Get A Receipt Or Your Meal Is Free
Sometimes, when I don’t bring a lunch, I’ll head over to the closest fast food joint from work, the newly renovated Kentucky Fried Chicken. Every time I go there, I’m always puzzled about the sign on the cashier exactly like the one above. I’ll admit: I always secretly (and guiltily) hope that my cashier will forget to print out a receipt (“…pleasefreelunchpleasefreelunch…”). Sometimes, I’ll even strike up a conversation to try to distract the poor guy. Sadly, my little scheme has never worked.
But seriously, I never understood why many fast food restaurants give customers a free meal if the cashiers forget to hand over a receipt. After all, how many people eating at KFC are on an expense account that requires receipts for reimbursement? How many people are so dissatisfied with their two-piece breast and wing meal that they will demand a refund? Why is it that only fast food places (KFC) – and not sit-down restaurants (CPK) – have this policy? And how is it in KFC’s interest to essentially give away free lunches?
It turns out that there’s an ingenious reason for this rule. According to the Cornell economist Robert Frank, fast food restaurants have long tried to deter employee theft by having cashiers reconcile the amount of cash collected during their shift with the volume of sales rung up at their register. When the amount of cash falls short, cashiers are usually required to pay the difference. However, a sneaky cashier might game the system by “forgetting” to ring up a few transactions since it’s impossible to trace changes in a restaurant’s food inventory with the individual transactions at any given cash register. Thus, if a clever, dishonest cashier “accidentally forgot” to ring up my $10 meal, he or she could pocket the $10 without creating an accounting discrepancy at the end of the day.
One possible solution to this problem is to hire extra monitors to insure that cashiers ring up and print out receipts for every sale. The problem is that this would be prohibitively expensive. The even better solution is to offer a free meal to any customer who fails to receive a receipt; this way, KFC is creating an economic incentive for customers to monitor their own cashiers for free. In other words, we – the clueless customers – are helping keep fast food cashiers honest without even realizing it.