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Designing out Crime

Shoplifting Scams and Designing out Crime

By Lorraine Gamman

So-called “magic bags” continue to be used by professional thieves as the image of bags shown below confiscated by a shopping centre in Kent, U.K., indicates. 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 (such as Alert Guide that can read whether or not a bag has metal in it as people enter a store), the foil-lined bag remains a useful tool of the would-be shoplifter. 

No wonder the Global Retail Theft Barometer 2011, a worldwide shrinkage survey of 43 countries, shows that losses relating to shoplifting (overall shrinkage) rose to $119 billion in 2011—up 6.6 per cent since 2010—costing retailers $51.5 billion in 2011 (43.2 per cent of total shrinkage) compared to $45.4 billion in 2010. Similarly, the BRC Retail Crime Survey (2012) indicates that the average value of customer theft also rose by almost 28 per cent because “on average, retailers in our sample estimated that 56 per cent of customer theft went undetected.”

 

Learning 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 fifty years shoplifting with very 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. 

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 favourite “crime scripts,” as described in the Afterward of my book, was the pretext of “buying” clothes for a child. Consequently, they dressed Shirley up in a school uniform complete with a straw bloater hat with ribbons down the back, to play her part. In the shops, this girl gang appears to act almost theatrically to measure clothes against the apparent innocent schoolgirl, to conceal the fact they were stealing whilst the unsuspecting shop assistants looked on. 

Furthermore, the account from Shirley about being a prolific adult shoplifter who conned decent 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 techniques and crime scripts to shoplift, 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 regularly repeated in so many contemporary crime reports. 

Shoplifting, as we know, 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 summarised 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 techniques I illustrate above have in many retail contexts been anticipated and/or addressed, 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 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. 

To successfully design against such 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 maximise 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 obviously considered, but few effective measures were put in place. 

According to the April 2012 article “3 Ways to Stop Theft at the Self-Checkout” on RetailCustomerExperience.com, shoplifting at self-scanning points has been recorded to be five times higher than is usual, and has generated serious losses because committed 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 whilst really sneaking through more expensive items—a crime script that could be avoided if the fraudulent opportunities self-scanning brings had been anticipated. 

Some U.S. retailers consequently now think the cost of theft from self-scanning is too high and are abandoning it. For example, U.S. grocery chains Big Y as well as Albertsons, who were late in beginning self-checkout, have argued that their customers don’t feel it provides the right service, perhaps to explain their chain-wide exit. Big Y also said that “it couldn’t stomach the high theft rate.” However, the RetailCustomerExperience.com article suggests those retailers who are ditching self-scanning are “a minority” as most customers like 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; whilst those who are desperate to find work lose opportunity. 

Even ECOBAGS, which are designed to help supermarkets become more sustainable, have also been found to accommodate shoplifting. Hessian bags created to reduce resource carbon evidently are 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 hessian bag, after buying legitimate goods, use the receipt almost as protection to enable them to feel safe in stealing the same items again and again.

 

Investment in Design Education

This article has focused on three of the many shoplifting scams that thieves use, namely magic bags, ECOBAGS, and shop theft techniques that occur using self-scanners. In visualising these and other shoplifting scams, I did not aim to present an exhaustive account of common shoplifting perpetrator techniques, simply one that is instructive. Obviously the expanded techniques I describe are not new crimes, they are just new ways to commit old crimes by innovating and adapting to new technology and new opportunities. 

One of the reasons why I enjoy documenting and visualising such 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 very 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 on the eye, increase spend at the checkout, and really 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 simply be added on at the end to the design against crime 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.”

Lorraine Gamman is Professor and Design Director for the Design Against Crime Research Centre, Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, University of the Arts, London.

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