Walmart Moving More to an Evidence-Based Approach

Getting it right is tough. It’s not always obvious what will work best to control a problem. And it takes a strong, secure leader to admit they don’t have all the answers. Nobody has all the answers. But I had the distinct pleasure to work with Mike Lamb, Walmart’s U.S. vice president of asset protection, presenting some of the results of our joint anti-theft research and development at this year’s Retail Industry Leaders Association Asset Protection Conference.

Lamb explained to the standing-room-only crowd that the incredible scale that Walmart operates in—billions in sales and losses, large high-loss product offerings and inventories, very high and growing store count, and challenging store geographies—requires his team to get very close on their solutions. At their scale, investments to protect just a few product categories in a small percentage of stores can total millions.

He outlined to session participants how he and his product-protection team are working with the Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC), University of Florida, and internally with their buyer and operations partners to very carefully craft theft-prevention treatments, so they maximize positive while minimizing negative impacts by working with their partners to improve process design and execution, as well as via better theft and fraud control.

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The LPRC provides the guiding crime deterrence theory, facilitates multi-method research in active stores, and confers with Walmart’s experts to continue to tailor techniques to small and large formats, as well as in varying neighborhood risk levels.
Walmart and other retailers should be applauded for their key leadership moving toward evidence-based practice to further focus crime and loss control while dealing with progressively complex and numerous threats. Precision is the key to cost-effective, high-impact efforts. And at large scales, precision is the best option.

Impact vs. Engineering Questions

This may sound controversial, but it’s been my observation that over the years so many loss prevention questions, articles, and conference sessions on technology with both retailers and vendors have been much more about technical improvements than deterrence enhancements. In my humble opinion, LP professionals are behavioral experts first and technicians second. LP decision-makers should strive to deploy countermeasures that effectively convince criminals not to attempt or commit a crime.
To cost-effectively do this without seriously harming the customer experience, LP leaders should be their companies’ psychology experts. Psychological concepts are about shaping offender choices and decisions. Doing that in a busy shopping environment with challenging employee compliance issues is very tough. After a protective technique is shown to cost-effectively curb theft attempts via good research evidence, only then should we turn to engineering-type questions.

One analogy might be a pharmaceutical company spending most of its attention on deciding to make a tablet chewable or not rather than focusing on making it as effective as possible for curing a certain illness before deciding how to best administer it. Following are some protective impact versus technical issues I’ve noticed.

Radio frequency (RF) versus acousto-magnetic (AM) EAS. For so long, many retailers debated whether RF or AM was the better technology. Some of the debate made sense due to entrance and exit widths and metallic merchandise, but the initial and more critical R&D belonged on how to make EAS work better to deter low-attention shoplifters in differing store types. Boosting deterrence via “see-get-fear” concepts was and is job-one in my opinion, not where a given tag was on the radio frequency spectrum, or even who made the system.

Analog versus Digital Video. Here’s another example of engineers in basements driving protective technology rather than experienced LP experts. In LP CCTV is supposed to, first, deter crime attempts; second, provide quicker detection and response to crime attempts to reduce their severity; and third, generate crime event documentation for forensic and process improvement use.

It seems to me the digital or analog image capture format argument comes last, not first. Camera deployment tactics—such as what type (ePVM, dome, camera), where it’s placed (location, number, height), and other tactical considerations—are much more critical to reducing crime attempts and their collateral damage than image technology. Storage, easy search, and chain-wide access is very important, but first things first—deter crime attempts.

Source or Hidden Tagging versus Visible Employee-Applied EAS Tagging. This issue has long been highly discussed in our industry, with initial efforts seemingly focused mostly on tagging application costs and compliance rather than how to make a tag more readily deter an inexperienced or even determined thief. First, we should find the best way to curb theft attempts and scare bad guys away. Then we can look at implementation cost-efficiency.

Miniaturization of Camera Domes. This phenomenon might well be the “poster child” for engineers driving protective device development rather than the AP experts. Overwhelming research shows offenders need to spot, recognize, and fear deterrent cues to be deterred. Making things tiny doesn’t get us there. Miniaturization can actually reduce deterrence. Plus, worrying about customers being offended by CCTV is not a primary issue. Our studies show most customers, like most offenders, don’t even notice most CCTV, and when they do, they either ignore it or even welcome it. It is good practice to conceal some CCTV for the most hardened criminals and to preclude camera disabling by select offenders. But we really want to scare most of them off, not catch them in the act.

EAS Pedestal Concealment. Concealing EAS pedestals is another concept that can seriously degrade the preventive nature of a legacy protective system. Our research shows time and again that customers are not offended by visible deterrents. In addition, honest customers do not tend to notice advertising on pedestals either, according to our research. But offenders, especially opportunistic types, can be partly deterred by visible cues like pedestals, tags, or deactivators, so hiding or covering them up can be detrimental to deterrence.

This discussion is designed to get our LP leaders and solution partners thinking and talking and, most importantly, testing. We all want the same thing—lower crime and loss. We absolutely need to work closely with LP solution providers, but retail security experts should guide protective R&D based on human psychology first, not smaller, faster, lighter technical details, which will follow. The features and benefits to start with are those that strongly deter crime attempts.

Having said all this, I’m very encouraged by the brilliant and talented retail and solution executives moving to further weave psychological concepts into enhanced loss control tasking and technologies.

Impact Conference 2015

Executives from Bloomingdales, Toys”R”Us, and Walmart are working diligently on LPRC’s 2015 Impact conference scheduled for October 5-7 at the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. This year’s conference will not only feature engaging breakout sessions and working groups, but also several special sessions for the most senior LP and AP executives.
This year’s conference will also feature a golf outing, a reception at the LPRC Innovation Lab, and a casino night and dinner on campus to provide multiple networking opportunities. As we fill up, I invite you to learn more about the annual Impact conference, and consider joining us. For more information, email Jessi Dudley at jessi (at) lpresearch (dot) org.

Recommended Reading

From time to time I like to recommend books that can add to the knowledge base of retail LP professionals. Environmental Criminology and Crime Analysis, edited by Wortley and Mazerolle, brings together great chapters on situational crime prevention by leading criminologists. Many of these chapters are very adaptable to retail environments.

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