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An Ounce of Prevention: 5D Retail Theft Prevention across the Five Zones

In February of 1735, an anonymous author wrote a letter to The Pennsylvania Gazette titled “On Protection of Towns from Fire.” The letter discussed how volunteer fire departments might be organized and resourced. However, the author started by listing the ways townspeople could prevent fires, such as being careful when carrying hot coals around the house or regularly sweeping chimneys.

This article is famous today for two reasons. First, we now know that Benjamin Franklin wrote the letter and anonymously submitted it to his own newspaper. Second, Franklin used the now‑famous phrase “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” for the first time in the letter. Franklin’s argument was that, in the worst possible scenario, all the fire departments in the city would not be able to extinguish a very large fire. Therefore, the townspeople needed to do all they could to prevent fires.

Today, retailers are faced with the worst possible scenario—a metaphorical retail theft “fire”—and cannot just react to it. Retail offenders are becoming more brazen and aggressive, and retailers cannot rely on the criminal justice system to address the problem. Yes, many retailers have reduced or eliminated in-store apprehensions. However, retailers have abandoned reactive strategies because, in many cases, even if they apprehend offenders

  • Law enforcement will not respond or fully investigate retail crimes,
  • Prosecutors will not fully prosecute crimes, and
  • Corrections systems will not incapacitate or rehabilitate retail offenders.

It is clear, in today’s climate, an ounce of loss prevention is worth much more than criminal justice cures—cures that simply aren’t available.

- Digital Partner -

Preventing Retail Theft

Clearly it is possible to prevent retail theft. If theft prevention wasn’t possible then we would all be out of a job! However, loss prevention teams will be more effective when their strategies and programs are built using the best available data, theories, and research. Of course this also means that loss prevention teams must invest in understanding their problems as well as tracking them over time.

At the Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC), there are a few key concepts that guide the way we think about crime prevention, including the “Five Ds of Retail Crime and Loss Prevention,” the “Five Zones of Influence,” and others. All these ideas can help loss prevention practitioners, managers, and executives think critically about the problems they face before investing in costly strategies and solutions that may not work for their specific problems. The purpose of this article is to apply 5D loss prevention across the fives zones of influence. The first step is to explain these concepts.

5D Retail Crime and Loss Prevention

Criminologists and security researchers have developed several ways of thinking about and solving crime problems. The LPRC’s 5D Retail Crime and Loss Prevention concept refers to broad strategies that focus on five tasks, including:

  1. Deterring offenders,
  2. Diverting individuals from crime,
  3. Detecting offenses,
  4. Disrupting offenders, and
  5. Documenting offenses.

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One important aspect of the 5D approach is that three of the tasks are “person-focused” (diverting individuals and deterring and disrupting offenders) and two are data-focused or intelligence-focused (detecting and documenting offenses). To effectively prevent theft, retailers need to deter and disrupt offenders’ plans and attempts and divert individuals from committing crimes. However, retailers also need to know about their failures and learn from them. If retailers do not track where, when, why, and how they are failing (experiencing losses), they can never begin to truly understand what they need to do to improve their loss prevention program.

Deterring Offenders. Nevertheless, the first D refers to the process of convincing offenders that it is not in their best interest to steal from a retailer. This can be achieved according to the principles and technique of “situational crime prevention.” Situational crime prevention is based on rational choice theory that suggests that humans are (mostly) rational creatures—meaning people will offend when the benefits of crime outweigh the consequences or costs of crime. Traditionally, the principles of situational crime prevention have included:

  • Increasing the perceived effort to commit crimes among offenders,
  • Increasing offenders’ perceived risk of committing crimes, and
  • Reducing the perceived benefits of committing crimes among offenders.

By manipulating the perceived risk, effort, and rewards of crime, retailers can deter crimes. However, retailers must always ensure that, in their attempt to prevent retail theft, they are not also preventing sales. Nevertheless, we will discuss real-world examples of these strategies later in the article.

Diverting Individuals from Crime. The second D refers to addressing risk and protective factors among employees and members in the community to reduce the likelihood that they will engage in crime, including retail crimes. This includes training employees on de‑escalation tactics, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) training on effective conflict resolution, education on the impact of retail theft, and possibly even exercises and policies that strengthen bonds between retailers and their employees. However, retailers can also support community prevention and diversion among at-risk youths. Research shows that evidence-based prevention and diversion can keep youths from pursuing a life of crime.

- Digital Partner -

Detecting Offenses. The third D refers to detecting the when, where, and what of a retail theft. Retailers must have the proper intelligence-gathering infrastructure in place so that they can better understand the nature of their problems, and especially the distribution of risks and vulnerabilities throughout their organization. However, offense detection is also critical for the last two Ds—disrupting and documenting theft incidents.

Disrupting Offenders. The fourth D refers to tactics and strategies that can upset offenders’ plans, especially those who are not deterred by other means including organized retail crime (ORC) offenders. For example, some ORC offenders will not be deterred by traditional deterrents, yet, if their ability to fence goods was eliminated, they might stop shoplifting, or at least reduce the frequency with which they shoplift. Alternatively, retailers can support effective investigations and prosecutions of key members in organized crime rings.

Documenting Offenses. The fifth and final D refers to keeping track of known incidents when they occur. To build intelligence, retailers must document offenses so they can better understand the most common sources of loss and address these. Losses can be due to specific threats or vulnerabilities. These can only be identified if retailers are collecting information regarding the “what, where, how, when, and who” of retail theft. In other words, retailers must know what items were stolen; where, when, and how did it happen; and who did the offense involve? Finally, retailers can only map the risk landscape if they are effectively documenting where offenses are happening and analyzing this data. This enables retailers to use the appropriate and most cost-efficient solutions and strategies at the highest risk places.

Identifying Aiming Points for 5D Retail Crime and Loss Prevention

Here at the LPRC, we like to discuss opportunities for prevention in terms of the “Five Zones of Influence”— the five key areas over which retailers have influence. The Five Zones of Influence are helpful when thinking about preventing retail crime for two reasons.

First, even though every incident occurs in a specific place and involves a specific target, offenses always occur within a broader context. We must understand the context in which crimes occur, because understanding these contexts can help us understand risks, threats, and vulnerabilities.

Second, as the name implies, the Five Zones of Influence framework helps us think about all the opportunities for prevention. It helps us identify “aiming points” where we can intervene to prevent retail crimes. Ultimately, any prevention effort is based on the idea that there is a causal sequence of events, that produces an outcome. By addressing the causes of retail crime, we can prevent them from occurring.

The figure above depicts the Five Zones of Influence, which range from zone 5 that contains all others to zone 1—the specific target or asset involved in an offense. In other words, each of the zones are nested within the others. Whenever retailers attempt to solve retail crime and loss problems, they should think about which of the five Ds they can focus on in each of the areas. There are opportunities to deter, divert, detect, disrupt, and document in each of the five zones.

Zone 1

Specific Interior Points or Assets. Zone 1 refers to the precise location of a specific target or asset. It could be a person that’s shopping, a store employee, or merchandise on a shelf. As we research solutions, we want to think about what makes the red or criminal shopper’s goal of stealing, intimidating, or defrauding less desirable.

Zone 1 product protection solutions could be anything that touches an asset, such as a spider wrap around a box or a security shelf fixture. The LPRC team uses the “See-Get‑Fear” model to deter offending. According to this model, a deterrent will only be effective if offenders (1) see the deterrent, (2) understand its capabilities, and (3) fear its use or in other words believe it is a credible threat to them. A credible threat is one that increases the risk or effort associated with committing a crime.

For example, if a retailer is using an electronic article surveillance (EAS) system, they would want offenders to (1) see the tags, (2) understand that the tags are for theft detection, and (3) fear that there will be a negative consequence if they steal an item protected by the EAS system. Unfortunately, in our interviews with retail offenders, many offenders do not believe that retailers will respond if an alarm goes off.

One caveat is that there are times when we do not want offenders to see solutions because the intention is not to deter. For example, we do not want offenders to see covert surveillance systems. However, this is because covert systems are intended for detecting and documenting offenses so that the footage gathered can be used to successfully investigate and prosecute retail offending.

The solutions discussed above may deter individuals, however, retailers must also document, detect, divert, and disrupt offenses whenever possible. For example, retailers can use technologies that identify when an individual enters an area, dwell in an area, and when they remove products from shelves. All these technologies can promote more effective detection and documentation of theft events. Furthermore, solution providers continue to develop technologies that detect theft in Zone 1 using behavioral signatures, including technologies that rely on artificial intelligence and computer vision. Nevertheless, detecting offending in Zone 1 will be key to documenting offenses.

Retailers can also disrupt offenders in Zone 1. For example, some leaders in loss prevention have used a strategy of regularly changing product protection solutions to “throw offenders off.” For example, offenders might become accustomed to a specific product protection solution over time, and they may learn how to defeat that solution. By changing the solutions, this may disorient offenders and make it more difficult for them to offend within retail stores. Unfortunately, this strategy of rotating product protection solutions has not been examined in rigorous research.

Zone 2

Specific Interior Category Areas. Zone 2 refers to the approximate space around the target. This could be a product section or a store aisle. There is an opportunity again to create the impression of control. A common solution used for these areas is enhanced public view monitors (ePVM), but it can also be the design of a particular area of a store. For example, Zone 2 solutions would include strategically placing some highly valuable products behind a counter in a department. However, we could also use signage to make offenders aware of deterrents, such as “recording in progress” signs. This helps ensure that retailers “see” and “understand” the deterrents used in retail stores.

While all of these can deter crime, these technologies can also be used to disrupt offending. For example, retailers can make slight changes to the display on ePVMs within departments—if a retailer uses green bounding boxes around individuals on ePVM displays, they might vary the colors and use red, yellow, and green for different individuals. Research with offenders indicates that introducing this variation can “throw offenders off,” disorient them, and make them think that a new solution has been introduced. Of course, as mentioned earlier, simply introducing new analytics will also disrupt offenders’ plans.

Finally, in Zone 2, individuals can be diverted from crime with other anti-crime messaging. For example, retailers could include messaging that stealing is wrong and will be prosecuted. Alternatively, retailers could post messages in a department that reminds guests how retail theft affects product availability or the overall wellbeing of the community. Theoretically, reinforcing messages like these should reduce crime, however, more research needs to be done on a large scale to determine how different types of anti-crime messaging affects crime over time. This anti-crime approach can also be used throughout the other zones of influence.

Zone 3

Store Entry and Overall Interior. Zone 3 includes the entry and exit points, as well as the store interior. We want to focus on transition areas where people enter and exit. The goal is to create an impression of control as soon as guests enter the door. On one hand, we want offenders to know that there are certain risks if they commit crime—that the retailer has control of the situation. On the other hand, we want legitimate guests to know the store is a safe place in which to shop. Zone 3 solutions include EAS, CCTV systems, and the store layout itself.

CCTV systems and EAS have been a key part of detecting and documenting offenses for a long time. These technologies are especially helpful for removing a reliance on human reporting. Humans are prone to errors; therefore, by relying on technological integration, retailers can capture video at the time of an alarm, and then use footage from other areas in the store to document how a retail theft was committed, identify all the products involved in the theft, and identify the individuals involved.

There are also approaches, such as RFID and EAS, that can enable retailers to track which products are exiting the store. If retailers know which products were sold, and which products left the store, they can compare the products that were sold and the products that exited the store and detect greater retail theft. This technology has the potential to capture a much greater number of retail theft events than many other technologies because retailers have item-level insights into the movement of products from a store.

Zone 4

Parking Lot Entry, Parking Lot Interior, and Store Curtilage. Zone 4 represents the parking area and curtilage of a retail store or supply chain facility. Once again, we want to project an impression of control to all guests in Zone 4. Solutions for this area could be exterior cameras, patrol vehicles, security guards, or highly visible parking lot surveillance towers.

All these solutions can help retailers deter, divert, detect, disrupt, and document retail theft. For example, the presence of these technologies might increase offenders’ perceived risk of offending. If offenders believe they are more likely to be apprehended or identified during the commission of retail theft, they may reconsider committing crimes at the location. Of course, all these technologies can also be used to detect offending and document it—this will help retailers understand the threat and risk landscape and refine their loss prevention strategies and merchandise protection program.

Some of these solutions can help retailers divert individuals from crime. For example, if a guard detects a juvenile offender, then the retailer might offer the juvenile diversion programming. Research shows that evidence-based diversion programs for juvenile offenders and first-time offenders can divert these populations from a life of crime. In fact, some retailers work with the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP) to divert first-time offenders from a life of crime by providing them with prevention programming. Of course, this is an approach that applies to other zones of influence.

Zone 5

The Surrounding Community Context and the Cyber Domain. Zone 5 includes the areas beyond the parking lot as well as online networks. There are many opportunities for crime and loss prevention in Zone 5, even though it is an easy zone to overlook. This may be because retailers have far less control over what happens beyond their locations and the immediate areas surrounding them.

Nevertheless, there are many opportunities for retailers to divert individuals from criminal lifestyles, and many retailers currently do this through community engagement and charitable programming. On one hand, retailers collaborate with law enforcement to deter, detect, and document retail theft. However, retailers can also disrupt offenders in Zone 5 by disrupting illicit marketplaces. As mentioned previously, if retailers assist law enforcement in shutting down local fences, the demand for stolen goods can be reduced.

The same thing is true on a larger scale—brick-and‑mortar retailers can work with e-commerce retailers to reduce offenders’ opportunities to sell stolen goods. From a situational crime prevention perspective, this reduces the benefits of retail crimes by reducing opportunities for offenders to personally profit from retail crimes.

Of course, organizations devote considerable resources to the communities in which they operate, and work with local juveniles and adults to address problems related to crime, delinquency, substance use, mental health, and homelessness. For example, many of the major home improvement retailers are committed to reducing homelessness. Similarly, other retailers work with local organizations to help at-risk youths avoid turning to crime. Others commit resources to diverting the mentally ill from the criminal justice system by connecting them with local social service providers who can address their underlying needs.

The cyber realm is another fruitful avenue for detecting and documenting retail crimes and identifying prolific offenders. There is a wealth of information on social media, chat services, and other online platforms that can be monitored. This can provide retailers with valuable information about local offenders, as well as networks of offenders, which can be used for investigations.

Finally, there are many organizations that promote collaboration, education, and research in Zone 5, such as LP Magazine, the Loss Prevention Foundation, the LPRC, and the major trade organizations. Retailers can collaborate within these organizations, and this can help them improve their ability to effectively deter, divert, detect, disrupt, and document retail theft. Research projects in the LPRC have also helped retailers refine their programs. For example, the LPRC has helped retailers refine the way their associates document crimes, so that the resulting data is much more useful for analysis. All these organizations play an important role in the ongoing development of the profession.

Moving from Reactive to Proactive Strategies

Retailers have many options for preventing retail theft. However, retailers need to think strategically about how and where they devote their loss prevention resources. The LPRC operates from the perspective that loss prevention teams will be more effective if they are focused on deterring and disrupting offending and diverting individuals from crime. However, they must have a long-term focus on continuous improvement. This requires that they collect the necessary data to understand the threat and risk landscape, as well as identify vulnerabilities within their organization. This also means retailers must devote resources to detecting and documenting offenses that are not deterred. There will always be retail offending, therefore, there will always be opportunities for loss prevention teams to improve.

Retailers can use the 5 Ds of retail crime and loss prevention to critically examine and improve their loss prevention programs. However, they must also think about where they focus their efforts. The LPRC’s Five Zones of Influence is a useful typology that can help retailers focus their efforts, from protecting specific targets to achieving broad reductions in crime throughout the communities they serve.

Nevertheless, one thing is clear: the industry needs to invest in much more than an ounce of prevention. Relying on reactive strategies is no longer an option because the fire of retail theft is raging, and any amount of prevention is worth infinitely more than cures that are not available.

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