Talk of retail design generally revolves around ways to draw customers into stores to generate sales.

Good design, however, can go beyond that, preventing retail loss (shrinkage) attributed to the behaviour of the not-so-welcome store guest – the shoplifter.

While RFID technology is proving to be beneficial when it comes to retail security, technology shouldn’t be the only method relied on.

Interior design doesn’t usually receive as much attention as the built environment when it comes to retail security plans, but it can offer considerable theft-deterrent strategies.

Recent data from the Checkpoint and Smart Cube’s Global Retail Theft Barometer 2013-2014 states that shrinkage costs retailers an annual US$128 billion globally. Of this, 38 per cent is attributed to shoplifting, 28 per cent to dishonest employee theft and the remainder to administration/non-crime losses and supplier fraud.

The most stolen items were make-up, fashion accessories, power tools, mobile accessories, wines and spirits.

Tyco Retail Solutions reports that in Australia alone, shoplifting and employee theft account for more than 70 per cent of shrinkage and procedural loss accounts for another 21 per cent.

According to the Australian Institute of Criminology’s website, shoplifting is generally trigged by the following:

  • Store floor plans that provide opportunities for thieves to conceal items and exit without detection (e.g. numerous exits and changing rooms)
  • Unsecured merchandise — retail staff may not place craved items in secure cabinets as this increases staffing requirements and reduces impulse purchasing
  • The absence of security guards or EAS gates
This design offers great line of sight

This design offers great line of sight

The AIC also noted that shoplifters are not necessarily those facing socio-economic challenges.

“Research suggests that acts of shoplifting can be categorised as either rational or non-rational,” the AIC writes. “While rational thieves are motivated by profit or gain, the behaviour or non-rational shoplifters may be symptomatic of psychological issues and stressors such as familial conflict or, in a small number of cases, kleptomania.”

Two researchers from Lancaster University Centre for Doctoral Training have suggested a preventative “natural surveillance” approach to shoplifters to save people from going to prison. The strategy they propose involves leading potential shoplifters to areas where they are placed in the spotlight and where other shoppers are involved in deterring them.

The researchers, Dhruv Sharma and Myles Kilgallon Scott, wrote the recent paper Nudge: Don’t Judge: Using Nudge Theory to Deter Shoplifters, with Sharma deciding to conduct the research after taking on a pre-Christmas job in a department store.

According to Lancaster News, the researchers are keen to see designers explore ways to help prevent shoplifting offences rather than catching and punishing shoplifters after the fact.

“When you go to a shopping mall it’s not just a building containing shops,” said Sharma. “It’s strategically planned and laid out so we walk in a preferred direction and goods are placed in certain ways and locations presenting visual cues to buy.

“So why can’t similar thinking be applied to target potential criminals without them realising that they are being targeted to actually prevent them from committing the act of shoplifting?”

The researchers are also suggesting software designers work with light to find ways to ‘spotlight’ consumers in a way that deters shoplifters and encourages public surveillance.

“A store could actually place valuable items in ‘interactive spaces’ that would encourage other customers to watch people handling the expensive goods,” Sharma said. “So, for example, it could be that every time a customer picks up, say, a bottle of perfume they turn into a cartoon character on a big screen or they attract public attention in some other interactive way.

“For different products you could have different characters, which would encourage children to watch.”

This store uses the power of light and mirrors to "spotlight" the space.

This store uses the power of light and mirrors to “spotlight” the space

Sharma and Scott delved into Nudge Theory, which suggests that “some people make decisions unconsciously, non-rationally and are influenced by contextual cues which means their behaviour can be manipulated.”

“We are not suggesting we should make it harder for people to interact with products,” Sharma said. “Instead we simply propose ‘nudging’ people to act as observers, thereby enhancing surveillance.”

Sharma and Scott cited examples on the website The Conversation, stating that all buildings imply at least some form of social activity prompted by the arrangement of wall partitions, doors and other furniture.

“For instance, a designer can create specific areas such as access lanes where people can come into contact with each other,” they wrote. “It is this ability of a retail environment to influence choices that is at the heart of our proposition to tackle high-street crime.”

Pattern Language Methodology is another strategy to fighting shoplifting. Last year, researcher Adrin Mehdizadeh, California State University wrote a paper that studied the re-design of a clothing store in downtown Los Angeles.

Due to recent market losses (that included a major security problem), the owner wanted to remodel the store. The design team was made up of the store owner, two employees and two interior designers experienced in pattern language methodology.

When assessing the store design, blockades were highlighted as a hindrance limiting lines of sight between employees and shoplifters. The team then applied Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) Principles.

“Returns and store safety were recorded to have increased tremendously upon employment of natural surveillance,” Mehdizadeh wrote of the application of CPTED. “Natural surveillance makes the assumption that store staffs are keen at all the time. This was achieved by fixing the motion sensor lights at strategic places. Blind spots and corridors blocking vision were removed. This led to a clearer area that allowed easy supervision. However, several cameras will be fixed to aid the CPTED at strategic points.”

Another study undertaken at Design Against Crime Research Centre (DACRM) of the University of the Arts London reported that the economic recession had led to increased incidents of shoplifting in the retail industry.

With a “thief” mindset, students were asked to build in “anti abuser functionality” to packaging and other consumer friendly designs that addressed sustainability.

Central Saint Martins graduate Anna Schwamborn looked at perfume as per her product since it generally needs to be sampled before being purchased. She recognised that sample bottles are an easy target for shoplifters, and used that information to design a perfume station that would make shoplifters’ tasks harder.

The bottles and branding are still visible but sit behind glass with consumers able to test via a traditional dispenser.

Perfume Station

The Design Council UK showcased Schwamborn’s work along with that of other students, including Mai Ohashi, who created a simple anti-shoplifting single hook designed to make the removal of a product more visible by having to twist and raise your arms.

Another clever item was the High Hanger, a hanging system that attracts attention through exaggerated movement and greater visibility according to the Council.

A similar hanging strategy has been used in many high-end stores that see clothes hung from the ceiling and widely spaced out. Victoria Beckham’s newly opened London Store presents some of its clothing merchandise in this manner.

Finally, deterring theft is just about being clever with space and furniture placement according to Crime Prevention in NSW. Below are some of the pieces of advice they offer retailers online:

  • Reduce the height of shelving in the stores to increase visibility
  • If shelving is above shoulder height, mirrors should be positioned around them
  • Similarly, displays should be no higher than waist height
  • If higher display units are required, they should be positioned against walls to maximise visibility
  • Displays next to store exits are extremely vulnerable to theft and should be reconsidered unless they are monitored by staff
  • Elevate the point of sale area so staff have greater visibility of the store

While shoplifting deterring strategies are beneficial, brick and mortar stores must remain welcoming. So along with surveillance, retailers might not need that stern (not so welcoming) security guard upon entrance. Instead, they could try adopting a combination of interior design and natural surveillance strategies.

Cover image illustration by Julia Pancova