It is a last resort for stores to take off their shelves, but it has never been more widely practiced. This has become a source of increasing irritation for shoppers and frustration for some employees, who have to walk around the store with keys ready.
“It’s extremely frustrating for clients,” said Paco Underhill, founder and CEO of behavioral research and consulting firm Envirocell. “It’s a brutal experience even for the trader.”
The reason why stores are closing these products is simple: to stop shoplifting. But these decisions are far more subtle and frightening for stores than you might think. Companies must tread a delicate line between protecting their inventory and creating stores where customers aren’t afraid to go.
shopping in america
Until the early 20th century, discontinuing products was the norm. When customers walked into a store, clerks would provide them with what they wanted from behind a counter.
This turned into the early 20th century as the first self-service stores such as Piggly Wiggly found they could sell more goods and lower their costs by spreading merchandise on an open sales floor.
Crime prevention experts say the chain’s profits have increased in recent decades due to fewer employees in stores, but in some cases the stores have been left without so many visible personnel.
Shoplifting has been around for centuries, but it “came of age in America in 1965,” writes author Rachel Shettier in “The Steel: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.” In 1965 the FBI reported that it had jumped 93% over the past five years and was “the nation’s fastest growing form of piracy.”
Three years later, officials across the country said there had been an additional surge in young teen shoplifting. The trend became part of counterculture, as exemplified by Abby Hoffman’s 1971 “Steel This Book”.
In response, an anti-shoplifting industry and corporate “Loss Prevention” (LP) and “Asset Protection” (AP) teams arose. Technologies such as closed-circuit TV cameras, electronic article surveillance and anti-theft tags also emerged.
Stores want to protect the “critical few” products that are most profitable for them to sell, said Adrian Beck, who studies retail losses at the University of Leicester. And they are willing to accept high thefts at the low-margin “trivial many,” he said.
Shoplifters target smaller items with higher price tags, often referred to as “hot products,” which are usually what retailers lock on most often. One criminologist coined an apt acronym, CRAVED, to predict the items at highest risk: “Hideable, Removable, Available, Valuable, Enjoyable, and Disposable.”
The most commonly stolen items at American stores include cigarettes, health and beauty products, over-the-counter drugs, contraceptives, alcohol, teeth-whitening strips, and other products.
Beck said drug stores tend to have a higher proportion of “hot product” items, so they have more stuff under lock and key than other retail formats.
organized retail crime
These include measures such as security tags on items that set off an alarm when someone leaves without paying. But it’s less valuable than it used to be because alarms have become part of the general noise of store noises and are often overlooked.
Stores also use strategies such as shelves that allow the customer to pick up only one item at a time. This helps prevent shoppers from emptying an entire shelf of products,
The last step a retailer will take before removing a product entirely, and stores say they are resorting to this measure more often
There is no national database on shoplifting, which is often under-reported, and stores and prosecutors rarely make charges.
Retailers say organized retail crime has made their theft problems worse. Crime gangs often seek to steal products from stores that can be easily and quickly sold through online marketplaces such as Amazon and other illegal marketplaces.
“There are more product closures today because the problem has gotten bigger,” said Lisa LaBruno, senior executive vice president of retail operations at the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “Criminal actors can steal large quantities of products and sell them with anonymity.”
Amazon said it does not allow third-party sellers to list stolen goods and works closely with law enforcement, retailers and other partners to deter bad actors.
“We routinely request invoices, purchase orders, or other evidence of sourcing when we have concerns about how the seller has obtained particular products,” a spokesperson said.
Troubled Customers and Lost Sales
Buyers today are more impatient. Some people will go out and buy products on Amazon instead of walking around for an employee.
“You’re trying to be as frictionless to the customer, but still prevent damage,” said Mark Stinde, former vice president of asset protection for Kroger and other large retailers. “You get a lot of pushback from the operations and business teams to lock stuff up.”
Stores are working on new ways to lock products while reducing customer frustration, such as a new type of case that any employee can open with a smartphone. Other cases require buyers to enter their phone number to open or scan a QR code.
“Consumers understand why you have to take fur coats or jewelry off. But they say ‘Why are we taking deodorant off?’ Jack Trulica, co-founder of trade publication LP Magazine, said.
Trulica expects companies to develop new technologies that protect products but don’t require an employee to be taken down to unlock the shelf.
“There’s going to be an evolution of security products,” he said.