Locking up their shelves is a store’s last resort, but it has never been so widely practiced. It has also become a growing irritation for shoppers and a source of frustration for some employees who have to walk around the store with keys close at hand.
“It’s extremely off-putting to customers,” said Paco Underhill, founder and CEO of behavioral research and consulting firm Envirosell. “It’s a brutal experience even for the merchant.”
The reason why stores resort to blocking these products is simple: to prevent shoplifting. But these decisions are much more nuanced and burdensome for stores than you might think. Businesses must tread a delicate line between protecting their inventory and creating stores that customers aren’t afraid to visit.
Shoplifting in America
Until the early 20th century, blocking products was the norm. When customers visited a store, employees supplied them with the items they wanted from behind a counter.
That changed when early self-service stores like Piggly Wiggly in the early 20th century found that they could sell more goods and cut costs by distributing merchandise on an open sales floor.
Although fewer workers in the store have increased the chains’ profits in recent decades, in some cases they have left the stores without the same visible staff to discourage shoplifting, crime prevention experts say.
Shoplifting has existed for centuries, but “came of age in America in 1965,” writes author Rachel Shteir in “The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.” The FBI in 1965 reported that it had jumped 93% in the previous five years and “was the fastest growing form of theft in the nation.”
Three years later, officials across the country said there had been a further wave of shoplifting of young teenagers. The trend has become part of the counterculture, as exemplified by Abbie Hoffman’s 1971 “Steal This Book”.
In response, an anti-shoplifting industry and corporate “loss prevention” (LP) and “asset protection” (AP) teams have sprung up. Technologies such as CCTV cameras, electronic item surveillance, and anti-theft tags have also emerged.
Stores try to protect “the vital 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 a higher theft with the lower margin “very trivial,” he added.
Shoplifters target smaller items with higher price tags, often called “hot products,” which are typically what retailers block the most frequently. A criminologist has created a suitable acronym, CRAVED, to predict the highest risk things: “hiding, removable, available, valuable, fun and disposable.”
Items most commonly stolen from U.S. stores include cigarettes, health and beauty products, over-the-counter medications, contraceptives, spirits, whitening strips, and other products.
Pharmacies have a higher percentage of items that are “hot products,” so they have more stuff under lock and key than other retail formats, Beck said.
Retail organized crime
These include measures such as security tags on items that trigger alarms when someone goes out without paying. But this is less valuable than before because alarms have become part of the general cacophony of shop noise and are often ignored.
Stores also use strategies such as shelves that allow a customer to only pick one item at a time. This helps prevent shoppers from emptying an entire shelf of products.
Blocking a product is the last step a retailer will take before removing it altogether, and stores say they resort to this measure more frequently
There is no national database on shoplifting, which often goes unreported, and shops and prosecutors rarely report complaints.
Retailers say organized retail crime has only made their theft problems worse. Criminal gangs often try to steal products from stores that can be resold easily and quickly on online marketplaces such as Amazon and through other illicit marketplaces.
“Today, more products are blocked because the problem has gotten so much bigger,” said Lisa LaBruno, senior executive vice president of retail operations at the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “Criminal actors can steal large volumes of products and sell them anonymously.”
Amazon said it doesn’t allow third-party sellers to list stolen goods and works closely with law enforcement, retailers, and other partners to stop the bad actors.
“We regularly request invoices, purchase orders or other proof of supply when we have doubts about how a seller might have obtained certain products,” a spokesperson said.
Irritated customers and lost sales
Buyers today are more impatient. Some will go out and buy the product on Amazon instead of walking around for a worker.
“You’re trying to be simple for the customer, but still prevent loss,” said Mark Stinde, former vice president of asset protection for Kroger and other large retailers. “You get a lot of pushbacks from the operations and merchandising teams to block things.”
Stores are working on new ways to freeze products while reducing customer frustration, such as a new type of case that any employee can open with a smartphone. Other cases require shoppers to enter their phone number to open or scan a QR code.
“Consumers understand why you have to lock up a fur or a piece of jewelry. But they say ‘why are we locking up the deodorant?'” Said Jack Trlica, co-founder of commercial LP Magazine.
Trlica predicts companies will develop new technologies that protect products, but don’t require stopping an employee to unlock a shelf.
“There will be an evolution in security products,” he said.