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These days, it feels like many stores are fortresses. Most of the products on the drug store shelf are behind lock and key, even everyday items such as deodorant, toothpaste, candy, dish detergent, soap and aluminum foil. Manufacturers that supply lock cases and devices to chain stores have seen their businesses boom
Walgreens and Rite Aid have said that the problem of organized retail crime — rings of criminals that steal products from stores and then often resell them on online marketplaces — is causing them to lock more products up and close some stores.
Locking up their shelves is a last resort for stores, but it has never been more widely practiced. It’s also become a growing irritation for shoppers and a source of frustration for some employees who must walk around the store with keys at the ready.
“It’s extremely discouraging to customers,” said Paco Underhill, the founder and CEO of behavioral research and consulting firm Envirosell. “It is a brutal experience for the merchant, too.”
The reason why stores resort to locking up these products is simple: to prevent shoplifting. But these decisions are far more nuanced and fraught for stores than you may think. Companies must walk a delicate line between protecting their inventory and creating stores that customers don’t dread visiting.
Until the early 20th century, locking up products was the norm. When customers visited a store, clerks would provide them with the items they wanted from behind a counter.
This changed as the first self-service stores like Piggly Wiggly in the early 20th century discovered they could sell more goods and reduce their costs by spreading out merchandise on an open sales floor.
While having fewer workers in the store increased profits for chains in recent decades, it has left stores in some cases without as many visible personnel to deter shoplifting, crime prevention experts say.
Shoplifting has been around for centuries, but it “came of age in America in 1965,” author Rachel Shteir writes in “The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.” The FBI in 1965 reported that it had jumped 93% in the prior five years and “was the nation’s fastest-growing form of larceny.”
Three years later, officials around the country said there had been an additional surge in young teenagers shoplifting. The trend became 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 sprang up.
Technologies also emerged such as closed-circuit TV cameras, electronic article surveillance and anti-theft tags.
Stores look 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’re willing to accept higher theft on the lower-margin “trivial many,” he added.
Shoplifters target smaller items with higher price tags, often called “hot products,” which typically are what retailers most frequently lock up. One criminologist created an apt acronym, CRAVED, to predict the stuff at highest risk: “concealable, removable, available, valuable, enjoyable, and disposable.
The most commonly stolen items at US stores include cigarettes, health and beauty products, over-the-counter medications, contraceptives, liquor, teeth-whitening strips and other products.
Drug stores have a higher proportion of the items that are “hot products,” so they have more stuff under lock and key than other retail formats, Beck said.
There is only so much that can be done to to stop shoplifting. Companies prohibit retail staff from physically trying to stop a shoplifter for their own safety and must find other ways to protect the merchandise
These include measures such as security tags on items that set off alarms when someone walks out without paying. But this is less valuable than it used to be because alarms have become part of the general cacophony of store noise and often go ignored.
Stores also use strategies such as shelves that allow a customer to take only one item at a time. This helps prevent shoppers emptying an entire shelf of products.