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Technology Alone Will Not Solve the Problem

The LPRC regularly receives requests from retailers asking, “What are we not doing that we should be?” or “What are other retailers doing that we should try?” Often, these organizations have some of the most advanced loss prevention programs; they have technology and gadgets galore; and they have ORC teams packed with seasoned veterans, but they are still trying to figure out what they can do.

In this article, I will make two arguments. First, I want to explain why technology will only get us so far. The LPRC has traditionally conducted research on which solutions are effective. Today, retailers are equipped with a lot more evidence than they ever have been and have adopted many of these effective technologies and strategies, yet they are still facing tremendous retail crime problems. Because of this, it has become clear that policy change is necessary to make what retailers do matter.

Second, I will review a variety of things that retailers can do to prevent retail crimes and build cases that will draw the attention of law enforcement and prosecution. I am enthusiastic about many promising and effective technologies. However, it is irresponsible to tout the benefits of these solutions without acknowledging that the benefits are often dependent on the actions of federal and state criminal justice systems. This also means that if retailers want to deploy the right solutions and strategies in the right place, then retailers need to use technologies strategically and according to whether they can expect a criminal justice response.

LP Solutions

The Limits of Technology and Traditional Strategies

When we discuss retail crime prevention at the LPRC, we typically discuss tactics according to three broad offender deterrent strategies, including (1) increasing the risks associated with retail crime, such as the risk of arrest and punishment; (2) increasing the time and effort required to commit retail crimes (i.e., target-hardening); and (3) reducing the benefits associated with retail crimes.

Unfortunately, there is only so much that retailers can do to prevent losses while still achieving their primary mission, which is to serve and satisfy their customers. Because of the current climate and the nature of many retail crime problems, many strategies are either not an option or are likely to have limited effects on the retail crime problem.

For example, retailers can increase both the risk and effort associated with committing a crime by taking a more “hands-on” approach. Every day we see videos of brazen and aggressive thefts where the offender clearly believes that no one is going to intervene during the commission of their crimes, and there will be little or no consequence for their behavior. Unfortunately, contemporary offenders are often willing to injure or even kill employees and guests over merchandise, so it is understandable for retailers to be reluctant to endorse “hands-on” responses to retail offenders.

- Digital Partner -

Second, retailers can use target‑hardening approaches that are effective in preventing retail crimes. However, these measures often have the unfortunate side effect of reducing sales and driving customers to their online competitors. For example, the LPRC surveyed nearly 800 individuals and found that solutions such as locking cases are widely disliked for their inconvenience. In other words, target-hardening strategies may reduce merchandise loss, but they also reduce customer satisfaction and sales.

Finally, retailers can enhance their evidence and intelligence‑gathering capabilities to build cases that will draw the attention of law enforcement and prosecutors. However, retailers must consider: if every retailer improves their capabilities, what will happen? Prosecutors and law enforcement will still have limited resources and will still have to prioritize certain cases over others. The reality is that there is more crime than the criminal justice system can address. This always has been and likely always will be the case, but it appears like this has become more of a problem in recent years.

- Digital Partner -

In other words, technology can only do so much because addressing the retail crime problem will require policy change. Target-hardening is sometimes undesirable because it harms the customers’ experience, and it is unjust for law-abiding citizens to be forced to jump through hoops to buy a razor (and other products) because of the behaviors of a small group of offenders. Furthermore, intervening in crimes in progress can be harmful to everyone involved, but, most importantly, many loss prevention and security solutions require that there be criminal consequences to have any “teeth.”

Effective and Promising Solutions

Retailers face many loss prevention challenges; however, it is the challenges that involve high-frequency, high-impact offenders that require greater focus. One of the few findings that approach being a criminological “law” is that a minority of the offending population is responsible for most criminal incidents; similarly, a minority of locations generate most crimes.

For example, at the LPRC Impact Conference in 2022, a leader at one of the largest retailers in the world reported that approximately 90 percent of known losses were due to approximately 10 percent of known offenders. Similarly, longitudinal studies have repeatedly revealed that approximately 5-10 percent of the offending population is responsible for over 50 percent of the offenses. Because of these findings, the LPRC believes that retailers can achieve the greatest reductions in violence and loss by focusing on high-impact offenders.

However, there are other reasons to target high-impact, high-frequency offenders, and these are best illustrated using the example of locking cases. Many of the most effective loss prevention solutions are inefficient. The efficiency of an LP solution is the extent to which a solution reduces loss given its effect on employees, paying customers, and the retail company itself. Locking showcases may inconvenience some guests to deter a, relatively speaking, small group of offenders. To the extent we can target known offenders, we can avoid disappointing customers and driving them to competitors.

Some solutions that are effective or promising include technologies that enable retailers to identify, detect, and investigate high-impact offenders and offender networks; solutions that leverage the “value exchange” mechanism; intelligence-sharing solutions; trackable and traceable product protection and investigation devices; and solutions that enable parking lot surveillance.

Intelligence Sharing: Advanced Case Management and Link Analysis

Many solutions enable retailers to share information about offenders and their offenses. Many of these, such as automated license plate readers, signals intelligence platforms, and facial recognition, are used internally to gather intelligence. However, there are other systems that enable retailers to manually enter incident information into a system that can then be shared with other stores, and possibly even other organizations, if the retailer so chooses.

The LPRC refers to sharing among stores in the same company as “within‑retailer” sharing and sharing among different retailers as “between‑retailer” sharing. Both are important because the most sophisticated ORC offenders (and often the most financially impactful) rely on the fact that retailers are not effectively sharing information between stores or companies. This failure to share information reduces the likelihood that known offenders will be recognized, which reduces retailers’ ability to respond effectively. Of course, more aggressive and violent offenders—who tend to be less organized—also benefit from the lack of communication both within and between retail companies.

New tools give retailers the ability to share information efficiently and effectively among their stores and with other retailers if they choose to. In many cases, the number of fields in incident reports can be restricted to ensure that only the most important fields are completed by workers—this enables greater efficiencies, while also ensuring that retailers have a common set of data points across incidents that can be used for link analysis. Link analysis is a technique where investigators look for connections between cases; oftentimes, the focus is on individual suspects, but link analysis can also focus on linking cases involving the same automobile, individuals with similar attire, the same modus operandi, or the same or similar targets, among many other factors.

Regardless, link analysis enables retailers to connect incidents and suspects and generate additional leads and evidence as well as build “larger” cases in terms of the amount of merchandise involved. The size of a case is important because research shows that this is often a determining factor when it comes to whether law enforcement investigates, or prosecutors prosecute a case. Today, there is software that can automatically analyze large amounts of incident records (e.g., offense narrative, suspect description, time, date, etc.), and, based on the incident records, generate a probability that two cases are linked. Retailers have provided anecdotal evidence that this software and software like it can accelerate ORC investigations.

Any tool that makes it easier to capture incident data and conduct link analyses can help to focus deterrent and disruptive efforts on known offenders; investigate ORC; and identify gaps or vulnerabilities in LP and security programs. For example, if incident records reveal that offenders are using a common strategy to commit fraud or theft, then it suggests that there may be a common vulnerability that offenders are exploiting and that leaders should address. However, without valid incident data, retailers may never be aware of common patterns across offenses and loss incidents. Patterns of offenses and loss incidents across locations almost always point to systematic vulnerabilities (e.g., lack of effective deterrents) or systemic threats (e.g., traveling ORC groups).

Trackable and Traceable Product Protection and Investigation Devices: RFID and GPS

One of the major limitations of traditional EAS (electronic article surveillance) systems is that they do not enable item‑level identification or surveillance; rather, EAS has been and continues to be a rather “dumb” technology. Because of this, they are of limited use in ORC investigations, where it is critical for investigators to confirm that merchandise found in a fencing location was illegally obtained.

RFID

RFID is an older technology that is still under-utilized by many retailers, given its potential. For example, many retailers adopted RFID technologies and encouraged source tagging because of supply chain-related and inventory management concerns. However, some loss prevention teams soon realized that this technology could be used for investigations. By reconciling point of sale (POS) data with RFID electronic product code (EPC) tags exiting the store, they could accomplish a few important goals.

First, RFID enables retailers to understand how many specific items are exiting a store at a specific time. This provides retailers with precise information about when an incident happened. Clearly, this would make it easier to determine what kind of merchandise and how much was involved. However, this system can also be integrated with video systems so that cameras capture video of the individual walking out the door. This is a huge opportunity to enhance the efficiency of investigations because investigators spend less time reviewing footage to build cases and can focus their efforts elsewhere.

How RFID affects investigations is what’s most important. When doing controlled buys or investigating fencing locations, RFID provides evidence that merchandise being purchased from suspected fences, or being sold in suspected fencing locations, was likely obtained illegally. This and other approaches to item-level serialization are important because investigators must prove that merchandise was originally stolen from a store location, and RFID provides item-level information.

GPS Trackers

Global position system (GPS) trackers are another widely used tool. While GPS trackers have been around for a while, a greater number of retailers are using them to track a greater number of assets. For example, in the past, retailers have used them to track stolen cash; now, retailers are using them in many different products and packaged goods, including controlled substances, fragrances, watches, jewelry, handbags, electronic power tools, clothing, electronics, and even athletic wear.

Retailers will typically place a GPS tracker in a high-theft product’s packaging, while also rendering the barcode inoperable. When offenders steal multiple items, they also take the package containing the GPS tracker. Chain drug stores, discount and off-price retailers, department stores, general merchandise retailers, grocery stores and supermarkets, home improvement retailers, and other sectors have all reported success using GPS trackers for ORC investigations as well as rapid response to thefts, robberies, and burglaries.

Identifying and Detecting Serious Offenders

As noted earlier, the closest thing criminology has to a “law” is that a minority of offenders are responsible for a majority of the incidents. Fortunately, there are several technologies that can enable retailers to identify known offenders and then detect the individual, devices, and automobiles with whom the suspect is associated when they appear at different locations. They include automated license plate recognition, signals intelligence, and facial recognition technologies, among others. Using these tools to identify high‑frequency offenders is important because it allows retailers to link a greater number of incidents to build strong ORC cases involving a greater value of merchandise—two key factors influencing whether law enforcement and prosecutors will act.

Automated License Plate Recognition

Automated License Plate Reader (ALPR) technology is a system that uses optical character recognition (OCR) and image analysis to automatically read and interpret license plate information from vehicles. It typically consists of high-resolution cameras, specialized software, and a database.

An increasing number of large retailers in many different sectors are using license plate readers, and several have reported immense success, including those in the home improvement and general merchandise sectors. One of the reasons retailers are praising ALPRs is they are increasing the efficiency of investigators. They can detect when vehicles are at different locations, and they can link incidents together to build cases.

Unfortunately, most of the ALPR research is focused on their use in law enforcement contexts, where they have been widely adopted by at least two‑thirds of larger agencies. Research reveals that their use can improve investigations, including automobile theft, robbery, and potentially other serious crimes.

Face Matching

Several retailers are currently trialing facial recognition, while others have been using this technology for a while. In every loss prevention use case of which I am aware, retailers are enrolling known offenders into a database. Next, when the offender enters a location with the software installed, it can detect the presence of the known offender. This information can then be used to respond or can be used later during an investigation. Similarly, video can be analyzed with the software after the fact to identify when an offender was in a store location.

In 2022, the LPRC conducted research that indicated loss prevention professionals were highly inaccurate when shown fictional suspects and then asked to identify the fictional suspects in 20-person lineups. Shortly after, these lineups included an image of the original “offender” but from a different angle, with different clothes, or under different lighting conditions. The practitioners only identified the original suspect 23.3 percent of the time. When controlling for all other factors, those who were assisted by an accurate match from FaceFirst’s face matching software were 7.1 times more likely to identify the suspect.

However, the LPRC study was a survey experiment and had other limitations because we wanted to examine the effects of the technology under controlled conditions. We will need additional research to understand how facial recognition impacts loss, crime, and investigations in real-world settings. The LPRC is currently working with a retailer to understand how face matching affects the progress of ORC investigations as well as the outcomes associated with investigations.

Nevertheless, I am enthusiastic about this technology because of anecdotal evidence from several retailers who are using it. There are several stories of retailers building larger cases using the technology and being able to review video and quickly link offenders to many incidents of which they were unaware. When I interviewed ORC investigators in 2022, they told me that the most time‑consuming task was often reviewing video footage; with technologies like face matching, this time can be reduced. I have heard stories from retailers who were able to thwart crimes because they were able to detect the presence of individuals who had made threats, as well as identify individuals who were engaging in stalking.

Signals Intelligence

Wireless “smart” devices such as phones and watches are ubiquitous. In fact, most automobiles produced today include wireless functionality (e.g., cellular capability, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth connectivity, etc.) as a standard feature. All these devices require wireless signals to operate which can be detected and used in investigations. This is particularly important for investigating serious and high-frequency offenders. For example, if an offender walks into a store with their cell phone and an incident is recorded, when the offender enters another store, the device can be identified as associated with a known suspect, which can then draw an investigator’s attention to the suspect. Given that ORC offenders typically move from store to store committing crimes, it is important to know when they or their associated devices are on the premises.

Unfortunately, there is very little research on the effects of signals intelligence in retail loss prevention and investigations; however, the LPRC is seeking retailers to participate in research. I am enthusiastic about this technology primarily because it does not affect paying customers yet delivers very useful information about devices associated with criminal incidents and can provide retailers with a heads-up when offenders arrive at a location. Moreover, signals intelligence technologies do not rely on the field of view of a camera to detect a signal and often have a large range. This distinguishes it from camera-based analytics that rely on the quality of the image, the position of the camera, and its field of view.

Mobile and Mounted Surveillance Units (MSUs)

One of the greatest challenges associated with facial recognition and signals intelligence technologies is being able to use them in the most critical areas such as the parking lot and beyond. However, solar-powered surveillance units that are equipped with cellular data transmission provide both electricity and data transmission to enable these types of technologies and beyond.

Fundamentally, these technologies enable retailers to capture images and video in parking lots. Historically, retailers have not been able to sufficiently surveil their parking lots—even if power was available, data transmission was not. MSUs can enable retailers to surveil parking lots as well as the surrounding areas.

Recently, the LPRC participated in the ACCESS Taskforce study which examined the effect of LiveView Technologies’ (LVT) MSUs on crime. LVT deployed approximately forty-nine MSUs across retail locations in Opelika, Alabama and Paducah, Kentucky. These cities were selected for the study because retailers had not deployed the units in these areas yet. The results from this trial showed that the MSUs were associated with declines in several types of crime, including declines in shoplifting and trespassing.

LPRC’s knowledge of retailers’ independent trials also suggests that MSU’s not only reduce retail crimes but also alleviate non-criminal issues in parking lots involving loitering and other related issues. The LPRC is also finalizing the results from a study of the LVT units’ effects on homelessness-related problems. The results showed declines in problematic behaviors after the deployment of LVT units at stores across a national retailer’s locations.

Body-Worn Cameras

Several retailers are also trialing body‑worn cameras (BWCs) in retail, which are exactly what they sound like—cameras that are worn on the body to capture what happens during an incident. I am cautiously optimistic about this solution because some research indicates that it may reduce incidents, but also because it can enable retailers to collect evidence and intelligence about offenders and their offenses. Importantly, all the major manufacturers’ solutions include the ability to capture audio (although this can be disabled to comply with or avoid regulatory and privacy concerns).

I am cautious with my optimism for several different reasons. The two primary reasons I am cautious are that there is very little research on BWCs in non-law enforcement settings, and secondly, the research that exists is not conclusive about whether the cameras reduced aggression and violence against officers.

BWCs are certainly useful for generating evidence that could be used for investigating crimes, and they could even be used for training purposes in retail. However, the evidence from studies with law enforcement is inconclusive with regard to a BWC’s effect on behavior. Some studies show that BWCs are associated with less aggression among officers wearing the cameras and less aggression among those who are being recorded, but this is not a universal finding.

The theory behind the effects of BWCs makes sense; when people know they are being recorded, they should be more likely to be on their best behavior. However, retailers need to test BWCs to understand their effects and the conditions under which they are effective in retail environments.

Applying Targeted Friction to Those with Criminal Intent

In recent years, the LPRC has conducted research on how retailers might apply targeted friction to those with criminal intent. One way to do this is to require guests to identify themselves before accessing products, entering a store, or entering a specific area within a store. Those who planned on committing crimes would not want to identify themselves because it would provide evidence that could be used to investigate them and their crimes. On the other hand, those who just wanted to shop would theoretically be willing to identify themselves because they have nothing to hide. In the past, a few retailers applied this concept to self‑checkout lanes; however, it was abandoned because of difficulties with implementation and customer satisfaction issues.

Nevertheless, another solution provider developed a locking case that enables customers who identify themselves to enjoy self-service access to merchandise. This device can be configured with multiple access options, including cell phone, retailer app, and loyalty card options.

The LPRC surveyed nearly 790 people to explore their willingness to use the self-service case and to exchange their personally identifiable information for access to merchandise. The results indicated that customers would be willing to use it, especially the loyalty card and retailer app options. Similarly, interviews with offenders revealed that almost none of them would trade their identity for the opportunity to steal. In other words, there is evidence that this approach provides benefits to paying customers (being able to access merchandise without assistance from cases) while creating risk for offenders (trading their anonymity for the opportunity to steal).

Later trials have also revealed that this self-service locking case is associated with reductions in merchandise loss in the case of family planning and personal care at a national grocer as well as reduced losses and increased sales in the liquor category in a West Coast grocer. Other trials are currently in progress, although we are seeking a national retailer to participate in a randomized controlled trial.

Public Policy: Retail’s Greatest Challenge

Retailers can take all these steps, but unless jurisdictions are using evidence‑based crime control policies, it will be difficult to return to more peaceful times. For example, if retailers spend millions of dollars on technologies that can help them build cases, but do not receive support from law enforcement or prosecutors, then retailers will just have a lot of technology with no “teeth.”

For deterrents to be effective, they must pose a credible threat to offenders and increase the risk of negative consequences. That is, the offenders must believe that technologies are going to increase the likelihood that they will be arrested or prosecuted, or that the technology is going to make committing the crime more difficult. This is because the amount of time it takes to commit a crime is a concern among offenders, in part, because crimes that take longer to commit also increase the amount of time someone can intervene and the likelihood that they will do so (e.g., apprehend and detain them).

Unfortunately, in many retail stores across many jurisdictions, it is unlikely anyone is going to intervene in an active offense, and many law enforcement agencies prioritize violent criminal cases over property crimes. In the end, there must be a credible threat of negative consequences for deterrents to influence behavior. These consequences do not seem to exist in many parts of the country either because law enforcement is unable to investigate more crimes, prosecutors are unable to or outright refuse to prosecute crimes, or because the penalties for certain crimes are negligible.

Conclusion

Throughout this report, we have listed technologies where there is empirical evidence supporting their use, or strong theoretical reasons to believe the solutions will be effective. We have purposefully avoided mentioning specific solution providers because there are many solution providers who offer the solutions discussed throughout this report. We have only mentioned specific solution providers when a specific solution was involved in the research.

The LPRC would be glad to discuss all these solutions further and is open to all opportunities to conduct research. As mentioned throughout the report, much of the existing research is focused on the public sector, and many of these technologies lack sufficient evidence to make conclusive statements about their effectiveness in retail. However, technology is only part of the solution—there are more fundamental issues that must be addressed in many jurisdictions if we expect these solutions to significantly affect criminal behavior.

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