I walked into a store, with a small tote bag, like the environmentally conscious consumer I am, and was asked to leave my bag at the front desk. I walked back out of the store. There were things I really wanted to buy in that store, but wasn’t in the mood to embrace the our-customers-are-most-likely-criminals or we-trust-no-one vibe.
I walked out of the store to protest the lack of trust the merchant showed customers. I wasn’t singled out to leave my bag at the front1. I wanted to protest customers being treated this way. If I walk into a store with something, it’s because I want to have it with me. In this case, my water bottle was in my bag, the humidex was 38oC and I was walking, so I was not parting with that bottle of water.
I had a choice and went somewhere else. Somewhere I knew cost more, for a less desirable item and was less convenient to get to. I am fortunate I can choose another, more expensive item.
It’s a tricky situation – how merchants treat customers who wish to enter their store. The store belongs to the merchant and they do, within the law, get to decide what happens within the store. Customers decide if they will accept the merchant’s terms, just as I did. The merchant understands that, depending on the terms, customers may choose to shop elsewhere.
Prior to the pandemic, customers got used to hearing the phrase ‘the customer is always right’. Competition, especially from this new and emerging thing called ‘e-commerce’ or ‘online shopping’ encouraged merchants to happily cater to every customer who entered their physical store.
In the beginning of the pandemic, customers were eager to purchase supplies. Confusion reined while governments provided often updated and sometimes contradictory requirements for retail stores. Soon, due to regulations, lockdowns and limited supplies, customers were willing to do whatever the merchant required just to buy a few things.
We all appreciated the risks that store workers were taking to provide us with the necessities of life. Wear a mask, sanitize hands, wait in line, stay back from everyone. Sure. Just sell me some [whatever random thing was in shortage that week: toilet paper, cooking spray, potting soil, birdseed, flour etc].
Restrictions aren’t a new thing. In my teens, the shopping mall came to be. It was common to see a sign at the doorway of shops ‘No food or drink allow in store’2. Clerks might ask customers with beverages in hand to leave it on the counter. I understand that merchants don’t want sticky fingerprints on their merchandise, but is it good business to make a potential customer choose between their refreshment and making a purchase?
Then, the Kmart store (discount merchandise3) required any shopping bag brought into the store to be tagged and stapled closed by the security guard at the entrance. This seemed a little more acceptable, because it didn’t interfer with the shoppers activities as much.
The business term applied to measures taken against theft is ‘loss prevention’. Retailers expect a certain amount of shoplifting4. Many loss prevention approaches are familiar to retail shoppers, such as security tags, expensive items behind a counter or locked down, cameras and signs, a policy of contacting the police for shoplifting, ensuring the aisles are monitored, and checks at the door. All of these measures cost money, either in equipment or employee time.
Retailers make a trade-off between expenditures to prevent theft and savings on by minimizing lost merchandise. The equation should also include whether any of the chosen theft prevention measures deter customers from shopping at the store.
Is it true that honest customers will not mind the minor inconvenience of a few security measures? Most will comply once they’ve walked in the door but the impact may be bigger on return shoppers. In the future, the store they return to is the one with fewer hassles.
Retailers should also be concerned with the image portrayed by elaborate theft-prevention measures. The management could be perceived as over-reacting, or the environment could seem unsafe. Neither adds to a pleasant shopping experience.
Customers may be more willing to accept some inconveniences if they believe they benefit from the inconvenience. Costco states: “By strictly controlling the entrances and exits and using a membership format, we believe our inventory losses (shrinkage) are well below those of typical retail operations.”5 Carts and receipts are scrutinized as customers leave the store. Apparently an acceptable price to pay for fantastic deals on the merchandise.
An alternative approach is to provide such attentive customer service that shoplifting is difficult because the customer is accompanied by an employee. Certain store types and shopping missions are great when an associate leads you through a store to help with purchase decisions. Others not so much. It works if you want a list of specific hardware, but not to browse the latest fashions in home decor.
Interestingly, e-commerce eliminates the possibility of shoplifting. There may be other ways to steal from e-retailers, but filling your pockets, sleeves or baby carriage with merchandise isn’t one of them.
In this time of e-commerce, or the omnichannel experience, customers who walk into physical stores are there for the in-store experience, so extensive anti-theft measures may be off-putting. Why might people come into stores? To browse, wander aimlessly around the store, and not be able to answer the question “what are you looking for?”. To examine items. Hold them. Measure them. Try them next to something. Ironically, these are behaviours that might seem like those a shoplifter would exhibit.
From the consumer perspective, online ordering and home delivery are a good solution if the loss prevention measures make it unpleasant to home in person. But merchants beware, consumers who shop online don’t impulse buy all those things at the ends of aisles and by the checkout desk.
1 This is a different story than one about targeting specific groups of people in security measures, which is unethical.
2 As common an idea as this might seem, at the time, the ability to get a snack at a kiosk in the middle of the mall while browsing the shops was a novelty. Merchants had to decide how to handle it.
3 Security seems to be more intense at discount stores. If I was going to steal stuff, why wouldn’t I go to the most expensive store and steal the good stuff? It’s likely that the security at high-end stores is higher but less visible.
4 People shoplift for different reasons, such as need, by accident, for the thrill, as a social statement, and more. It’s also notable that it’s not only customers that take merchandise without paying, sometimes its employees.
5 Page 4 of 2020 Annual Report found at https://investor.costco.com/static-files/7ef7bed6-c48f-4687-9c82-eb104b4823a5