; it is to prevent cashiers from taking money.

The great innovation of the National Cash Register company was to market registers not so much as adding machines but as devices for preventing theft. Here’s Walter Friedman’s “Birth of a Salesman” on how these machines were made ubiquitous:

Because of the high price of NCR cash registers, sales agents had to convince proprietors that the machine would eventually pay for itself. NCR’s early advertisements resembled the contemporary flyers of life-insurance. In both, the aim was to heighten customer fear and uncertainty. In the cash-register trade, the fear centered on stolen revenue. One of Patterson’s advertisements, proclaiming “Stop the Leaks,” depicted shop owners ruined by clerks who stole from their cash drawers. This marketing strategy posed problems for NCR, because clerks and bartenders resented the implication that a mechanical “thief-catcher” was a necessary coworker. Some even organized protective associations to keep the product out.

In instances of intense opposition by clerks to newly installed registers, Patterson sent detectives to supervise the machine’s operation. NCR for June 1888 printed a letter from a merchant in Detroit whose store had been watched by an NCR-hired detective. “Your operative’s report relative to my man not registering is at hand. I was very much surprised, as it caught a man, above all others, I have relied upon, not only in the bar but in other matters in the house.”That’s why cash registers ring loudly when the cash drawer opens — so that a clerk with decent mental arithmetic skills can’t pretend to register your sale and then pocket the cash. And that’s why you get a physical receipt — so that the clerk can’t ring up part of your sale, and then siphon the rest into his own pocket.

In other words, NCR helped create the market for their goods by playing up certain fears. Friedman’s link to life insurance is an interesting one; sociologist Viviana Zelizer has written about how life insurance was once viewed as morbid but came to be viewed in the 1800s as a necessary provision for one’s family. This is like the cash register as the good businessperson has to have a cash register. It also sets up an interesting new source of alienation between companies and workers: the basic retail employee can’t be trusted with money.

One reason to look at the social history of products is to note how they are not objects humans inherently need. They are social constructions.