Guest Column | August 19, 2009

Shoplifting Prevention — Partnering Solutions To Push Out Thieves


Written by: Karryn Gleckner, marketing communications manager at Gatekeeper Systems

Creative thieves continue to shock and amaze retailers at the ingenious and bold ways they have come up with to take goods without paying.  Today's shoplifters, having grown familiar with commonly used loss prevention solutions, continue to find ways to obtain their loot.  In an effort to outsmart and outmaneuver these sticky fingered opponents, retailers must step-up and rethink their loss prevention game plan.  

The rise in "creativity" and retail theft, responsible for swiftly sinking store's profits, is in part due to the significant payoffs shoplifting can bring in.  The online marketplace has created such widespread opportunities for thieves that retailers almost fondly remember the days when they were only combating resell at pawn shops or swap meets.  In an age of efencing (reselling items online on Web sites such as Ebay or Craigslist), and Organized Retail Crime (ORC), retailers are up against a shrink battle unlike ever before.  According to CNBC efencing alone is a $37 billion business. Meanwhile, 80% of retailers surveyed in the RILA Current Crime Trends Survey reported an increase in ORC. Add into the mix the sinking economy and the rise in unemployment to a 26 year high, and moreover we are seeing yesterday's shopper turn into today's shoplifter.  

Nowadays, shoplifters hit stores from all angles, attempting varying methods until they find what works.  While stores continue to be challenged by shoplifters carrying unpaid items out the door, the most brazen of lifters skip the one or two item uptake and sweep an entire shopping cart full.  The obvious, a shopping cart is capable of carrying higher volumes and larger sized items lending to bigger payouts in fewer theft attempts.  To the retailer these types of events represent higher dollar losses each occurrence.  Coined "pushout theft" in the retail industry, pushout events often go unnoticed as a person filling a cart with items does not rouse suspicion until the final moment when the cart is pushed out the door.  Even the skyrocket of reusable bags has contributed to the effectiveness of a pushout by concealing the items.  Environmentally friendly bags stuffed to the brim at first thought reflect a responsible shopper and does not immediately raise a flag that the cart full of bagged items could be leaving the store unpaid.  Combined with the placement of ATM machines, video kiosks, and items for purchase near doorways, a shopper can go from looking like a regular cart pushing customer to becoming a pushout thief in a matter of steps.  

Thieves, homing in on pushout theft as an area of retailers' loss prevention weakness, use pushouts increasingly as a popular shoplifting tactic.  A quick online search returned a report of a 25-year-old man in Austin, MN, allegedly stealing a shopping cart filled with nearly $1,000 worth of groceries.  The man, giving us a window into the mind of a shoplifter, even provided a reason, "to feed his friends", quickly bringing us to the realization that the answer or rationale to steal could be anything. Another headline boasted, "Man arrested for trying to steal three full carts from Kmart." One of his carts alone had $1,246.50 worth of merchandise.

As thieves continue to discover alternative methods to shoplift, so too must the retailers discover ways to stop them.  Pushout theft needs to be paid particular attention because of its high impact on shrink. Existing loss prevention methods such as video surveillance, sensor tag alarms, or visual identification, while valuable, do not and cannot stop a pushout at each event. Even if store personnel are alerted to a pushout taking place by an existing method, someone must still physically pursue the thief to recover the items, increasing the risk of injury as well as the store's liability.  

With asset protection, and shrink and liability reduction high on the list of retailer's priorities, pushout prevention has quickly been realized as a necessity in the loss prevention tool chest.  Pushout prevention addresses a key area of loss that had not been specifically addressed before.  Technology such as purchek from Gatekeeper Systems, is engineered to be effective in reducing loss by keeping the merchandise from ever leaving the store.  This system works by equipping each shopping cart with a self locking wheel. An invisible perimeter is placed at each entrance or exit-way (this can include emergency exits and garden centers that are often out of view) which transmits signals to the wheel.  When a shopper enters the store, the wheel crosses the perimeter and receives permission to enter. Once the shopper finishes shopping and purchases the merchandise at an open checkout, the wheel receives permission to leave the store and the shopper may complete the shopping experience without ever knowing of the interaction.  However, if the shopper skips the checkout, the wheel does not receive permission to leave and the cart is locked when it attempts to exit, preventing the cart from leaving the store with unpaid merchandise. No matter how the store chooses to address the thief, the merchandise stays inside the store saving untold amounts of potential loss. System capabilities give retailers a choice as to the type(s) of real-time, event notification to alert store personnel to a pushout event so they may immediately respond.  Stores may also partner existing loss prevention solutions with the system, allowing the store to tie-in or network with other in-store surveillance, centralizing important loss prevention data. Additionally, a perimeter signal line can be placed around the parking lot for shopping cart loss prevention, thus utilizing the locking wheel for multiple loss prevention solutions.

The rise of retailers utilizing pushout prevention solutions is attributed to its effectiveness in reducing store shrink by providing a solution to an area that thieves have been capitalizing on. In one example, a U.S. supermarket major, recognizing the negative effect pushout theft was having on store shrink numbers, implemented the locking wheel pushout prevention solution at a handful of its stores. With the technology halting each and every cart of unpaid items attempted to be pushed out, it was made clear the issue was more prevalent than initially thought. Pushouts occurred frequently and stores were often targeted repeatedly by the same offenders who would continue theft by pushout, knowing the payout potential it could bring. Convinced by these results and a return on investment (ROI) seen typically in under a year (some stores less than six months), the retailer added the solution to its loss prevention suite at nearly 100 of its stores in a 12-month period.   

With razor-thin margins and a difficult year of seeing one retailer after another close its doors, retailers can't afford to continue to swallow the losses. The latest University of Florida National Retail Security Survey stated a loss of $11.8 billion dollars for U.S. retailers from stealing by shoppers. Thieves not only quickly discover which stores are easiest to target, they also have an uncanny ability to find areas of weakness. Now, more than ever before, is the time for retailers to consider how they will partner varying solutions to be effective in rivaling thieves.