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Amplifying Risk in Retail Stores

A new 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 ways in which the risk of being caught can be increased or “amplified.”

Retailers are not short on advice as to how they might manage the risk of retail theft in their physical and virtual stores—a considerable consulting and technology-based industry has developed around them offering a plethora of ways to try and achieve this goal. It is easy to see why this has happened. The challenge is considerable, and even the best “solutions” often struggle to maintain their potency—the determined shop thief can be highly adaptive, innovative, and brazen in the approaches taken to relieve retailers of their merchandise.

Understanding the Decision to Steal

Academic research provides detailed insights into how offenders think and, perhaps more importantly, the factors that can act to deter them. It shows that they typically assess the following factors before coming to a decision to steal:

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  • The perceived risk—how likely is it that I will be caught?
  • The relative ease with which the offense can be committed—how easy is it for me to do this?
  • The benefit of undertaking the offense—what will I get from doing this and is it worth it?
  • The likely consequences if they were to be caught—what will happen to me if they catch me?

If they decide that the risk is low, that it is easy to do, well worth the effort, and even if they were to be caught the consequences would be low, then they are highly likely to go ahead and offend. Of these factors, it has been found that the first—the risk of being caught—is often the most important in an offenders’ decision-making process, while consequential punishment is regarded as the least important.

For retailers, it is difficult to impact all four of these factors to the same extent, and some are more susceptible to their control than others. For instance, retailers are certainly able to influence the degree to which an offender feels like they may be caught and how easy it is to carry out a crime. And while they can impact to a degree on reducing the benefit obtained, such as utilizing benefit-denial strategies, it is much more difficult for them to try to impact the punishments associated with crimes against their businesses.

Influencing the Decision to Steal

A series of factors have been identified as ways to try and influence the decision-making of thieves. For instance, many approaches have been developed to try and make it harder for the offender to commit a crime, such as through target-hardening measures—making it less easy for them to take merchandise, limiting their access to highly desirable products by putting them behind a counter, or encouraging them to go elsewhere through the use of attentive store staff.

Other approaches have also been developed to try and increase the extent to which a would-be thief believes they might be caught, such as by increasing surveillance and guardianship and reducing the amount of anonymity they feel they have.

Other ways include trying to reduce the rewards of crime, such as making products less desirable for resale, making it less likely that an offender will be provoked into offending, and also removing any possible excuses they might have to commit an offense.

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Understanding the Shop Thief

Of course there is no such thing as the typical retail thief. Many typologies have been developed trying to capture the characteristics of those who come into retail stores to steal products, described rather euphemistically by some as “non-paying customers” or “those engaged in consumer product acquisition.” For many, a key and somewhat simplistic distinction is often drawn between those who are regarded as rather opportunistic amateurs in nature—having no real predefined plan to steal and taking product when they can, principally for personal use—versus those regarded as professionals—often working with others and mainly stealing products so that they can be converted into cash. Understanding the difference is really very important because research has shown that the impact of interventions designed to stop or minimize theft vary considerably in their effectiveness depending on the type of offender that comes across them.

Well-organized professional thieves often have a very different attitude toward security interventions, regarding them as something of an inconvenience to be managed, whereas opportunistic thieves are much more likely to be deterred. Deterring and indeed detecting professional shop thieves often requires a very different approach, sometimes requiring changes in legislation, as well as having highly trained and dedicated security teams, working frequently with local law enforcement to identify and prosecute offenders, and having a considerable ongoing budget.

On the other hand, the more opportunistic thief is much more concerned about being caught and, while not always acutely aware of security interventions designed to make it more difficult for them to steal items, can be relatively more easily deterred.

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Evidence would suggest that most anti-theft 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.

Interventions and Risk Amplification

Risk amplifiers can come in many different shapes, sizes, approaches, formats, and forms of intervention. Hence, a considerable industry has developed creating a whole host of ways in which to prevent theft. For the most part, they have been designed to try and deter the offender.

Retailers have recognized that deterrence, rather than detection and prosecution, is a much more cost-effective and manageable means to deal with the issue of shop theft. As one grizzled old loss prevention executive once said, “You cannot arrest your way out of a shrinkage problem.” This is particularly the case if the opportunistic model of offending is subscribed to. A significant proportion of people will take advantage of the opportunities presented to them and will only stop when they consider the risk of apprehension to be too high, when it is considered too difficult to undertake, where the perceived reward is too low, or when the consequence of apprehension is deemed too unacceptable.

The idea of risk amplification is particularly important to the first factor—perceived risk of apprehension—if a device or an approach in a store can ensure an elevated sense of this risk, then the offender is much less likely to commit the crime. However, for this to be successful, the offender must first recognize the intervention and secondly understand how it will increase the risk of being caught.

LPM 0716-AFeature 3_Theft2 (1)Approaches to Amplifying Risk and the Evidence to Date

The extensive review undertaken for the ECR Community’s Shrinkage and On-shelf Availability Group found that there is relatively little high-quality published evidence on what interventions work and why. Much of the evidence is really quite old, in many cases dating back twenty and thirty years, making it difficult to equate the findings to the very different context in which retailing now finds itself.

It is also clear that many of the studies focused on evaluating effectiveness have relatively weak methodologies, with a significant number undertaken in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s that would struggle to be published in academic peer-reviewed journals today. Of particular concern is the relatively short data collection periods used, sometimes as little as one or two weeks. As we all know, drawing conclusions from short time periods within dynamic retail environments is unlikely to be representative of what is likely to happen in the longer term.

There is undoubtedly a progression toward the greater use of more sophisticated and nuanced methodologies as seen by the work of Read Hayes, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Florida, and this is to be welcomed. In the busy, complex, and pressured world of retailing, it is inherently difficult if not impossible to try to control for all possible confounding factors when evaluating the impact of a given intervention. Researchers need to adopt approaches that utilize good practices but also understand that it would be unrealistic to adopt such strict standards seen when researchers are, for instance, testing drugs in the medical world.

The review found that there are far more published studies that look more broadly at the impact of various interventions to amplify risk without necessarily focusing on the “does it work” question. And there is much to be learned from them, particularly concerning the views of offenders, customer, and retail staff. As many have said, the question is not always strictly what works, but more often understanding why something does or does not work in a given context. CCTV is a good example of an intervention that has proven very difficult to justify in pure ROI terms when measured against rates of shrinkage. But it has been shown to add value in many other ways, some far harder to measure than others but still deemed important to a retail business, such as staff and customer reassurance.

Risk amplification is but one part of the jigsaw that must be put together to control losses in retail stores. Making would-be offenders feel that there is an elevated risk of being caught is an important piece of the jigsaw, and the review identified three key factors that need to be taken into account when developing an action plan for making this happen.

Making Risk Amplification Visible

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 very obvious to the would-be thief that a product is protected. And where tags are concerned, either they need to be very visible and obvious what they are, or their presence needs to be very 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 utilized with this type of technology to impact perceptions of risk, as well as notions of honesty.

What is very 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 very 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 utilized in the retail space, both as risk amplifiers and safety advocates, and how they 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 LPM 0716-AFeature 3_Theft3effectively. 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 them 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 very 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 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?

The Risk Amplification Landscape

For retailers, the existing evidence base on what works and why in terms of amplifying risk is complicated and largely mixed. Some things seem to work, and others less so. And all interventions are clouded by the context within which they are used. There is little doubt that amplifying risk in the retail store is a very important component of reducing the threat of crime, with success hinging on the capacity of interventions to be visible and credible—both of which are intrinsically linked to delivering an effective shopping experience for the consumer.Risk Amp Report Cover

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

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