Walk into just about any Walgreens, CVS, or Target these days, and you're bound to see rows of products locked up inside clear cases. Not just the latest gotta-have-it tech gadget or big-ticket appliances — but everyday necessities like toothpaste and body wash, for which customers must now press a “help button” for an employee to unlock.
It has become a familiar annoyance to customers. Amina Chitaoui, who was picking up some wax strips at a CVS in Downtown Crossing recently, has noticed it time and again.
“You have to wait, and then sometimes you're not sure what you want to get, so you quickly have to choose, even though it might not be your first choice,” she said.
Sometimes, when she's in a hurry, Chitaoui walks away from a potential purchase. She's opted to buy razors — an item almost always behind one of the locked enclosures — online.
“It's easier,” she said. “It's more convenient.”
If this sounds like a nightmare scenario for brick-and-mortar stores — already battered by the pandemic and e-commerce competition — you'd be right. Customers may hate seeing their shopping list behind lock and key, but retailers hate it even more.
“Locking up merchandise is the last thing that retailers want to do,” said Ryan Kearney, general counsel for the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. “But when the alternative is not having the merchandise that the consumer is looking for — because it's walked out the door — they really have no choice.”
With shoplifting reportedly on the rise, many retailers face a lose-lose scenario: Leave merchandise unobstructed, and risk it being swiped, or lock it up, and risk deterring paying customers.
The latter seems to be winning out: Nearly half of retailers said their 2022 budgets for loss prevention technology were higher than 2021, according to a survey from the National Retail Federation released in September. At the downtown CVS where Chitaoui was shopping, everything from coffee to deodorant was behind a locked fixture. Some companies are pondering even more extreme measures: In late September, the chief retail officer at Rite Aid told investors that the chain is “looking at literally putting everything behind showcases” in its New York City stores to deter rampant theft.
So, how did we get here?
The plastic cases are a testament to a rise in theft that retailers say has accelerated since the onset of COVID-19. In February, a CVS spokesman told Axios that the chain had experienced a 300 percent increase in retail theft since the start of the pandemic. Last year, Home Depot announced it had begun rolling out power tools that had to be activated via Bluetooth at the store, rendering them useless if stolen. Last October, pointing to a rise in organized shoplifting, Walgreens shuttered five stores in San Francisco.
“Every retailer from grocery to pharmacy to apparel to home improvement is dealing with this problem,” said Jason Brewer, a senior executive vice president at the Retail Industry Leaders Association.
Loss prevention experts largely blame what's known as organized retail crime — sophisticated crime rings that shoplift in bulk and re-sell stolen merchandise, often in online marketplaces like eBay or Facebook. Target this month cited organized retail crime as the key culprit behind $400 million in lost merchandise. While this crime was perhaps once more of an urban problem, as retailers “harden the inner cities, the soft targets now migrate to the suburbs,” said Joe Budano, chief executive of IndyMe, a company that makes loss prevention products.
The anonymity of the online marketplaces where they re-sell the merchandise, Brewer says, makes it “a fairly low-risk, high-reward” pursuit, and theft rings sometimes make millions.
The pandemic likely fanned this rise in professional crime, thanks to retail labor shortages that mean less on-the-ground surveillance and the COVID-era popularity of shopping online, which inadvertently led to more demand for stolen goods.
“This started before the pandemic, but it was certainly accelerated by the pandemic,” said Budano.
Some loss prevention experts point to another factor: Laws that raise the threshold for theft that qualifies as a felony. Massachusetts, in a 2018 criminal justice reform bill, increased the threshold for felony larceny from $250 to $1200. The cutoff for shoplifting, still categorized as a misdemeanor, is now $250, up from $100. Some say raising these thresholds has given people less of a reason to abstain from theft — and fewer inhibitions when they do.
“You'd be amazed at the increasing rate of offenders that walk away. They don't bother running,” said Read Hayes, director of the Florida-based Loss Prevention Research Council.
But the data don't necessarily support this theory: A 2017 study from the Pew Charitable Trusts examined crime trends in 30 states that increased their felony theft thresholds and found that it had “no impact on overall property crime or larceny rates.”
Regardless, the number of shoplifting-related arrests in Boston has plunged since the crime reform bill, falling more than 65 percent since 2018 to today, according to data obtained by The Boston Globe. When she was the Suffolk district attorney, US Attorney Rachael Rollins classified shoplifting and larceny of goods under $250 as two of the crimes her office would generally decline to prosecute, though newly elected Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden does “not take a one-dimensional approach, either for or against prosecution,” according to a statement from his office.
This trend, Kearney said, has led to some retailers feeling like they're on their own to handle theft. “Realizing that their public-private partnership has kind of eroded, the retailers are forced to look for an alternative means to protect their merchandise,” said Kearney.
In many cases that means locking up items, especially ones that meet at least one of the criteria in the acronym CRAVED: Concealable, removable, available, valuable, enjoyable, and disposable.
But this solution comes with the unwelcome side effect of frustrating paying customers, especially during ongoing labor shortages, when tracking down an employee can be difficult. Shoppers want to interact with merchandise — read the labels, see how it feels.
“When that is interfered with, there's a decrease in sales,” said Kearney.
Olivia Nardolillo, a Suffolk University student who picked up an acrylic nail kit from the Washington Street CVS, said finding an employee to unlock cases can be a hassle.
“If it's something that I need, I'm just like, 'Oh my god, I wish I could just grab it and go,'” she said.
And locked cases don't always deter theft. Gina Ramirez, an employee at the downtown CVS, said people still find ways to steal. “We'll take a product out of the case, and they'll just walk away,” she said, and for liability purposes, employees are not allowed to pursue them.
That's why some retailers are trying 'smarter' loss prevention tools, like RFID systems (tags that can track items through radio waves) or AI-based video analytics linked to a company's self-checkouts or point-of-sale systems.
Even the locked case concept is getting a makeover. IndyMe is developing a product dubbed the Freedom Case, where shoppers can use their cellphone number, a store's loyalty card, or face ID to unlock a case, which then uses AI to track potentially suspicious behaviors, like how long the case is open. (There is also an option to call an associate to unlock the case.)
“What we're trying to do is say, 'Let's have no friction for legitimate customers, and let's have high friction for your offender pool,'” said Budano, the chief executive.
IndyMe is partnering with brands like Gillette — whose products are among those most often locked up, and therefore also suffering from losses in sales, says Budano — to pilot the Freedom Case in stores. Read Hayes of the Loss Prevention Research Council said he knows of three major retail chains testing out AI-enabled locked cases, but declined to say which ones.
In other words: Since there is no silver bullet to stop theft, locked cases, in one form or another, seem to be here to stay.
“There's no perfect solution, unfortunately, but there are new technologies out there, and hopefully things that will make it easy for the customer and not impede the shopping experience,” said Brewer.