Security market analyst

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Hunter Seymour is a security market analyst with expertise in both the fire and security markets.
June 6, 2023


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Retail theft: The growing frontline threat in a cost-of-living squeeze?

The 2022 Crime Report of the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) shows that, between 2021-22, 89% of store staff working alone faced abuse in their job, with 35,000 incidents of violence and over 16,000 incidents including the use of a weapon, of which 9% resulted in injury. In addition, as the economic situation and cost-of-living crisis remains fraught with challenges, many experts predict a rise in retail crime, such as shoplifting, will hit the security industry hard.

Here, Hunter Seymour examines the issues at hand, highlighting varying points of view in dealing with perpetrators and the methods – from AI behavioral analysis through to smart tagging criminals – now available to retail security managers and staff to prevent their stores from being targeted.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in June 2022. However, with new Office of National Statistics (ONS) findings published in late April 2023 showing that shoplifting in England and Wales has risen by 23% (after restrictions from the third national lockdown had ended), the points made in the following piece remain as relevant as ever – if not more relevant. The stats come from the latest crime survey for the year ending December 2022, with the behavioural change interpreted by many as directly linked to the UK’s cost-of-living crisis – with many shoppers drawn to commit crime for the first time. 

Image credit: ACS 2022 Crime Report

As UK economic forecasters warn of millions falling into food and fuel poverty, with surging inflation expected to hit 10%, the new chief of Britain’s national police watchdog and HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary says: “I think whenever you see an increase in the cost of living or whenever you see more people dropping into poverty, you’ll invariably see a rise in crime.” 

In a critical period of a cost-of-living crisis, he explains, “I certainly fully support police officers using their discretion – and they need to use discretion more often”. But he insists he was not “giving carte blanche for people to go out shoplifting”. He further points out: “There are always individual cases where you can use your discretion that don’t necessarily result in a prosecution but can be dealt with in the best way possible.”

A counterview: “The job of the police is to uphold the law”

The HM Chief Inspector was appointed in April 2022, the same month that saw the introduction of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act with new rules to impose tougher penalties against offenders who attack frontline shop workers following a rise in abuse during the COVID pandemic and intensified lobbying from Retail Industry campaigners representing vulnerable staff.

In the view of ex-Met Detective Chief Inspector David McKelvey, MD of TM-Eye Private Investigations, HM Chief Inspector’s remarks condone a “Lawless Britain.”  He adds: “This is an incredible statement for a Senior Police Officer to make. Shoplifting costs the UK Economy £1.4 billion annually and twice that for retail security (which is passed on in the price of goods). An average of 457 shop staff are assaulted daily. As a result of amendments to the Theft Act 1968, Shoplifting under £200 has already been decriminalised.”

Proactive ‘prevent and deter’ – Divergent views converge

Such apparently conflicting views can be seen to be reconciled however, in one overarching aim – effective preventative measures to deter prolific offenders and organised gangs.

Pauline Norstrom, CEO of Anekanta Consulting, an AI and innovation strategic research company, says: “AI based technologies which were previously for the early adopters, have improved substantially and when combined with video surveillance processes, provide a proactive means of pin-pointing retail crime before it occurs. As retailers further embrace the benefits of cloud-based technology that may provide video search and secure distribution across multiple authorised systems, this could further help retailers to identify organised gangs.”

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TM-Eye adds: “TM-Eye has been privately prosecuting shoplifters, for offences over £200, in London’s West End for over 18 months, to support retailers and reduce demand on local policing. We receive a huge amount of support from the business community and police recognise its use in reducing demands placed on them.

“Those we see daily committing such crimes are organised gangs of criminals or those who steal to ‘feed’ their drug or alcohol addictions. They usually have a long history of offending. Our targeted approach results in evidence gathering and prosecutions. It also builds an intelligence picture of who, what and why. We have proven categorically that prosecuting them is the only real deterrent to prevent and deter crime.”

Jamie Allam, Chief Executive Officer at Amthal Fire & Security, adds that security systems should be designed from the start to support in this approach and counteract a potential rise in shoplifting and retail crime: “We are working closely with retailers and Police right from initial design stages, carrying out a full risk assessment to ensure a correct level of security is in place to cope with any surge in crime. This must be balanced with the need to maintain a warm, welcome and seamless customer experience. It includes use of surveillance cameras to ensure maximum coverage, intruder alarms and access control to restrict access on a perimeter basis.

“This is alongside more intricate solutions such as video analytics to aid business intelligence alongside tagging systems for high value items. The aim is to ensure security can blend with its surroundings without compromising on safety and security.”


Shoplifting – A crime that correlates to crisis?

According to Retail Times, post-lockdown crimewaves were recorded with a significant resumption in shoplifting: “As stores reopened in June 2020, shoplifting incidents began to rise, culminating in the highest growth in July 2020, where a 27% increase was noted.”

Both TM-Eye and Anekanta identify factors that would suggest a rise in shoplifting as a trend sparked by a Cost-of-Living Crisis.

Anekanta: “It is not unreasonable to assume that many other Government predictions and ONS statistics will also be reversed when more recent data is applied. Retail crime, according to the ONS is on a downward trend – or is it? It is inevitable that the retail sector would feel the heat of the cost-of-living crisis. The interacting factors are complex. The price of energy is one of these, and when Eon reported that 40% of its customers may experience energy poverty by the end of the 2022; this reverses the downward trend advised by the Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy in 2020.

“Over time, retailers have designed in security and technology to their operational processes. However, if the prosecution rate remains low (6%) and is predicted to reduce further, the lack of consequences, in effect, legalises the crime. This brings no justice for the victims who are not just the Corporates.”

TM-Eye adds: “It is highly unlikely anyone stealing food to eat would ever see a police officer, let alone be arrested and prosecuted. The police do not usually arrest, prosecute or even record such offences. That has been the case for many years. It is not for the Police to act as Judge and Jury, that is the job of a Court. The job of the police is to uphold the law, gather evidence and then present that evidence to a Court. A Court can then decide on guilt or innocence and a suitable outcome or sentence. A court can enforce an Order to help or assist an offender to rehabilitate.

“This is a frightening state of affairs. It affects us all. It will destroy the high streets and put prices up even further.”

BRC (British Retail Consortium) the trade association for UK retailers, reports to us: “Retailers are open to exploring other measures to prevent retail crime, and will increasingly be looking into technological solutions they can adopt. Retailers spend huge sums on crime prevention, and our last crime survey showed they spent £1.2 billion in 2019/20. They hire security personnel, install CCTV systems and many have rolled out body-worn cameras for staff.”

Self-checkout machines – Based on an ‘honesty box’ business model?

“Research shows that theft from stores with self-checkout machines is up to 52% higher than those with traditional checkouts”

As targets for crime, however, the retail corporates should be reminded that their annual losses (over £5 billion) due to ‘shrinkage’ are unsurprisingly attributable to the development of ‘smart’ self-scanning, checkout-free systems. Are these significantly different to the wayside ‘honesty box’ where produce is offered for sale on an unattended stall?

The harsh reality is disclosed by the latest automation research that concludes the technology is designed to eliminate jobs, and save money. Yet, research shows that theft from stores with self-checkout machines is up to 52% higher than those with traditional checkouts. Unlike a staffed checkout, the downside of this self-service principle is obviously the ease with which a customer can skip some items without scanning the barcode, or switch barcode stickers of high value items for those of lower value.

The growth of recidivist retail theft on an industrial scale may be measured by the array of deterrent techniques now deployed. Anekanta comments: “The process of evidence gathering using video and AI analytics could be systemised in a way which automates the PCN process (Penalty Charge Notices), freeing up Police time from low value offences, to prosecute high-value theft (above £200). Also, to gather vital evidence to stop criminals who have been successful in industrialising their techniques.


“The security industry has already taken a position of leadership, automatically processing authorised professionally managed alarm signals through the ECHO system and in doing so automating Police despatch. This shows that automation can be achieved to great effect and at a reduced operating cost.”

High-tech solutions – from behavioural diagnostics to forensic marking

Surveillance society is seemingly unstoppable, a fact surely recognised by the law-abiding majority who, resentfully, are daily harangued by cautionary messages warning that abuse of staff and any act of theft will not be tolerated.

The growth of sophisticated anti-shoplifting technologies, then, is equally unstoppable, demonstrated by the likes of enhanced high definition CCTV security cameras for video surveillance; AI-based analytics incorporating behavioural algorithms to detect shoplifting in real-time; machine-learning ‘concealment’ detection to alert in-store security guards to the covert pocketing of stolen items; diagnostics to direct intelligence back into store security operations to improve staff safeguarding and customer experience.

These are just some of the high-tech innovations that are transforming retail security management today, with tactical resources extending to traceable (taggant) forensic asset marking developed to act as virtual ‘fingerprinting’ for brand protection.

For example, as a crime deterrent prominently promoted in-store, SmartWater forensic marking has yielded a 20% reduction in stock losses for Homebase, and subsequently a sales increase of 10% across a number of supermarket branches in high crime areas.

High-value power tools were the main targets for thieves. The fact that potential theft of these high-value goods meant they were withheld from display caused customers to be discouraged by the seeming unavailability of the items, a false perception in danger of having a severe impact on sales.

Now, protected by a proven crime deterrent technology that gathers hard evidence to secure convictions, high-value goods can be displayed and demonstrated with confidence. Such is its success, the retailer will now be extending this effective Loss Prevention scheme to further stores. SmartWater technology is also aiding superstores such as Co-op in similar schemes to defeat retail crime.

Spray-tagged! Defeating aggressive shoplifting

SmartWater emphasises the effectiveness of crime deterrence in cases of aggressive shoplifting and abuse of frontline shopworkers when security guards in retail stores are armed with SmartWater hand-held forensic spray canisters deployed to defuse violent incidents before they can escalate. It’s a powerful cautionary message, with criminals made aware that the spray — formulated to comprise a long lasting and unique location signature — will gather irrefutable trace evidence in advance of police response.

This tactical solution is a genuine threat to thieves since, following such incidents, investigators can identify spray-tagged criminals, even months after the crime, to prove a suspect’s guilt by placing the offender at the crime scene and thus gain a greater chance of successful conviction.

SmartWater-SmartTag-21.This means the store concerned will be a higher priority than unprotected premises because the Police know they are far more likely to apprehend the culprits.

Visible, effective crime deterrence in the setting of the shopper’s experience can be a reassurance to other customers that encourages brand loyalty and increases the frequency of return visits to a store of choice.

Gary Higgins, Chief Operations Officer at SmartWater Group, comments: “Criminals hate SmartWater as they know it makes it far more likely that they’ll be caught and also that they’ll be successfully prosecuted. As a result, they tend to steer well clear of retailers who deploy it. We’re proud to be supporting Homebase in deterring theft from their stores, ensuring anybody stupid enough to target the company can expect to face the consequences.”

Trolley push-out raiders and organised gangs

Organised gangs are behind the phenomenon of push-out crime – now a common method for theft, blighting supermarkets nationwide. Push-outs, when thieves posing as shoppers pack trolleys with high-value goods often in bulk of the same category (alcohol, meat, cosmetics, perfume, toiletries, power tools, clothing, etc.) and brazenly push them out the exit without paying, costs retailers millions in lost profits every year. Any goods-laden shopping trolley detected as bypassing checkout is defined as a push-out attempt.

Push-out gangs rely on audacity and an element of surprise to their advantage to outwit security. Very often the goods are stolen to order for reselling on online auction sites. In such cases, Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS) tags affixed to products to sound a theft alarm will not prevent offenders from sprinting from a targeted store with the stolen merchandise.

However, for investigative tasks, AI is perfectly adapted to the detection of theft behaviours such as push-outs and capturing criminal events in real time. At store exit level, a self-locking push-out prevention system ­– integrated to the store’s video surveillance system ­– can thwart organised gangs by remotely locking the wheels of trolleys to prevent them from being pushed out of stores loaded with unpaid merchandise, while the theft is disrupted also by the triggering of audible and visible alarms, forcing thieves to slink away empty handed.

The profit from shoplifting often outweighs the risk, so motivated push-out shoplifters too often becoming aggressive or violent to avoid being apprehended or to prevent the repossession of stolen goods. A significant advantage of automatic remote trolley self-deactivation is the avoidance of apprehension or confrontation, thereby reducing time-consuming litigation costs that are often an unwarranted outcome when opportunistic offenders are identified and detained.

Correspondingly, the British Security Industry Association’s new Bigger Picture Report discusses, in greater depth, the Data Protection implications of AI-based technologies such as facial recognition and object detection software that can extend the scope of video surveillance cameras.

Over 50% of shoplifters are repeat offenders. One manager consulted for this report sums it up: “We see the same faces everyday. Habituals. That’s why it’s unreported.”

2022 Retail Crime Report and Guidelines for In-Store Security

There is valuable advice within the ACS 2022 Crime Report we mentioned at the beginning of this article, and an instructive insider’s view of those areas of crime prevention in which retailers are currently investing: lone working, CCTV technologies, security staff, panic buttons, internal radio communications, and more. Significantly, there is also thoughtful advice on essential strategies for In-Store and External Security.

We are indebted to the ACS for the citation of extracts from their comprehensive report.

This article was first published in June 2022. It was republished in June 2023, following new findings from the ONS that shoplifting in England and Wales had risen by 23% “after restrictions related to the third national [Covid] lockdown were lifted”. 


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