The Science of Shoplifting
Growing up, Dr. Read Hayes saw his father and grandfather, both physicians, study the human body and how disease affects it. He read their medical journals with interest in the science behind medicine.
Today, Dr. Hayes, who has a doctorate in criminology, is a scientist who studies criminals, loss prevention and shoplifting. As co-director of the Loss Prevention Research Team at the University of Florida, he has spent his entire career in loss prevention and retail security.
Theft and fraud cost U.S. retailers billions in annual losses, as well as generating violence, demonstrating human decision-making gone bad. University of Florida scientists with Dr. Hayes are working with more than 75 technologies in their Innovation Lab in Gainesville, Florida, as well as in more than 20 stores in that city to refine ways to deter crime attempts in a variety of environments.
Dr. Hayes and his team have help from more retailers including Walmart, Target, Lowe’s, Home Depot, CVS, Walgreens, Bloomingdales, Best Buy, AutoZone, Verizon, T-Mobile, Toys R Us and TJ Maxx, who work together via 11 working groups to tackle in-store, parking lot, supply chain and online crime and loss problems.
With the blessing of both the penetration tester “criminals” and the store staff, the researchers watch thieves as they decide what, how and if to steal, though the shoplifters stop short of actually leaving with the goods.
Dr. Hayes and his team also study crime prevention begins before customers even enter the store: he and his colleagues evaluate security cameras that can report the license plate of a car parked in front of a store that might be poised for a getaway, as well as facial recognition technology so sophisticated that it can detect the age, gender, even mood of a would-be criminal. Another camera can recognize known offenders and alert staff to their presence.
Why do you believe in learning the science of shoplifting?
I look at it like a physician studies medicine. When you try to prevent heart attacks, you look at how much a role is played by diet, exercise, stress. You have to understand how the disease works to design the cure and evaluate how the cure is working. We apply the same principles to understanding how bad guy stuff works and how our tools work.
I was a security practitioner for many years, starting as a store detective, then a loss prevention manager. The more I studied shoplifting, the more I realized that it can have very serious outcomes, including life safety. Working as a part-time store detective early in my career, I was watching the sales floor from the stockroom above when I noticed a woman taking clothes off their hangers and giving them to an accomplice, who put them in his bag while a third person acted as a lookout. I called my manager, and we approached the three of them. One by one, they started resisting, then attacking. An off-duty deputy sheriff ran over, and they started fighting us. By the end, about six police officers were involved. One of the offenders was a big, powerfully built guy who was able to throw people around, and who managed to kick out the side window out of patrol car.
What are you studying in your Innovation Lab?
We have adopted a medical model in our research, looking at retail crime the way doctors look at disease. And we look at many things, such as the height of the shelves to the placement of the cash registers and how they influence criminal decision-making. We test innovations in theft prevention, watching how customers and criminals react. Just as interesting to us are the deterrents that criminals don’t notice, such as security cameras. A good deterrent makes a would-be criminal reconsider, but isn’t so intrusive that it makes paying customers feel uncomfortable.
Crime control techniques are designed to make theft seem too risky, too difficult, or not worth it to would-be thieves. After these tactics are developed or enhanced, active criminal offenders are exposed to these “treatments,” and many are evaluated in dozens of stores using medical style field experiments known as randomized controlled trials.
You also have three basic approaches to theft…
It’s called “See – Get – Fear”. Criminals have to first see the deterrent, understand what it does, and fear that it will work well enough to land them in jail. So we get real-world insight from active offenders, who tell us not only into what they see, get and fear, but why they steal particular items. Razor blades, Tide laundry detergent, Crest Whitestrips, baby formula and the heartburn medication Prilosec are favorite targets worldwide. These items check many of the boxes defined by researchers as desirable to thieves: They’re easy to carry and hide, available in a wide variety of stores, expensive to purchase and simple to resell. We try to understand how much thieves discount and assess personal risk. It’s fascinating to understand how criminals will grossly underestimate the risk.