Shoplifting’s big driver is greed, not need

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In a tech-heavy world, there’s not only a new science to shoplifting, but also a new science to stopping it.

At the forefront of the world of experts who are studying how to repel shoplifters is Read Hayes, co-director of the Loss Prevention Research Team at University of Florida and director of the Loss Prevention Research Council.

The LPRC, made up of more than 40 retail chains including Walmart, Target, The Home Depot, Walgreens and CVS, is working directly with scientists on significant crime and loss control issues.

The most effective combo for retailers to discourage shoplifters is fear, difficulty and confusion; according to new research from the LPRC, it is a fairly simple, three-step process that virtually any retailer can embrace.

Hayes, who started out as a store detective in retail loss prevention and has since amassed 30 years of hands-on crime and loss control experience, has spoken at more than 120 conferences and authored more than 20 peer-reviewed journal articles. He spoke with STORES contributing writer Bruce Horovitz about the newest techniques in loss prevention.

How big a problem is shoplifting in the United States?

Retail losses of all kinds are in the $40 billion to $50 billion range annually. Shoplifting represents about $20 billion of that.

Have new technologies made shoplifting worse — or easier to detect?

Retailers are holding their own. We’ve seen very little change. As a percentage of loss, it’s hovering around 1.6 percent to 2 percent of sales at retail.

Who is most likely to shoplift?

We can go on for years about that. That depends, in part, on what you sell. Are you selling electronics or auto parts, or health and beauty care? Some things are more likely to be taken by males and others by females.

But at the end of the day, the psychological profile of a shoplifter is a person who is a risk-taker and who has lower self-control. They are more frequently in the emergency room or in jail — and tend to make bad decisions.

You can’t just say, well, it’s mostly kids. But we can say that issues of judgement aren’t always so good for those under 17, so you do see a lot of 13-year-olds involved in theft. In our data, men tend to have a little less self-control and are higher risk-takers. But women are more likely to simply switch containers — or price tags — than men.

What is the best way for a retailer to stop a shoplifter?

It’s all about the retailer convincing the potential shoplifter: Not here, not now. Retailers have to ask themselves: What can we do to make stealing something less appealing?

Let’s say, for example, someone wants to steal a razor from a shelf. As a retailer, there are three main tools I have to stop them. I can make stealing something too hard  — like locking something up in a case that requires a key to unlock it.

I can increase the perceived risk of detection. This can be with an alarm, a camera or by posting employees nearby. [Or]  I can make stealing something seem much less rewarding [by] selling objects that won’t work properly until they’ve been purchased.

It’s all about the retailer convincing the potential shoplifter: Not here, not now. Retailers have to ask themselves: What can we do to make stealing something less appealing?

As a retailer, how do I know what products to protect from shoplifters?

Whether you have 1,000 SKUs or 25,000 SKUs, you need to rank them, in order. At least 90 percent of your products aren’t a loss problem. So you need to focus on the 2 percent to 10 percent that are.

Retailers have metrics they can use to determine a return on investment calculation. So, if I go to the chief financial officer to purchase certain shoplifting control measures, I have metrics that show … the value added to us.

What item is the most commonly shoplifted?

Electronics is number one. If I carry Apple phones, tablets and even power cords, these are highly stolen. Also, batteries are commonly stolen from those portable towers. It may be hard to believe, but even large-screen TVs are commonly stolen.

What’s next?

Second would be things that consumers use all the time, like health and beauty care products. Razor blades are commonly shoplifted. So are expensive cosmetics. Also, certain logo apparel name brand jeans like Lucky Brand. Then there’s designer handbags and high-dollar athletic shoes.

Is there something that’s shoplifted often that retailers know about, but maybe not consumers?

Energy drinks, like Red Bull.

In your latest research, what are you finding is the newest, most effective way to deter shoplifting?

The most impactful method is what we call “benefit denial services.” While you can look at a product and even test it in the stores, when you remove it from the store environment, it won’t function properly until it’s purchased. That’s the game-changer.

How is this a game-changer?

Let’s say I’ve got a smart tablet. Since I’m afraid it might be shoplifted, I keep it under lock and key, and ultimately destroy consumer interaction with the product. In this case, the customer’s only interaction with the store employee is when they come to unlock it.

But what if I could sell a tablet that is operational only in the store, during store business hours? Now I can liberate the item and display it creatively. I can even take it into the children’s department and co-locate it in another part of the store.

I can do things that create experiences and generate sales that most can’t do right now because of fear of theft. One brand, RCA, is testing this right now.

What are some of the newest theft-prevention technologies being tested in your innovation lab?

We are testing facial recognition technology. There also are warning devices if someone takes more than three or four packs of an item at a time. We have 75 technologies in our lab that do different things.

Is it true that you consult with offenders to help develop new technologies?

Yes, we interview 100 active offenders per year. We ask them what they think before they get into stores. They tell us that their biggest fears are employees who they perceive as being alert — and who actually care. Alert employees are the most clear and present danger to what they want to do.

For example, if I see a camera mounted on a wall — and I know the direction in which it’s looking — I can choose to steal something when I know it’s not looking at me. But the actions of an active, caring employee are random. I never know what they’re going to do.

What can a small retailer with a small budget do to protect themselves from shoplifters?

Go back into the mind of the offender. Remember, it’s all about store design and layout. You need the perception of control and a store that’s neat and orderly. Employees must be engaged and showing their faces. Shoplifters don’t like a place that is under control.

Any other new technologies that help deter shoplifting?

You can make it more difficult with “just in time” inventory. That limits your exposure by not having so many items out on the shelves. When you load up your store, you lose more products.

Does a lousy economy lead to more shoplifting?

That’s an age-old question. There’s some fluctuation with the economy. But most items that are stolen are because of greed — not need. You don’t see a lot of theft of staples. But you do see theft of things like hair coloring or steaks.

The economy doesn’t typically play a large role because theft is normally a commercial venture to fulfill personal greed.

Why does more shoplifting take place around the holidays?

There are simply more bodies in the stores, and more temporary employees who are not as well trained.

Can a retailer eliminate shoplifting?

No, you can’t. Bad decision making is part of our hard wiring as humans. Some folks will try to shoplift no matter what. They either don’t see the deterrents or aren’t concerned about the risks.

What’s the most blatant shoplifting you’ve ever seen?

Back in the 1980s, I was a store detective at a Ross Store. I caught two men trying to carry a huge, big-screen TV out the door. If I had not been standing there, they would have walked right out.

What’s the experts’ best advice for retailers who want to protect themselves from shoplifters?

Every retailer will experience shoplifting. It’s not a question of if, but when. You need to track what is the most frequently taken item by category, and keep a close eye on it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a bait and tackle shop or a small apparel store. Every retailer has the same challenges.

Bruce Horovitz, a freelance writer, is a former USA Today marketing reporter and Los Angeles Times marketing columnist. He can be reached at brucehorovitz@gmail.com.

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