Retail Anti-Theft Devices Should Amplify Risk

Even the best retail anti-theft devices struggle to maintain their potency, unless they can make a potential thief aware of a credible risk.

retail anti-theft devices

A 2016 report from the ECR Community’s Shrinkage and On-shelf Availability Group titled Amplifying Risk in Retail Stores offers a comprehensive review of the evidence to date on what is known about the various ways in which retailers try to discourage thieves from stealing from their stores, focusing particularly on increasing or “amplifying” the risk of being caught.

Evidence would suggest that most retail anti-theft devices and interventions are mainly designed for the opportunistic offender—they are much more likely to be taken seriously by them and reduce the likelihood of offending. However, in order for this type of thief to be effectively deterred, they must not only be aware of the security intervention but also believe it is credible. They must see it and must believe it is going to increase their chances of being caught. Therefore, the principal aim of the retailer and its associated security and technology providers is to ensure that the risk of apprehension is sufficiently amplified in the retail environment. They must make the potential thief sufficiently aware that a credible risk exists in the store.

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Using Retail Anti-Theft Devices for Risk Amplification

Interventions must be highly visible if they are to play a role in amplifying risk. There is no point in hiding it away or making it less than obvious to the would-be thief. Modern retail loss prevention should be focused on deterrence, not detection. For interventions such as electronic article surveillance (EAS), this means making the presence of the product tag abundantly clear. Hiding it away inside the packaging does not represent a good use of the technology, especially if its presence is not indicated on the packaging. It needs to be obvious to the would-be thief that a product is protected. Where tags are concerned, either they need to be very visible and obvious what they are, or their presence needs to be clearly marketed on the product packaging.

Equally, the exit and entrance gates need to be clearly visible and recognizable for what they are—part of a system designed to raise the risk of being caught. Here the growing use of gate advertising shrouds as a means to generate additional revenue for the retailer is interesting. Does this use impact their visibility to the would-be thief? Are they blurring the message by in some way masking their primary role? Further research could explore this issue.

Generating visibility, particularly for some interventions such as CCTV, may prove increasingly challenging. CCTV’s growing ubiquitous presence may undermine its ability to amplify risk in the retail environment, although research on public view monitors (PVMs) suggests that it can be achieved with a degree of success, in the short term at least. More research is required on how new forms of CCTV technologies, such as PVMs, may help to amplify risk, particularly at self-checkouts where opportunities for deviant behavior would seem plentiful together with plausible and defendable excuses for the wily thief. New insights offered by behavioral sciences could be used with this type of technology to impact perceptions of risk, as well as notions of honesty.

What is clear from the review is the role people can play in amplifying risk. It would seem that opportunistic and more determined professional thieves alike regard both retail sales staff and dedicated security employees as key deterrents. But staff must be visible and often proximal to the offender to be successful in amplifying risk. They need good lines of sight, and in respect to security guards, they need to be mobile, moving around the store.

Currently, many retailers employ security guards at the entrances and exits of stores, frequently watching CCTV and ideally responding to EAS alarms. The evidence would suggest that:

  • Guards are unlikely to observe thieves on CCTV in the act of concealing goods in the store unless they have been provided information from others about a suspicious customer,
  • That professional thieves in particular are not put off by the presence of CCTV in the store, and
  • Guards are unlikely to apprehend people through EAS alarm activations. Only a small percentage of alarms generate a check of a receipt, and even fewer lead to stolen goods being identified.

Therefore, it seems useful to understand how security guards can be better used in the retail space, both as risk amplifiers and safety advocates, and how guards can better employ the technologies made available to them.

For retail staff, the research suggests that they need to be made fully aware of their importance in amplifying risk and how they can deliver this effectively. It would seem that the attributes that make an employee good at being a retailer—particularly being highly customer-focused—are also those that seem to generate the highest rates of amplified risk in the would-be offender.

Reducing the degree of anonymity would-be thieves perceive they have is also important in the risk amplification process—something that can be achieved by not only attentive staff and alert security personnel but also smart technologies. The growing use of mobile scan-and-pay technologies in particular is bringing this into stark relief, as existing risk amplifiers are made redundant by this type of consumer experience. More research is required to understand how mobile technologies might be used to amplify risk through communication with the consumer as they move through the retail store.

Making Risk Amplification Credible

While risk amplifiers need to be visible to the would-be thief, they also need to be credible. Thieves need to believe that the risk of apprehension is real. The research on offenders draws clear distinctions between those regarded as more opportunistic thieves compared with those that are more organized and professional in the way they go about their thieving.

The former are more likely to believe that a range of interventions are effective in making it more likely they will be caught, while the latter tend to view some retail anti-theft devices with a higher degree of skepticism and disregard. This is particularly the case with EAS, where concerns about false alarms and a lack of a credible response have plagued the industry since it was first introduced over forty years ago.

The current evidence would suggest that this is certainly taken into account by the more determined professional thief, who will develop ways to exploit this credibility gap, but less so by the more opportunistic offender, who remains easily intimidated by its presence within the retail environment. As new technologies emerge, such as mobile scan-and-pay, it will be important to monitor this situation to ensure that EAS’s rather battered, but still potentially potent amplification capacity, remains viable.

Making Risk Amplification Intelligent and Proactive

The retail space is changing rapidly with new technologies quickly becoming integrated, such as consumer-owned mobile devices, together with greater complexity and agility being introduced across the supply chain through developments such as online and click-and-collect. This emerging retail landscape presents significant challenges to how retail losses will be managed in the future—the where, the how, and the who are all likely to become more complex and diverse. But it also presents potential opportunities as well in terms of how risk might be amplified in the future, not least through the use of these same technologies and developments.

Anonymity is often an important prerequisite for an offender to decide to commit an offense. If they do not feel like they have been noticed, their sense of risk is reduced. What new intelligence-focused technologies and retail anti-theft devices might be able to achieve is more of a loss of this sense of anonymity—the store, the shopping cart, the shelf, the product, the checkout, the parking lot could all begin to be part of a person-focused communication process with the consumer, making them aware that their presence in the store is known.

Much of this is already possible, and consumers are becoming increasingly familiar with and arguably desensitized to the collection of their data and the potential benefits of their location being known. Future research is required to better understand how this might play out in the retail store and how risk might be best amplified through these developments. Will would-be thieves be less likely to steal because their identity and location is known? Will the fact that they are leaving an electronic trail behind them, which might be associated with a deviant act, be a sufficient risk to deter them?

SIDEBAR: Amplifying Risk in Retail Stores: The Evidence to Date is available as a free report. To receive a copy, please contact the author at bna (at) le (dot) ac (dot) uk. For further information about the ECR Community’s Shrinkage and On-Shelf Availability Group, visit

Check out the full article, “Amplifying Risk in Retail Stores,” to understand what factors influence an offender’s decision to steal, and take a closer look at the approaches to risk amplification to date.

This post was excerpted from the original article, which was originally published in 2016. 


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