How Store Environments Affect Shoplifting Crime

Research with offenders provide insights into how to deter shoplifting crime.

shoplifting crime

Here’s how one shoplifter assesses risk. “First things first—you want to know if they got what you want. The second factor is the risk involvement. The risk involvement will be security times cameras times employees times space times [other] customers. Those are the five factors you’re going to have. Why? Because all of them conflict (sic) with each other to catch you.”

The quote above is not fictional. It is an actual quote from a seasoned shoplifter, and it indicates the type of thought process shoplifters and organized retail crime (ORC) gangs use when they enter a store.

Like anyone else, shoplifters are reasonable people who usually assess the pros and cons of a situation before deciding to take action. For a shoplifting crime offender, this process may occur in a matter of seconds—the length of time it takes to walk into a store, scan the space, and judge its desirability as a theft target. The offender weighs reward/opportunity against risk, and then decides whether or not to steal.

The key for retailers and loss prevention managers, then, is to convey a strong message of personal risk of detection and/or theft difficulty to shoplifters and other retail thieves, without discouraging legitimate customers. It’s a tricky balance to strike, particularly when so little research exists on what exactly shoplifters consider risky.

Fortunately, growing retail industry research is shedding light on this subject, suggesting new ways to affect the psychology of the shoplifter, without turning the store into Fort Knox. This post reviews some strategies to help create a store environment that deters shoplifting crime and boosts sales so your company can “design out crime.”

Shoplifter Behavior and Environment

Understanding how environmental conditions shape human behavior is not new, especially in the retail industry. For centuries, store owners have manipulated the selling floor in order to affect people, usually the consumer.

Humans move through places and spaces partly based on physical features. For example, barriers block access or force movements in a certain direction. Or, open areas allow others to see what’s taking place.

People entering places interact with the space, and their perceptions and actions are shaped by their experience. Positioning items at reachable heights, placing merchandise in highly visible parts of the store, using alluring product displays to attract business—these are attempts to lure, excite, and hold the shopper to increase sales.

Today, hundreds of marketing studies provide retailers with ever more ways to create an environment that increases sales, from the subtle effects of lighting and fixture placement to the not-so-subtle effects of flashy colors, large signs, and other bells and whistles. Kmart’s famous “Blue Light” marketing initiative, in which a flashing blue light at a shelf alerts customers to a sale, is a notable example.

Other retailers also include places for shoppers to rest and relax, eat, or read magazines, all of which lead to happy customers, longer store visits, and, hopefully, repeat business.

Design and Shoplifting Crime

No one questions the store interior’s ability to either help or hurt sales and profitability. However, despite how savvy retailers are in using the environment to shape customer psychology, few use the same strategy to shape shoplifter psychology. Shoplifters enter into and see the same space as customers. In fact, many are one and the same. Yet little consideration is given to what the offender sees.

Crimes such as shoplifting and organized retail crime are too often addressed after the fact, relying solely on CCTV, EAS, and extra security staff. These measures are costly and difficult to buy and consistently operate, and their effectiveness is hindered if the store itself is not designed to support their operating process.

Just as with sales and customer satisfaction, retail store design can either help or hinder LP. It can enhance loss prevention technology and facilitate safety through aisles planned to coincide with camera angles, and shelves designed to maximize employee visibility. Alternatively, it can create hiding spots for shoplifters with poorly monitored exits and dark, unprotected aisles and corners.

Fortunately, the tactics involved in designing and maintaining a secure retail interior are rarely offensive to customers. In fact, most of the strategies actually help sales and customer service, leading to happier customers and more sales, in addition to deterring shoplifters and reducing losses.

Before exploring how retail design can impact loss levels, it’s important to understand how this approach is grounded in good theories and decades of sound, thorough research on the environment-crime connection.

The theories behind the “design against crime” approach are derived from scores of studies on crime reduction in areas such as street crime, residential burglary, and crime in public housing. Because such theories are concerned with how crime occurs in certain places, they’re called place-based crime prevention. Design elements and cues like barriers or low and staggered shelving “channelize” movement, remind people of possible risks, prompt good behaviors, excite legitimate buyers, or help create concern or fear in shoplifters and other would-be criminals.

The majority of these “built environment” theories have focused on outdoor spaces and urban planning. While such studies helped affect safety in convenience stores, parking lots, and bus stops, they haven’t formally addressed in-store theft reduction. In fact, one of the main reasons so few stores are designed to maximize security is simply because fact-based theory on retail design strategies is not readily available. Retail interior designers are taught how to design spaces that excite or help sell, not spaces that also protect.

Only recently has research—much of it by the Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC) and the University of Florida—brought place-based crime theories indoors to explore how they can help the retail environment. Armed with this new set of information, store designers, managers, and loss prevention professionals can work together to create and maintain store environments that promote sales, while also minimizing theft opportunities.

Theory to Action

The big idea behind place-based crime prevention is simple: when a criminal enters a setting, that setting helps determine his/her behavior. Humans take in and react to built and psycho-social environments. By altering the setting in certain ways, you can alter the criminal’s actions. Three main theories relevant to retail design are defined below.

Rational Choice Theory. This criminology theory explains how shoplifters usually act as quasi-rational individuals who weigh the relative risks and rewards associated with a crime before deciding to commit it. For example, the shoplifter quoted previously wants to steal teeth whitening strips, but decides not to once he sees they’re stored behind the counter, or otherwise tough to take in bulk. Rational choice theory would explain how his choice not to shoplift was based on his assessment of the risk associated with jumping behind the counter and potentially fighting off employees in order to grab teeth color enhancers. The theory predicts physical and cultural barriers that make theft difficult will dissuade most shoplifters.

The Theft Triangle. The triangle theory helps retailers operationalize the rational choice concept by describing what offenders consider before 38_copy_copyacting, including

  • A perceived motive or need,
  • Perceived access/availability, and
  • A low perception of personal risk.

According to the theft triangle, offenders usually believe all or some of the three components are favorable to them before stealing. Consider Joey and the whitening strips again in terms of these three components:

1. Perceived motive—The shoplifter needs fast cash to support a drug habit. He knows he can readily convert the teeth bleaching strips to cash through a nearby fence, so his motive is in place.

2. Perceived access/availability—The shoplifter perceives availability of the item insofar as the teeth strips are in the store, but his access is limited by their position behind the counter, so this component is not fully in place.

3. Low perception of personal risk—In this example, because the strips are so closely guarded by the checkout staff at the store, the shoplifter’s perception of risk is high. Therefore, he decides not to steal.

However, change the environmental circumstances in this example, and the outcome could be different. Perhaps the whitening strips are available in the aisle, such that the shoplifter would perceive them as both available and accessible. Furthermore, imagine the aisle is located far from the eyes of any employee or LP staff member, and the shelves in the aisle are high enough to block anyone from seeing him. Finally, imagine the shoplifter looks up to the ceiling and sees no or non-credible CCTV coverage. All of these factors reduce the shoplifters’s perception of risk. In this scenario, all three elements of the theft triangle are in place, so the shoplifter steals the tooth strips.

CPTED. Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) further builds on the theft triangle by specifically addressing the built environment. In the example of the strips, we see how manipulation of just a few key “cues” in the environment, like employees, product placement, visibility, and cameras, can impact a shoplifter’s psychology, assessment of opportunity and risk, and decision to steal.

However, little empirical research has examined how CPTED can help retail LP through store design. Part of the problem has been a lack of information about just how shoplifters perceive the retail environment, and which elements within it best convey that all-important message of high risk, low opportunity. Retailers and LP managers need to know how to increase shoplifters’ perception of risk in the store and minimize their perception of theft opportunity.

Past Research on Professional Shoplifters

Fortunately, research conducted by the University of Florida’s Loss Prevention Research Team (LPRT) and the LPRC has focused on this very issue. One such project involved an analysis of over twenty in-depth, structured interviews with active professional shoplifters. The research team identified the specific elements of a store interior that shoplifters consider most risky when deciding whether or not to steal. This research and others has led to the development of a set of best-practice suggestions for retailers and loss prevention staff aiming to reduce shoplifting crime through store design.

Improve Natural Surveillance. Natural surveillance is a CPTED technique referring to the ability for everyday users, such as shoppers, vendors, and employees, to visually monitor the store with no extra effort. The term “natural” means these measures are integrated into the store’s design. For instance, long, wide aisles placed in direct eyesight of the employees in a checkout area promotes natural surveillance. (This is opposed to formal surveillance like CCTV, which will be discussed later.)

One of the biggest concerns shoplifters cited in this study was that they do not like being seen or spotted. By increasing the “eyes on the stuff” that employees, shoppers, and casual users provide, a shoplifter’s sense of risk is also increased dramatically.

To promote natural surveillance, loss prevention managers and retailers should aim to improve lines of sight throughout the store, making sure employees can see as much of the store as possible from where they usually work. Employee positioning should be coordinated with high-theft areas of the store, either by moving high-loss items to areas where employees can easily see them, or by setting up an employee in a vulnerable part of the store. The mere visual presence of employees and the knowledge that these employees can see what’s going on is often enough to give a shoplifter the feeling of being watched—an important deterrent for shoplifting.

The concept of “being watched” relative to theft deterrence was indicated in another recent study. In this study, people in an office were sold bagels on the honor system, where they put money in a little container if they took a bagel. The study found that people were more likely to pay for their bagels when an image of two eyes was posted above the bagels. In this case, just a picture seemed to change behavior, which suggests how effective the very idea of “being watched” can be.

“If somebody’s watching, I’ll go over and buy my popcorn or whatever and leave.”

Lowered shelf and fixture heights–less than 60 inches tall, for instance–improve natural surveillance, as do wide, clear aisles, strategic placement of mirrors, and ample lighting.

Another CPTED strategy, territoriality, also plays into natural surveillance. Territoriality is based on the idea people are more likely to guard a space when it has some clear boundary definition. In retail design, these boundaries are marked by changes in flooring, ceiling height, lighting, and color and are often used to distinguish one area of the store from another. However, these visual boundaries also subtly assist employees in protecting spaces, since the employee is able to “see” their territory and (knowingly or not) guard that particular space against crime.

Natural surveillance has the added benefit of improving customer service, since an ability to see more store activity also provides employees the opportunity to spot and service customers in need or note an empty product area.

“A blind spot…like where the cameras can’t see you…[the local Walmart] has a blind spot actually in the filing cabinets. They also have a blind spot in their hunting goods. I can see a blind spot and there’s rarely anybody walking through there…Like, it’s not full coverage of the store.”

Optimize CCTV. Data indicate carefully deployed and used CCTV is one of the more effective anti-theft technologies. But what many do not realize is how closely CCTV and store layout need to be integrated in order for the system to work at maximum effectiveness. This means eliminating blind spots or dead zones, which are those areas unmonitored by staff or cameras.

Obviously, all high-risk products can’t be prominently displayed. One single blind spot can put an entire store at risk. Offenders learn about hiding spots through word of mouth and already know to use that area to conceal or tamper with products. To get the most out of CCTV, retailers and LP managers must make sure coverage is complete, and not hindered by glare, high fixtures, signs, or other poorly placed objects blocking the camera views.

“A uniform is a good deterrent. Like if I was walking in a store and I had stolen stuff and I come back to an exit and I see like four uniform guys that weren’t there before, I’ll dump the stuff instantly.”

Support Store and LP Employee Efforts. Store and LP staff often know a store’s layout better than anyone else—the “hot spots,” the hiding spots, and the easy getaways. Therefore, store layout and design should be geared to support both selling and asset protection efforts to the fullest extent possible.

Territoriality and boundary definition will help staff guard particular areas. The entry/exit point is ground zero for shoplifting offenders and should be designed to optimize surveillance and guardianship efforts. You may consider prominently positioning uniformed guards or monitors in high-risk stores. Several interviewed shoplifters in the LPRT study [one quoted above] noted they did not steal around uniformed personnel.

“You know that what you’re doing is dangerous and anything can happen, so you want to know exactly what you want. The quicker you’re in and out of the store, the less you’re seen…that’s if they’re watching you.”

Control Exit Access and Provide Exit Screening. Easy exit after a theft is a major factor in any offender’s assessment of a store’s opportunity and risk. Exits that enable a speedy getaway appeal to would-be shoplifters, while complicated, well-guarded exits are perceived as risky.

Several exit design elements convey “danger” to offenders. Indirect access to the exit doors is better than a wide, clear aisle straight to the outside. This makes a quick walk or full run out the door more difficult. Many stores “complicate” the exit with small displays of low-cost impulse items or cue lines. Other stores use designated exit doors so people cannot go out the entry doors. Some very high-risk stores install rails at the exit point making users walk through channels before leaving the space. All of these design strategies slow down the actual exit process, making it easier to apprehend criminals, and making the act of shoplifting seem riskier to the offender.

Exit screening is another way to deter shoplifters. The physical presence of a store “greeter” or receipt checker is a red flag to a potential offender. Screening is one more obstacle the shoplifter must overcome in order to escape. However, design plays a crucial role in the effectiveness of an exit screener. If it’s possible to leave the store through an exit far from an employee, the deterrent effect is reduced. Checkout aisles and exit doors should be designed with the idea of an exit screener in mind, funneling users to slowly pass a screener before reaching the exit.

“Sometimes you go into a place and you just don’t have the accessibility to some of the products you want because they’re behind the counters or locked up. That’s a big thing. I mean, at that point you walk out and go someplace else. Deterrents work. They do.”

Harden Targets. Another frequently cited shoplifting deterrent is what’s referred to as hardened targets, meaning items whose accessibility is limited due to such devices as cords, cables, and glass cases. Shoplifters almost unanimously agree that locked items are rarely worth the theft effort.

However, operations and LP staff know that locked items are also harder to sell. Therefore, it is imperative that target hardening be limited, usually for the highest-priced, highest-theft items. The task of designing devices that both harden products while providing easy access to customers is an ongoing priority for many retailers and their vendor partners.

Keep in mind target hardening exists on multiple levels:

  • Store Level—Each store will have areas that are “safer” or more protected/visible, than others. These are the areas where the highest loss items should be positioned; away from immediate access to exits, in direct line of sight of employees, and covered by obvious CCTV
  • Fixture Level I—Target hardening on the fixture level is not always about impenetrable glass cases. Some retailers have developed attractive, alluring fixtures that serve the dual function of highlighting and displaying an item while also attaching it firmly to the store. Design plays a large role in how the customer reacts to the hardened target.
  • Fixture Level II—Designers and LP staff should ensure the method of securing the item is flexible and ergonomic, allowing legitimate customers to touch, feel, and test and item while it is still attached to the fixture. These fixtures should also be planned in conjunction with employee stationing or customer service, adding another layer of product protection while also assisting with customer service.
  • Fixture Level III—Theft triangle theory predicts fixtures that make loud noises, force two-handed selection, and slow selection rates will deter many thieves.

Future Research

From an empirical research standpoint, retailers and researchers are just getting started. Future studies need to measure the effects of fixture height, aisle width, manning and visibility levels, and lighting and signage variations in conjunction with experiments, larger offender samples, lab testing, and statistical modeling to provide retailers with investment-grade data.

Deterring crime via secure store design is not a turnkey solution. Each store and even department within a store is different and poses a unique set of LP challenges. With the help of research, asset protection design principles should be incorporated at the most preliminary stages of store design and carried through construction and management of the store.

In addition, store design should evolve with the store location’s evolving needs. Surrounding crime risk varies as does a store’s vulnerability to that risk. In essence, to really work, asset protection must be treated as the priority it is. Keeping key merchandise available for purchase is critical to the store’s success.

This article was first published in 2007 and updated October 16, 2017.

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