Opportunity Makes the Crime

“Location, location, location” has been used at least since the 1920s to make the key point about property-value differences. The same goes for sales success and, in our case, crime risk. I’ve mentioned before I’m an environmental criminologist, and in the criminology/sociology field “environmental crime” is relatively rare. Most social scientists study criminality, in other words, why some humans are deviant, some worse than others, and why some offend through adulthood rather than aging out of crime like most.

We know multiple factors lead to crime, and our environmental criminological focus concerns actual crime, how and why crime events occur. We think more about why people commit an actual offense than why they might become a criminal. We want to better understand why and how people go from thinking about doing something wrong to initiating their attempt and why some even progress their attempts despite multiple obstacles.

Multiple interacting factors explain criminality and real crime events including varying genomics, socialization, life circumstances, and finally, perceived crime opportunities. All help predict not only criminality but also actual crime attempts. And it’s the last factor—crime opportunity—that environmental criminologists work on. We believe situational opportunities are the center of gravity. No matter how motivated an offender might be, they can’t commit a crime without the opportunity to do so. And further, we really can’t shape the initial variables, but we can do something to affect crime opportunity.

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Opportunity is perceived differently by different people, but most offenders tend to gravitate toward very attractive and vulnerable targets rather than the opposite. So our protective efforts concentrate on identifying the most attractive physical and digital assets (those most desirable, exposed to threats, and vulnerable) and then making those assets or places tougher to steal or attack. We then increase guardianship, so would-be offenders perceive they’ll most likely be caught if they initiate an attempt. Or we clearly let criminals know their theft or attack will not be worth it; they will be denied any benefit from their attempt. This process is called situational crime prevention (SCP), and SCP is how environmental criminology improves crime reduction. And all University of Florida (UF) and Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC) crime and loss control innovation and research is grounded in SCP principles.


UF and LPRC researchers have now compiled more than 300 loss prevention and asset protection (LP) research projects for their over seventy retail chain members, with a lot of learnings. But the problem for LPRC now, like most entities, is getting the flow of evidence-based tactics to the practitioners, corporate planners, and field personnel—in short, usable action guides that enable them to practically use research findings to make a real difference. We must transfer learnings to action. In most science fields, this is called “science2practice,” or S2P.

S2P is a major 2019 focus for the LPRC and is overseen by the LPRC Board of Advisors S2P Committee headed by Paul Jaeckle, vice president of asset protection at Meijer. It plays out in these channels:

  • LPRC Knowledge Center (KC). Soon to be an amazing app, the keyword searchable KC contains over 300 reports briefs, fifty-plus webinars, twenty podcasts, working group call recap notes, hundreds of offender interview video clips, and more.
  • Webinars and CrimeScience Podcasts. The LPRC generates monthly webinars and biweekly podcasts on emerging topics and research results.
  • Big Six Events. LPRC starts with Kick-Off in New York City following the NRF Big Show, then holds the LPRC Board of Advisors IGNITE planning meeting in March, then conducts an antitheft summit, a supply chain protection summit, and a violent-crime summit. The LPRC community then wraps up with the annual Impact Conference in October.
  • Weekly LPRC Connect eNewsletter. This weekly news brief highlights new research and upcoming working groups calls, introduces new LPRC members and their working group engagement plans, and describes coming events.
  • Working Groups. All seven LPRC working groups bring together multiple retail chains, solution partners, and scientists monthly to address specific problems, propose solution research, and share experiences and project results.

Winning with People

Speaking of S2P, by mid-2019 LPRC will stand up a new working group termed the Workplace Performance Working Group to facilitate better employee on-the-job performance for members. Dishonest and unsafe behavior will be key action-research targets, but our vision is to help our members create a competitive advantage for their businesses through people. They can use research evidence to foster company spaces where everyone’s best work is encouraged, enabled, expected, and recognized. More to come on this new working group.

Featured Research

Retail product theft, and fear of theft, frequently results in sales-suppression via defensive merchandising (in other words, removing live products from the shelf or impeding self-selection) and is still a chronic, critical issue with numerous popular retail product categories. Retailers want to maintain sales and customer satisfaction by sustained on-shelf availability. And a large part of that mission is cost-effectively maximizing theft deterrence without running shoppers to online or physical competitors.


Convincing a motivated thief not to steal a coveted item is difficult at best and often requires cotreatments or multiple measures to consistently work. Think about multimeasure advertising that combines radio, TV, online, and in-store ads. Same with medicine where radiation might make a lesion more susceptible to chemical agents, some of which kill the tumor, while others activate the natural immune system. Further, mood, exercise, and diet can make the system more effective and recoverable.

Same thing in our stores, distribution centers, and offices. One piece of an effort rarely works, or at least for long. We need to get our deterrent or disruptive message to the ideating offender, right to the action part of their brain. So we prime the pump-we prep them to perceive, understand, and favorably respond to our countermeasures.

It’s for this reason you might note an emphasis on online messaging, layered and changing signage, and other priming measures.

The Project

A carefully designed survey was conducted to assess whether three in-store sign versions indicating a person is in an active surveillance area would be effective at deterring theft while not disrupting a customer’s shopping experience. The signs presented in this exploratory research can be seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1

All data was collected in Gainesville, Florida, from an LPRC StoreLab, an operating retail store used for systematic testing. To further understand signage deterrent “dosing” characteristics (meaning how the sign should look, where it should be placed, how many should be deployed, and how to keep the message fresh) and store visitor perceptions and responses, the LPRC gathered offender and customer feedback about signage in the purposefully selected StoreLab location.

First, thirteen active or former offenders were shown each of the three signs and asked what message each sign sent to them, if any version sent a stronger message than the others, and if any sign component was offensive. Offenders were then asked how they would react to the sign if it were placed near an item they often intended to steal.

In the second phase of this study, twenty-three customers were intercepted at the entrance and were shown all three notifications. Customers were asked the same series of questions. A primary interest for this study is if the presence of the sign would change shoppers’ store perceptions or shopping behavior.

Both offenders and customers were also asked if they had any suggestions to make the signs more noticeable, understandable, and a more credible threat to a would-be shoplifter.

Results Summary

Customers and offenders both found the sign that excluded “thieves” to be the most noticeable. Many commented the largeness of the word “beware” on the signs was the best way to grab their attention. Over 50 percent of shoplifters indicated they would either go to another store or not steal anything if those signs were present in an area where they were trying to steal. They also noted that most shoplifters don’t consider themselves “thieves,” which lessens the impact of signs with that word.

The presence of these signs was welcomed by most shoppers interviewed. Over 85 percent of respondents indicated they had no issue with any of the signs. Over 80 percent of customers surveyed thought posting signage would be an effective way of reducing theft. And 70 percent of customers surveyed also felt more secure by having these signs posted in-store.

Many customers noted unsolicited the link between increased theft and increased prices, so many customers supported signage as an antitheft measure. One surveyed customer indicated the presence of these signs might adversely affect their shopping behavior, and two more said the sign did generate some concerns but wouldn’t affect their shopping, but none could offer an explanation as to why.

Our UF and LPRC teams continue to work online, outdoor, and indoor priming signage-dosing options including symbology, colors, size, unit placement, numbers per store, constant slight changes to maintain freshness, and aural and visual priming cues to boost the treatment’s noticeability and credibility.

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