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At a hearing last month, Avi Kaner, co-owner of the Morton Williams supermarket chain, testified that small businesses cannot combat theft effectively without tools including facial recognition.

Grocery stores in NYC fight facial recognition software bill

While the technology is said to reduce shoplifting, politicians are trying to make it obsolete

Theft in brick-and-mortar stores has been an ongoing issue for several years, hitting a peak during the global pandemic as more violent “smash-and-grab” type incidents led to locking up everyday products like deodorant, shampoo, and toothpaste, reports CNN. 

Walgreens even made the decision to close five of its San Francisco stores in 2021, citing organized crime as the reason. While the industry average tends to be around 1.4%, retail theft and shoplifting have a high rate of repeat offenses, driving up grocery costs for all customers. 

However, Fairway’s parent company, Wakefern Food Corp., told CBS New York that facial recognition technology is helping prevent more crime in stores. The algorithms within the software are able to reduce shoplifting. 

That said, New York City grocery store owners are opposing a bill that would limit the use of facial recognition software. Early last month, the city council called for businesses to inform customers and get their written consent before using biometric recognition on them, or face a $5,000 fine. 

At a hearing last month, Avi Kaner, co-owner of the Morton Williams supermarket chain, testified that small businesses cannot combat theft effectively without tools including facial recognition, adding that he had to hire off-duty New York police officers for the chains’ 16 locations at a cost of over $1 million to cut shoplifting.

The grocery chain operates stores primarily in Manhattan and employs over 1,000 full-time union employees. During COVID, Kaner said, “Our stores stayed open 24/7 … as people were either hunkered down in their apartments or fleeing the city. Since then, our stores have been under assault by theft, driven directly by New York City’s refusal to prosecute thieves. Stealing up to $1,000 at a time is now an entitlement in New York City.”

Kaner also told SN that, just like many drugstores have shuttered their doors, supermarkets are now doing the same. “We must have a way to protect ourselves from going out of business,” he said.

Over the past year, the Morton Williams supermarket chain reported gross margins down 2% due to theft and the city’s refusal to prosecute thieves.

Kaner added that in the past, “We would take Polaroid photos of thieves and scotch tape them by the time clocks, so employees could recognize the thieves if they enter the supermarket again.” Kaner believes that there is no difference between that and using facial recognition. 

“If a thief is caught on camera wiping out an entire section of the supermarket, we must have the ability to prevent that thief from coming into our supermarket again,” he said.

Those in favor of the bill argue that the software is invasive and isn’t always reliable, referencing a Massachusetts Institute of Technology finding from 2019 that facial recognition software marketed by Amazon misidentified darker-skinned women 31% of the time.

However, data from the National Institute of Standards and Technology indicates that executives just have to research the software they are purchasing, finding that systems with higher precision are less prone to race or gender errors.


The New York City Council is reviewing a bill that would ban facial recognition software to retailers. But retailers believe it is a valuable tool to help prevent theft. Politicians say the technology does not properly identify the perpetrators, especially if they are minorities. What do you think? Should the software be banned?

Let us know in the comments below, or email your thoughts to the SN staff at [email protected].


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