The age-old problem of shoplifting – how to reduce theft in retail
From the earliest markets in the Bronze Age to online stores in the metaverse, there’s been a constant problem for retailers – theft.
The art of surreptitiously pilfering items from shops has a history as long as commerce. Where there are goods, there will be shoplifters. Understanding the history of retail theft provides a backdrop for appreciating the evolution of anti-shoplifting solutions, and in this two-part series, we’ll be talking about the past, present and future of shoplifting and how we can help reduce theft in retail.
The history of shoplifting
Shoplifting, or stealing goods from retail establishments, is not a modern problem. Its roots trace back centuries, intertwining with the development of marketplaces and stores. The motivations for shoplifting are diverse, ranging from economic necessity to teenage thrill-seeking. While historical records don’t detail early instances of shoplifting, as it wasn’t a well-documented crime, it’s safe to assume that wherever goods were bought and sold, someone was always there to take them without payment.
Shoplifting in 16th-century London marks the earliest documented instances of the crime and was predominantly associated with females. Called “Amazons” or “roaring girls”, notorious female shoplifters in London around this time included Mary Frith, the pickpocket and fence also known as Moll Cutpurse and Maria Carlston (also known as Mary Blacke), whose life was documented by diarist Samuel Pepys. Mary shoplifted clothing and household linens in London for years with her gang before eventually being executed for her offences.
Today, it is one of the most prevalent crimes, reaching its peak between 3:00 and 4:00 pm (when local schools get out). Incidents of shoplifting tend to rise during the Christmas season, and in the United States, arrest rates surge during spring break.
Shoplifters range from amateurs acting on impulse to career criminals who habitually engage in shoplifting as a form of income. The former typically steal products for personal use, while career criminals generally steal items to resell for a profit.
Ronald V. Clarke, a criminologist from Rutgers University, introduces the concept of “CRAVED” to describe the products shoplifters target: Concealable, Removable, Available, Valuable, Enjoyable, and Disposable.
Global shoplifting statistics
Understanding the scale of shoplifting emphasises the necessity for robust anti-shoplifting measures.
According to global retail theft analyses, shoplifting accounts for a significant portion of inventory shrinkage, between 2 -3%.
In the United States, retail theft has increased by 94% in the past five years, with the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention reporting that over 10 million people have been caught shoplifting, averaging $200 per incident.
On a global scale, the cost to the economy is in the hundreds of billions annually. Strangely, Denmark ranked second for being the safest country in the world but is number one in shoplifting.
These numbers underscore the economic impact on retailers and the need for effective preventive strategies.
The need to reduce retail theft
The Industrial Revolution brought large-scale production, eventually resulting in the birth of department stores. As security concerns became more prominent, mechanical security devices, such as locks and safes, were also widely adopted.
In the 20th century, as commerce advanced and retail stores became more prevalent, shoplifting became a more significant problem for businesses—the direct impact on profits led to the recognition of the need for more comprehensive measures.
Early efforts included hiring security personnel and, in some cases, public shaming of caught thieves. However, these approaches were limited and didn’t deter determined shoplifters. It wasn’t until CCTV systems and security tags emerged in the 1970s and 80s that retail stores finally had a weapon in the fight against shoplifting.
The invention of security tags
The invention of anti-shoplifting tags was pivotal in the fight against retail theft. These tags, often known as security tags or EAS (Electronic Article Surveillance) tags, revolutionised the approach to tackling shoplifting.
The first iteration of security tags emerged in the 1960s. Inventors like Arthur Minasy experimented with various technologies to create tags that could trigger alarms when exiting a store without proper deactivation. Their use expanded in the 1970s as retailers recognised their effectiveness, often attaching them to high-value items.
By the turn of the millennium, the technology had advanced so much that tags were affordable for even the most miniature retail outfit and were small enough to fit on practically any product.
How anti-shoplifting tags work
Security tags operate on the principle of electromagnetic or radiofrequency systems. These tags consist of a sensor and a responder. When a tagged item passes through a surveillance zone, the sensor detects the responder. If the cashier hasn’t deactivated the tag, an alarm is triggered, alerting store personnel to potential theft.
The two main types of anti-shoplifting tags are hard tags and soft tags. Hard tags are durable, plastic-coated tags attached to items via pins. These tags are deliberately big and bulky, making them a deterrent to any would-be thieves.
Soft tags, on the other hand, are adhesive labels affixed directly to products. They are small, discrete, and better at catching people stealing rather than preventing them. Both types are deactivated or removed at the point of sale.
The future of security tags
We can all see technology advancing incredibly, which holds great promise in the fight against shoplifting.
Innovations in RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification) and GPS (Global Positioning System) technologies may provide more sophisticated tracking and monitoring capabilities. Integrating Artificial Intelligence and machine learning could enhance the predictive capabilities of anti-shoplifting systems, allowing retailers to pre-emptively address potential theft.
As retail technologies evolve, security tags may play a role in the seamless transition of products between physical stores and online platforms. With the globalisation of retail and supply chains, tags may even become more interconnected on a global scale.
Smart tags can assist inventory management across various sales channels and all through the supply chain, from the original manufacturing plant to the delivery driver outside your home.
The future promises even more sophisticated solutions to safeguard merchandise and maintain the delicate balance between retailers and consumers. Stay tuned for the second part of this series, where we’ll delve deeper into the types of anti-shoplifting tags and how to reduce theft in retail with our RFID anti-theft & product tracking devices.