The Cult of Technology in Asset Protection: LP/AP’s Adoption of Multidisciplinary Concepts

The field of loss prevention is in transition. While maintaining strong ties to the law enforcement, veteran, and security professional communities, the field has developed to include insights from other disciplines, such as business, sociology, and criminology. Beyond that, loss prevention over the past 20 years has become a data-driven enterprise.

Like all transitions, some of learned practices are immensely helpful, while others need updating. As researchers with one foot in LP/AP, and one foot in human behavioral research, we identify two opportunity areas. The first is areas where adoption of an idea from another domain into the field of loss prevention has yet to occur on an optimal scale. The second is areas where the marriage of domains has commenced, and has left us with hiccups such as untranslated jargon between industries, borrowed ideas applied in ways that miss the mark, and the forced marriage of incompatible concepts. We outline some of those opportunities here.

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Technophilia and Technophobia

As technological advances have occurred in other domains such as computer science, the realm of capabilities in our LP/AP world has exploded. Indeed, many technologies on the market now allow loss prevention professionals to do their job quicker and more efficiently. Furthermore, the rise of information technology, product protection technology, and data analytics have greatly improved the arsenals that retailers may bring to bear against shoplifters.

However, all too often, there is a willingness to believe that technology offers a panacea. In many cases, security companies are all too willing to advance this narrative, marketing their solution as “groundbreaking” or “game-changing.” Even when those companies are not aggrandizing, successful implementation of any solution depends upon significant human and organizational factors that are often ignored. Will this technology operate correctly in your environment? Does your team have the training necessary to fully use this technology?

While technophilia is one problem, technophobia is another. If used properly, technology can be a force multiplier, increasing the power of your staff. In a retail sector that is becoming increasingly lean, technology can help you leverage your existing human resources. Identifying the ideal mix of technology and human factors is necessary to stop shoplifters from operating in your store.

Better Understanding your Opponent

Borrowing from the domains of criminology, psychology, and sociology, today’s LP professional is tasked with trying to understand offender actions, motives, and possible deterrents. While the decision to shoplift (or commit crimes in general) may be deviant, it is counterproductive to color shoplifters as “stupid” or “dumb.”

Successful shoplifters often study their targets in depth, making sure to understand employee scheduling, layout of security and surveillance measures, how to make themselves less conspicuous, and they often have an in-depth understanding of store policies on shoplifting and legal ramifications. Furthermore, shoplifters share knowledge over online forums regarding successful practices and how to defeat surveillance and product protection measures. Finally, shoplifters are adaptive. Shoplifters talk to one another and often have friends or collaborators that work in retail environments, with whom they share information.

Human decision-making is complex and intelligent; it is often a function of competing goals, the hierarchy of which is fluid. For example, you may choose to order dessert at a restaurant, temporarily putting your goal for immediate pleasure ahead of your goal for long-term health. An observer of this decision may deem it, and indeed you as a decision-maker, unintelligent or impulsive. This broad categorization robs us of the opportunity to understand how the decision was made and what we can do to affect the decision process to achieve a different outcome in the future.

“Informational Asymmetry”

Borrowing from economic principles, informational asymmetry occurs in a transaction where one party has better information than the other. LP/AP operates at a disadvantage. Potential offenders usually know what associates look like (with the exception of a plainclothes store detective) and are able to spot much of the anti-theft technology. Potential offenders can target product selectively, avoiding inopportune targets while concentrating on easier ones. Thieves have the advantage of anonymity, hiding in plain sight, masquerading as honest customers.

While there are tools that LP/AP associates use to detect potential offenders, these tools are not always adequate to the task at hand. Moreover, research suggests that offenders are adept at “playing it cool” or blending in with honest customers (Lasky et al. 2015).

Underestimating the Importance of Security for the Entire Enterprise

The Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC) is focusing heavily on studying and contributing to the literature on this concept. Unfortunately, loss prevention is often thought of as a cost center rather than a revenue center. As a result, LP/AP can often be a casualty of budget cuts or shifts in strategic priorities or goals.

While shrinkage remains the coin of the AP/LP realm due to its perceived measurability, much of the true value of AP/LP efforts lie in eliminating undesirable, often dangerous, people and situations from retail environments. If customers perceive themselves as “unsafe” they will not enter your store. Panhandlers, loiterers, and other non-violent behaviors may put off potential shoppers, thereby limiting sales. In fact, some research suggests that individuals will travel out of their way to patronize a store they perceive to be less risky, rather than going to a riskier location closer to their home (Shannon 2016).

Looking Backwards

In this case, the domain at hand is other parts of the retail enterprise and how they affect LP/AP. The retail environment is changing rapidly. Retail of the future will have a smaller brick-and-mortar footprint, and have less associates on the floor. Mobile payment, which has already made inroads, will become more common.

Self-checkout is also becoming more ubiquitous. Recent research suggests that individuals will often cheat or act dishonestly in ways that allow them to maintain a positive self-concept (Mazar et al., 2008) New technologies will present new opportunities for people to commit lower-level offenses, while presenting opportunities to rationalize these offenses, all while decreasing retail square footage will pack offenders more densely into remaining space.

Therefore, the profile of a shoplifter many LP/AP associates have in their mind may need to be revisited, and new remedies found, to more effectively combat theft and fraud. A focus on this new environment means reexamining our preconceptions about how offenders behave, their characteristics, and how they operate in our retail space.

Ignoring Inherent Biases

Borrowing from economics and psychology, individuals often rely on “heuristics,” or mental shortcuts, to make decisions quickly or to lessen cognitive strain (Kahneman 2011). Sometimes, these heuristics can be helpful, but other times they can act to oversimplify a complex world. Among them are the tendency to selectively find information that confirms our preconceived notions (confirmation bias), the tendency for our expectations to influence our perceptions (selective perception), or the tendency to place more weight on events that happened recently as opposed to ones that happened in the past (recency effect). Ignoring these biases may result in identifying patterns where there are none, or missing helpful signals or important patterns in individuals who shoplift. Our inherent biases can make us discount important information while focusing on less helpful information. Recognizing how our own cognitive biases operate makes for a more effective LP/AP team and a more effective LP/AP strategy.

Notes from the Underground

Gratuitous references to Dostoevsky aside, understanding shoplifting from an offender perspective is key to preventing theft in your retail environment. There are multiple forums (some of which have recently been taken down) where shoplifters go to find advice, talk about their successes, and workshop their failures. While some of this is just “chatter,” some of these forums are invaluable and underused source of counterintelligence, providing LP/AP professionals with true insight into which techniques work, which techniques don’t, and how shoplifters truly operate.

Final Thoughts

Each and every person who shoplifts from your stores is doing so because it’s so easy. Every day they make the same choice. They have hundreds of options for how they’re going to make a living, and stealing from you is their easiest option. We don’t have to make it impossible. We don’t have to make it their hardest option. We just need to make it their second easiest.

References

Kahneman, Daniel. 2011. Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Macmillan.

Lasky, Nicole, Scott Jacques, and Bonnie S. Fisher. “Glossing over shoplifting: How thieves act normal.” Deviant Behavior 36.4 (2015): 293-309.

Mazar, Amir, and Ariely. 2008. The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance http://econweb.ucsd.edu/~jandreoni/Seminar/OnAmir.pdf

Shannon, Jerry. “Beyond the supermarket solution: Linking food deserts, neighborhood context, and everyday mobility.” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 106.1 (2016): 186-202.

 

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