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DESIGNING OUT CRIME

When push comes to shove

Agnostic LP technology prevents profiling and potential confrontation


"When push comes to shove" is an old expression that simply means the point where one must commit to an action or a decision. In other words, it's crunch time or a cerebral crossroads where a person must make what may be a life-changing decision. Do I go through with this course of action, or do I simply walk away before it's too late to change my mind?

In the world of loss prevention, numerous critical examples come to mind for when push comes to shove on both sides of the divide. In what has become a febrile atmosphere around increased violence against store staff, retailers are training and retraining their colleagues around customer service and engagement rather than confrontation when they witness suspicious behaviour or at the point of refund. When is the right time to engage? What is the correct tone of voice, posture, and body language when dealing with such customers? Am I, even with the relevant level of training, going to exacerbate the situation in the heat of the moment?

Even with the best training in conflict management, what is not always apparent to us is how our unconscious biases can come into play when we observe customers that we believe are acting suspiciously. In many cases, customers have been "randomly£ selected for a bag search by security or store staff because they fit a certain profile, not from their demeanour, behaviour, or even the clothes they were wearing, but the fact that they meet certain stereotypical criteria.

On a macro level, profiling in the wider sense, of course, is a key part of retail. The demographics of the store, the location in terms of footfall, affluence or deprivation, and subsequent risk, are considered. Is it a high-crime-rated area, for example? What are the local crime stats and the profile of the local Police force in terms of business crime response times? What is the technology requirement once you have identified the level of potential harm? For example, do you invest in more CCTV, electronic article surveillance (EAS), security guarding, or store detectives? Then there is the profile of the stock - is it high value and likely to attract crime, and how do we protect it? What are the activities of the business crime reduction partnership (BCRP) or business improvement district (BID) in terms of working with retailers to prevent crime in the first instance?

On the micro level, however, personal profiling of types of customers once they are in a store can be less about the science of loss prevention and more about our own preconceptions, which can be based on previous experiences or often lazy assumptions influenced by age, ethnicity, and gender, as well as behaviour. This can be incredibly dangerous as it can result in confrontation and aggression if handled incorrectly, and claims of harassment and even defamation of character can be brought against the store for wrongful arrest or embarrassment or humiliation.

Although not prevalent in the UK, defamation of character claims are on the rise in the Republic of Ireland where claims result from some customers confronting retail staff and security guards either after an arrest or when their suspicious behaviour has been challenged. In the UK, defamation claims against retailers rarely feature on the legal landscape because it is expensive and difficult to prove, but in southern Ireland, there is a willingness and appetite to pursue such actions where the average cost of settled claims is more than €12,000 and the average damages paid more than €17,000. In the UK, when such claims are brought, the average damages rarely exceed £4,000.

Almost 40 per cent of all claims come from one area of Dublin's Liffey Valley, which has resulted in a number of retailers challenging what they see as malicious or frivolous claims. Retailers in Ireland have traditionally paid out-of-court claims fearing reputational damage as a result of adversarial court cases, but they are now defending more actions. This has resulted in an increase from 110 defended defamation cases in 2014 to almost 200 at the end of last year.

In one high-profile, successful challenge in Ireland, a judge dismissed a woman's €75,000 damages claim for defamation, which was brought after she was asked whether she had paid €1 for a shopping bag at the checkout.
The judge in the civil jurisdiction of the Circuit Court described the case as completely "over the top", saying that the request from a store checkout operator did not give rise to a defamation action.

The customer claimed she became "embarrassed, shocked, and upset" when she was asked at the checkout if she could prove that she had paid for the "bag for life". When cross-examined, the customer denied that she started screaming and shouting when the till operator asked if she should scan the bag. The customer said she was the only one in the queue to have been asked, and when she challenged this request, she reported that the staff member said, "Prove it; you will have to produce a receipt", at which point the customer said she became very upset that she had been singled out, and when a supervisor arrived, they told her that she had been wrongly accused.

Dismissing the case, the judge said her pleadings and behaviour, which had also included a claim that she had been falsely imprisoned despite the fact there had been no evidence of this, was clearly over the top. "Clearly, she is a sensitive woman, and I accept she became upset", he said. "But this doesn't give rise to an action. Asking someone had they paid for a bag was not defamation". He made no order for costs but warned that in future, for claims where there was no evidence of defamation, he would award costs against the plaintiff.

Technology

It's not just human preconceptions at play in such profiling. Often, technology can lend a helping hand. For example, EAS antennas can be activated when a product has been paid for, but the tag or label has not been removed or deactivated at the point-of-sale. In some instances, stores double-tag products with a second tag that not only activates on exit but also on entrance to other stores. This so-called tag pollution has led to embarrassment and wrongful challenges at store exits and entrances causing unnecessary confrontation.

In the early noughties, the introduction of self-checkout (SCO) tills was supposed to herald a new dawn in minimum-fuss shopping. First conceived in the 1980s, the till's inventor, David Humble, had introduced the technology at a Los Angeles trade convention, describing it as "a revolutionary product" that offered customers unexpected levels of autonomy and the opportunity to avoid long queues at traditional checkouts. And though the machines were outwardly advertised as being strictly beneficial for the customer, they also offered retailers benefits, notably reduced labour costs.

But the jury is still out about the major cost savings of SCOs as any financial gains appear to be impacted by unforeseen spikes in self-scan theft and the rise of so-called "middle class" criminals "getting away with it". These are thefts committed by people who do not fit preconceived assumptions. In an article entitled "Nation of shoplifters: the rise of supermarket self-checkout scams", the Guardian quoted a recent study of more than 2,000 shoppers' supermarket habits and discovered that close to a quarter had committed theft at a self-checkout machine at least once. A figure from the same report suggested that the total cost of items stolen through self-checkout machines in 2017 came in at more than £3 billion, up from £1.6 billion in 2014. Some steal by accident, the study found, perhaps on account of a scanning error, honest mistakes. But many perpetrators know exactly what they're doing.

In 2016, criminologists at the University of Leicester published a paper that reported on the impact of recent developments in mobile-scanning technology. Led by Emeritus Professor of Criminology Adrian Beck, who has spent more than twenty-five years researching losses in the retail industry, the report suggested that retailers who rely on self-scanning technology inadvertently create environments that encourage theft. In the self-checkout aisle, for example, human interaction is often pared back to a minimum, which reduces the perception of risk on the part of a potential perpetrator. "It's about the degree of opportunity it provides people who wouldn't normally do something deviant", said Adrian. "It presents them with opportunities they wouldn't normally have". The research found that in most cases, perpetrators are otherwise honest. They do not present the typical shoplifter profile and, therefore, are more likely to get away with it when the opportunity is presented.

Psychologists call this "opportunity theory", when an offender consciously decides to take advantage of an opportunity for crime that has appeared in their normal routine. But there is other psychology at play too. Often, perpetrators will construct what they perceive as legitimate excuses for theft. Some feel justified in taking items when the checkout they're using malfunctions. Others consider the items they steal as a form of entitlement.

This has also been called the "neutralisation theory" by Shadd Maruna, a criminology professor at the University of Manchester, who argues that individuals can neutralise guilt they might otherwise feel when stealing by telling themselves that there are no victims of the crime, no human being actually hurt, only some mega-corporation that can surely afford the loss of a few pounds. In fact, the corporation has saved so much money by laying off all its cashiers that it is almost morally necessary to steal from them. It is therefore non-malicious theft from an individual who would profile themselves as honest, despite the fact that they may have done it more than once. Whatever the motivation, SCOs will continue to be the future with the introduction of Amazon's concept stores with zero checkouts, and according to research, the number of self-checkouts is set to almost double by 2021.

Where Push Comes to Shove

So what if loss prevention technology was truly agnostic in that it did not profile shoppers at all and simply stopped crime literally in its tracks? What if the potential store thief was physically unable to steal? What if, when it came to the "push comes to shove" moment - do I leave the store with this unpaid item? - they were physically prevented from doing so and simply had to walk away or be challenged? This is an attractive proposition for a number of retailers who, faced with a rising number of violent assaults on store colleagues, are looking at solutions that reduce confrontation and the flash points that lead to them in the first instance.

US cart management business Gatekeeper Systems claims to have recovered more than $100 million (£85 million) of what would have been "push outs" - customers leaving the stores with trollies laden with unpaid for merchandise - through the introduction of their Purchek solution, a locking-wheel technology for shopping trolleys.

Widely used in US stores, the technology is based upon location devices positioned inside the store that monitor a trolley's journey around the store. There is no intervention if the trolley follows a typically "good" customer journey. However, if it tries to leave the store with making no attempt to pay, the technology raises an alarm and, at the same time, locks the wheels.

"The wheel is the intervention", said UK Director Matthew Day. "It simply locks and brings the trolley to a slow halt that avoids a sudden jolt. It will no longer move. Part of its appeal is the non-confrontational nature of the solution. The wheels lock, and the trolley cannot be wheeled beyond the door. The non-paying customers are just "spooked" and in most cases walk away from the trolley in the direction of their cars. Accompanied by an alarm activation, the technology does not profile customers, and by the time staff retrieve the trolley, the customer has abandoned it and left."

Gatekeeper's YouTube channel features a number of US videos of the technology in play where the behaviour is demonstrated. Try as they might, the trolley simply can't be moved. The non-paying customer then sees a security guard or store colleague coming towards them and chooses to leave rather than get involved in a difficult discussion.

Now a number of UK supermarkets are trialling the technology to assess the impact on their own shrink numbers. There has been a noticeable move towards tracking non-payment since charges for plastic bags were introduced resulting in customers loading up their trolleys and leaving the store.

Richard Moreton, sales director for Gatekeeper, said, "It gets around the profiling issue because the technology is agnostic, and it can prevent the confrontation. Guards previously would have to have witnessed the SCONE protocol (select, conceal, observe, non-payment, and exit) before making an intervention. This would mean profiling a person of interest and watching them as they move around the store. Our solution doesn't require making any assumption or judgement."

And in terms of the profiling, early indicators suggest everyone, and anyone, can be a suspect. Gatekeeper's own findings explode a number of myths around "stereotypes" of store thieves and the items that they target. Indeed, returning to the evidence of the middle class "honest opportunist", Gatekeeper's figures reveal an average value of attempted theft per trolley is a wide variance between 0.60 pence and £2,742.00.

"We are seeing high-frequency, low-value items so as not to attract attention - little and often and under the radar", said Matt. "When someone is approached, we simply ask to see their receipt and which till they paid at. This is a non-threatening or confrontational request to address what could be an innocent mistake. You are not accusing them of anything."

UK supermarkets piloting the scheme have noticed an impact in terms of the displacement affect. One UK supermarket saw loss rates dramatically reduce in the store where the Gatekeeper pilot was being trialled only for spikes in shrink to appear at other nearby branches, presumably as a result of the same perpetrators moving their targets.

"We then installed Purchek at the other affected stores, and the idea is that those determined to steal will ultimately give up because they know the risk of it happening again are too high," said Richard.

"In all the trials weÕve conducted, we have seen one particularly interesting incident where someone was arguing that they had paid", said Matt. "The person, who would not have fitted any typical profile, was articulate and maintained this line for an hour, but then eventually left the store. CCTV evidence reviewed later proved that the individual had been nowhere near the checkout. This non-profiling approach also means that the attempts cover a wide range of different demographics. Security guards may typically not be looking for a middle-class parent with a £35 shop, but focusing on other profiles, for example over-flowing trolleys full of expensive items such as meat, alcohol, and printer inks. This, however, is not the typical theft we see".

In addition to the supermarket trials Gatekeeper is working on, an independent piece of research around the technology is being conducted with the previously mentioned Emeritus Professor Adrian Beck who is analysing push outs thefts and Purchek in ten to twenty-five stores.

Adrian commented, "Purchek is particularly useful where stores don't have manned security podiums at the exit points. This raises the estate-wide financial questions that LP teams have to consider: How many push outs impact our stores? How many go undetected? And how many sales are required to replace items stolen?"

Gatekeeper is now looking to introduce a basket solution for smaller convenience stores that do not use trolleys. The basket technology uses an audio alarm, and they believe that upon activation of the audio alarm, non-paying "customers" will simply put their baskets down as they leave the store, so they don't draw unwanted attention to themselves.

"As a cart-technology company, we have traditionally targeted the operations and procurement teams. Lots of people stole or simply didnÕt return these expensive assets. However, we had not really focused on the products in the trolleys. Now loss prevention professionals are also a focus", said Richard.

When push comes to shove, loss prevention has, at times, suffered from a narrow focus on certain types of criminal stealing certain types of items from certain types of stores. This kind of profiling has determined financial spend and resource deployment almost to the exclusion of other emerging trends among customers who would not traditionally register as suspects but would deliberately avoid payment if the opportunity presented itself. Now, profile-avoiding technology is assisting in agnostic identification and helping to prevent the ultimate confrontation without human risk, as well as avoiding push finally becoming shove. 

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