Locking the shelves of stores is a last resort, but never before has it been more widely practiced. It has also become an increasing inconvenience for shoppers and a source of frustration for some employees who have to walk around the store with their keys ready.
“It’s extremely discouraging for clients,” said Paco Underhill, founder and CEO of behavioral research and consulting firm Envirosell. “It’s also a brutal experience for the trader.”
The reason why stores resort to locking these products is simple: to prevent theft. But these decisions are much more nuanced and complex for stores than you might think. Companies must walk a fine line between maintaining their inventory and creating stores that customers won’t hesitate to visit.
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Locking up products was the norm until the early 20th century. When customers visited a store, the clerks would supply them with the products they wanted from behind the counter.
This changed in the early 20th century when the first self-service stores such as Piggly Wiggly discovered that they could sell more goods and reduce their costs by spreading the goods on an open sales floor.
Crime prevention experts say that although having fewer workers in the store has increased chains’ profits in recent years, in some cases there aren’t many visible staff members to deter shoplifting from stores.
Robbery has been around for centuries, but author Rachel Shteir writes in “Theft: A Cultural History of Robbery” that “he came of age in 1965 in America.” In 1965, the FBI reported that it had increased 93 percent over the previous five years, making it “the fastest growing form of theft in the country.”
Three years later, officials across the country said there was an additional increase in teen theft incidents. This trend has become part of the counterculture, as exemplified in Abbie Hoffman’s 1971 book “Steal This Book.”
In response, the anti-theft industry and corporate “loss prevention” (LP) and “asset protection” (AP) teams emerged. Technologies such as closed-circuit TV cameras, electronics surveillance, and anti-theft tags also emerged.
Adrian Beck, who studies retail sales losses at the University of Leicester, said stores are trying to protect the “vital few” items that are most profitable for them to sell. And they were willing to accept higher theft over the low-margin “junk many,” he added.
Thieves often target smaller items with higher price tags, often referred to as “hot items,” which are the items retailers lock most often. A criminologist has created an appropriate acronym, CRAVED, to predict what’s at highest risk: “concealable, removable, usable, valuable, fun, and disposable.”
The most stolen items in US stores include cigarettes, health and beauty products, over-the-counter drugs, birth control pills, liquor, teeth whitening strips and other items.
Beck said there is a higher proportion of products with “hot items” in pharmacies, so they’re more under lock and key than other retail formats.
Organized retail crime
These include measures such as security labels on items that give an alarm when someone walks out without paying. But it’s less valuable than it used to be because alarms have become part of the overall cacophony of shop noise and are often overlooked.
Stores also use strategies such as shelves that allow a customer to buy only one item at a time. This helps prevent shoppers from emptying an entire shelf..
Locking out a product is a retailer’s last step before removing the product entirely, and stores say they’re using this measure more often.
There is no national database of theft, which is often under-reported, and shops and prosecutors seldom prosecute.
Retailers say organized retail crime exacerbates theft problems. Criminal gangs often try to steal items from stores that can be easily and quickly resold on online marketplaces like Amazon and other illegal markets.
“More products are locked up today because the problem is much bigger,” said Lisa LaBruno, senior vice president of retail operations for the Association of Retail Industry Leaders. “Crime actors can steal high-volume products and sell them anonymously.”
Amazon said it does not allow third-party sellers to list stolen goods and is working closely with law enforcement, retailers and other partners to stop bad actors.
“When we have concerns about how a seller obtains certain products, we regularly request invoices, purchase orders or other proof of source,” a spokesperson said.
Frustrated customers and lost sales
Shoppers today are more impatient. Some will go out of Amazon and buy the product instead of hanging around for a worker.
“You try to be hassle-free for the customer, but you still prevent loss,” said Mark Stinde, former vice president of asset protection at Kroger and other major retailers. “You get a lot of feedback from operations and commercial teams to lock things up.”
Stores are working on new ways to lock products while reducing customer frustration, like a new type of case any employee can open with a smartphone. In other cases, shoppers have to enter their phone number to open or scan a QR code.
Jack Trlica, co-founder of trade publication LP Magazine, said: “Consumers understand why you need to lock up a fur coat or jewelry. But ‘why do we lock up deodorant?’ they say,” he said.
Trlica expects companies to develop new technologies that protect products but do not require flagging an employee to unlock a shelf.
“There will be an evolution in security products,” he said.