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Shoplifting Methods and Designing Out Crime

Booster bags, or so-called “magic bags,” continue to be one of the more popular shoplifting methods used by professional thieves. These foil-lined carriers work because the lining prevents the alarms actually connecting with the tag when passing through scanners. Despite penalties imposed on thieves for going equipped with these bags, and despite the best efforts of detectives as well as technology to spot magic bag use, the foil-lined bag remains a useful tool of the would-be shoplifter.

No wonder the National Retail Security Survey indicates that shoplifting is still a significant problem; the rate of shoplifting as a percentage of inventory shrinkage reached 36.5 percent on average in 2016. Similarly, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) Retail Crime Survey (2015) indicates that the average value of customer theft also rose by almost 28 percent because “retailers in our sample estimated that 56 percent of customer theft went undetected.”

Shoplifting Methods from the Queen of Thieves

I became interested in shoplifting when writing Gone Shopping—The Story of Shirley Pitts, Queen of Thieves (Bloomsbury 2012, first issued by Penguin in 1996). I found out that my subject had spent 50 years shoplifting with few arrests, because she intelligently exploited shopping environments that did not fully anticipate criminal opportunism. Shirley Pitts was taught her trade as a school child by Alice Diamond and the Forty Thieves from South London. Shirley was introduced to them by her father, who was a burglar.

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In the late 1940s, when rationing increased scarcity and demand, the Forty Thieves employed young Shirley as a decoy to wrong-foot shop assistants. They created distraction scripts involving her. One of their favorite “crime scripts,” as described in the afterword of my book, was the pretext of “buying” clothes for a child. They dressed Shirley up in a school uniform, complete with a straw boater hat with ribbons down the back, to play her part. In the shops, this girl gang appeared to act almost theatrically to measure clothes against the apparently innocent schoolgirl, which concealed the fact they were stealing while the unsuspecting shop assistants looked on.

The account from Shirley about being a prolific adult shoplifter who conned retailers and shop assistants by constantly changing her appearance, or being part of a gang of thieves who “steamed” shops to steal, or who used numerous shoplifting methods and crime scripts to steal, would be hilarious as stories of “a vanished way of life”– if such techniques were obsolete. Apparently, this is not the case and similar scams are repeated in many contemporary crime reports.

Shoplifting is often viewed by professionals and amateur thieves as a low-risk versus high-reward business. As Martin Gill of Perpetuity Research and Consultancy International has documented, many shops and stores do not do enough to dissuade the rational criminal, who scans every environment for an opportunity. Gill discusses the unspoken questions a thief considers before making a decision to steal, which is summarized below from his 2007 publication, Shop Thieves on Shop Theft: Lessons for Retailers:

Why do I choose that store to steal from? On entering the store, does this look easy?
  • On searching for goods to steal, can I avoid attracting attention?
On stealing the goods, can I avoid being seen?
On getting away, can I be sure no one is following me and no one will apprehend me?
  • On selling the stolen goods, how will I get my money and avoid being traced?

Of course, common changing room and numerous other shoplifting methods have been anticipated and/or addressed in many retail contexts by retrofitting Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) strategies and/or by Problem-Orientated Policing (POP) and other security approaches. Clearly, the shoplifting problem is not just linked to the motivation of thieves, but the fact that the design of some retail environments is complicit because it makes it easy for the thief.

Design by “Thinking like a Thief”

Architects as well as interior, product, and packaging designers are rarely taught about shoplifting methods or how to avoid creating criminogenic environments by “thinking like a thief” as well as a user. Consequently, few of the designed fittings in the store that staff and customers use every day, have benefited from crime prevention thinking.

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To successfully design against shoplifting takes a committed designer who is aware of the fact that there are many competing objectives linked to retail environments between crime prevention and other business requirements. These include attracting the right staff, maintaining aesthetic appeal/brand awareness, addressing company values, and developing and positing marketing materials to maximize profits.

Perhaps the clearest example of how these competing drivers operate can be seen from the way self-scanners were introduced by supermarket chains to increase speed and reduce staffing costs at checkouts. Shoplifting was considered, but few effective measures were put in place.

According to the 2012 article “3 Ways to Stop Theft at the Self-Checkout” on, shoplifting at self-scanning points has been recorded to be five times higher than is usual, and has generated serious losses because thieves use their ingenuity to avoid paying. There are numerous scams that occur, from passing through without paying and bar code switching to fake weight strategies, such as pretending to weigh and pay for vegetables while sneaking through more expensive items—a crime script that could be avoided if the fraudulent opportunities self-scanning brings had been anticipated. Some retailers consequently now think the cost of theft from self-scanning is too high and are abandoning it.

Self-scanning seems to mean that the stores lose profit; customers, who appear to benefit from conversation and engagement with shop assistants lose community; while those who are desperate to find work lose opportunity.

- Digital Partner -

Even ECOBAGS, which are designed to help supermarkets become more sustainable, have also been found to accommodate shoplifting. Burlap or reusable bags created to reduce plastic consumption are also a useful aid to shoplifters. They provide an alibi during some crime scripts where the shoplifter can pretend that the unpaid goods in their bags (to be stolen from the store) have been purchased on a previous shopping trip. Some thieves work with an accomplice and a bag, after buying legitimate goods, to use the receipt as protection to enable them to feel safe in stealing the same items again and again.

Investment in Design Education Can Deter Shoplifting

One of the reasons why I enjoy documenting and visualizing crime scams is that I teach designers to design against many types of crime. If you want to involve designers in preventing crime through canny design, it is important that you first make sure they understand precisely how thieves do it.

Design can deliver the sort of creativity needed in our stores that will look good to the eye, increase spend at the checkout, and work to thwart thieves. This is unlikely to be delivered by discourses from crime prevention, security consultants, or short-term retail thinking or technological reliance. The problems are complex and competing objectives often need to be reconciled and addressed.

Design can provide a paradigm shift, but designers need to be given equal respect as crime science or security consultants. Design is not the bit that should be added on at the end of the process. To find robust solutions to shoplifting, designers and what Tim Brown in his book Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation calls “design thinking” needs to be part of the whole process so designers can identify the multiple drivers and do their best to address them.

To achieve this, more investment in design education is needed by the retail industry that could make a difference in the long term to reduce the growing problem of shoplifting. New courses, curriculum, and design prizes as well as jobs are needed to encourage design schools and tutors that it is worth “having a go.”

This article was originally published in LP Magazine EU in 2013 and was updated March 21, 2018.

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