Regardless of the protective progress retailers and solutions providers are making, thieves are still carrying off billions of dollars' worth of goods annually. While merchandise loss costs retailers huge amounts of money, theft-driven product out-of-stocks, and sometimes locked up goods, it also deters sales to good customers. Happy, buying customers are the lifeblood of retailing. And tragically, many theft attempts create violence, injuries, and crippling "avoidance behavior" by good customers from the fear of crime. Naturally retail loss prevention executives continue to seek more impactful countermeasures.
In the very recent past many loss prevention decision makers based their protective strategies and actions on anecdote, gut feeling, and comparisons with other retail companies. But increasingly LP executives are moving to the evidence-based model favored by medical and other high-risk disciplines. Gut feelings can be accurate, but crime and loss, particularly life safety, is too important to be tackled without using good, focused crime prevention tools supported by extensive and rigorous scientific evidence.
Predictive modeling, offender interviewing, and randomized field experiments provide that needed evidence. Sound research-supported theory should support the "how to" for best business practices. Good theory is practical, not guesswork. Theory is simply an explanation about how things work; there really is nothing more practical than a good theory.
Crime prevention theory is a work in progress, but basically explains how criminals come into contact with desirable, vulnerable targets, and how they tend to behave in differing situations and environments. Theory provides practitioners with the tools to better prevent, discover, and solve crime events. Theory describes how crime prevention tools actually work to affect offender behavior—in other words their "mechanism of action." Situational crime prevention is probably the most useful and empirically supported prevention theory or toolkit that crime and loss control executives have.
Most professional disciplines have research-backed guiding principles. Security and loss prevention professionals require similar support to help practitioners more accurately diagnose problems, as well as describe and deploy appropriate crime prevention treatments. Criminology's rational choice perspective or theory provides much of what is needed by spelling out how criminals make semi-rational choices about what, where, and how to offend based on opportunities as well as perceived personal risks and rewards. Each person has differing genetic makeups, self-control levels, and social learning experiences. But regardless of these background factors, foreground factors, such as the built and social environment; movement and travel patterns for work, shopping, and recreation; and socialization, also shape behavior in both positive and negative ways.
Pretty much everything an individual does is the result of a choice. We do have free will, and deciding to be deviant or to commit a certain crime is a choice, regardless of different biological and social backgrounds. Rational choice theory describes this process so we can shape our deterrent measures.
Consider a potential offender walking into a store to steal something. Their heart rate may be up, they may be in a hurry, they may be high, they may not be the brightest intellect around, and they probably tend to underestimate risk or over value rewards like money or peer praise. All of these factors constrain or negatively affect judgment. But they make rational calculations—thus rational choice. Their decisions may not be totally rational, but their decision process has the elements of a rational calculation. They consider opportunity, personal risk, and, of course, personal rewards when choosing what, why, and how to steal.
Situational crime prevention is designed to consider each factor offenders look at, and then precisely shape perceptions and reality. The current array of these deterrent measures is compiled in the Situational Crime Prevention matrix described below.
Situational Crime Prevention
Each type and subtype of crime is subtly different, as is each location, meaning crime prevention efforts should be precisely focused on the situation at hand. This is the basis for Professors Derek Cornish and Ronald Clarkes' situational crime prevention (SCP) toolkit.
SCP spells out how practitioners should use a diagnostic process like criminologists' John Eck and William Spellman's SARA (scanning, analysis, response, and assessment) model to precisely define a problem, such as commercial armed robbery of a pharmacy for pain drugs versus robbing departing customers in a parking lot. Both are robberies, but each is very different as far as offender motives as well as the hunting, attack, and commission styles. And like evidence-based medical treatments, cost-efficient crime prevention treatments are made possible by detailing situational crime problems.
Once the crime event problem is thoroughly described, executives apply indicated SCP techniques. The primary SCP techniques involve making crime attempts more difficult, more risky, and less rewarding. To be effective, preventive interventions don't have to perfect, or even for real, they just have to convince would-be criminals that theft attempts are too much work, too risky, or not worth it. After deployment, crime prevention interventions are rigorously evaluated to determine their real-world impact and cost benefits.
Benefit Denial Defined
Much of the University of Florida's Crime Prevention Research Team and the Loss Prevention Research Council's research team's efforts are directed at developing and rigorously field testing highly focused crime prevention interventions using the SARA and SCP process. We're looking at various ways people, programs, and systems are best deployed to deter offenders by increasing their crime effort, making them feel much more at risk of detection and response, and by helping them sense their contemplated crime attempt will not be rewarding enough.
Our research methods include systematic offender interviews in commercial spaces and places to get their perspectives. We want to understand what interventions they see (see it), if they can explain how they work (get it), and how their behavior has been or might be affected by them (fear it). The see it, get it, and fear it factors are essential to deterence.
We then make ongoing innovations and adjustments for real-world field evaluation. Our evaluations are usually randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in order to compare crime event or loss levels before and after in test locations compared to non-test control places. RCTs not only provide rigorous impact measurement, but cost-benefit estimates as well.
Our teams also examine how long and why it takes crime prevention treatments to reach "therapeutic" levels, peak, and then to lose steam. Critical questions include:
- What are the best dosage levels, for example, how many camera domes, and
- What are the optimum deployment tactics, such as best heights, placement, signage, and other factors?
We have to better understand why some crime prevention treatments work better in some spots than others. Like medications, crime prevention treatments have varying effects in different locations and on different people. We want to identify and address those critical risk and protective factors that affect differential impact to make impact improvements.
Loss prevention practitioners already deploy protective singular and combined techniques to make crime attempts riskier or more difficult. When it comes to making offenders think their contemplated crime act would be too risky, practitioners use many of the following techniques:
- Employee awareness campaigns,
- Store detectives,
- Reporting hotlines,
- Transactional approval procedures,
- Exception reporting,
- Burglar alarms,
- Spider wraps, and
- Safers or Keepers to name a few.
Physical barriers, locks, combinations, passwords, cabling, limiting curb cuts, and numerous other tactics increase crime effort. But since crime levels remain at unacceptable levels, loss prevention managers need more tools. And making crime attempts less rewarding is where benefit denial comes into play.
Benefit Denial's Background
Retailers adopted ink or dye tags from Sweden in the late 1980s to protect apparel merchandise, heralding the first known use of benefit denial devices in the U.S. In 1989 the author created the term "benefit denial" when Bob DiLonardo, then of Security Tag, which was later purchased by Sensormatic/ADT/Tyco, requested a term to describe what and how ink tags, and other newly developed metal clamps for eyewear, wallets, earrings, and other jewelry, functioned to reduce theft.
Benefit denial seemed to succinctly describe the protective "mechanism of action" that essentially is defined as: stolen goods protected with benefit denial will not benefit the stealer since the goods will not work unless purchased.
For example, illicit removal of ink tags results in the spraying of dye on the protected garment, thus reducing self-use or conversion to cash. Similarly, the metal clamps damage the items enough to deny thieves and fences any benefit unless removed as part of a purchase.
Retailers and security technology companies adopted the benefit-denial term. Likewise, Professor Clarke placed the benefit-denial concept into the rapidly evolving situational crime prevention matrix so criminologists and practitioners would be able to further develop and test this relatively new crime prevention concept.
Other more contemporary benefit-denial techniques include cell phones that don't work until being activated after purchase, car stereos that don't function if the faceplate is removed, and...an oft-cited example...special hotel hangers with very small hooks or small ball tops that require special racks. In this low-tech example, benefit denial does not make stealing hangers riskier or more difficult; rather they make it less rewarding unless the thief steals the rack as well or sells the hangers to other hotels.
Some retailers now combine benefit denial with the threat of detection (increasing the risk) by combining ink and EAS tags on high-loss clothing items.
The goal of retail is to profitably sell merchandise. The goal of loss prevention is to support that objective in part by creating the ability to sell more while losing less. Open or self-serve merchandise access means more sales and better shopper-retailer relationships.
Increasingly senior retail executives realize theft and the fear of theft by store-level managers drives much of modern retailing. Fearful managers striving for year-end bonuses may tend to lock up, hide, or only put out small quantities of items thereby reducing sales. Benefit-denial technologies hold the promise of much more open selling of even very high-value items.
Going to the Next Level
Recently, leading retail chains have banded together to inspire and facilitate benefit-denial technology development. The Loss Prevention Research Council (LPRC) established a Benefit-Denial Working Group headed by Best Buy's Tim Fisher and Walmart's Dain Sutherland. The working group consists of over fifteen retail companies, including Lowe's, Sterling Jewelers, OfficeMax,
CVS/pharmacy, and Sears Holdings; security solution providers such as DiSa and Proteqt; and high-loss product manufacturers Abbott Nutrition and Elizabeth Arden.
"Benefit-denial technology has the potential to positively impact losses throughout the entire supply chain, making products useless unless legitimately purchased," says Fisher, director of asset protection and safety for Best Buy. "The technology could dramatically change the way retail thinks about everything from shipping to back stock to display. It could drive benefits in transportation costs, insurance, shrink, and ultimately customer costs."
The group has established a mission statement, objectives, and is setting up small pilots to encourage and adjust benefit-denial solutions for a range of products, including optical disks like Blu-ray DVDs, consumer electronics, printer ink, fragrance bottles, jewelry, power tools, and over-the-counter medications.
The LPRC benefit-denial working group is also looking at developing a descriptive term for public consumption that reflects benefit denial in a more favorable light.
Likewise, the Entertainment Merchants Association (EMA) is leading a group of retailers and electronic media providers, including gaming software developers, movie studios, and music producers, to conduct technical and efficacy testing of benefit-denial technologies in conjunction with the LPRC.
Other benefit-denial development efforts include Elizabeth Arden working with the LPRC and several leading drug and mass retailers, as well as with protective solution providers, to look at including benefit-denial technology into fragrance bottles and/or packaging. Further, the Retail Industry Leaders Association's (RILA) horizons committee is working to define benefit denial as part of a range of product protection solution concepts for further development.
Several entrepreneurial companies as well as forward-thinking retailers are working on new benefit-denial approaches to product protection.
Benefit-denial technology developer DiSa Digital Safety has produced a system that can work within or separately from a retailer's point-of-sale computer infrastructure. The current, but evolving, version renders electronic good such as cell phones, TVs, mp3 players, cameras, and laptops unusable until a legitimate purchase generates a unique code to activate the unit.
Another benefit-denial innovator, ProTeqt Technologies, has fielded a process that employs chemically bonded locks for DVDs, bottle caps, and many other products that lock the item until the purchase process unlocks the item for normal use.
Both organizations are working on benefit-denial products for a wide range of product categories. And no doubt many other developers are working away on other benefit-denial concepts for merchandise and other valuable assets.
Likewise, Walmart has been working on a proprietary benefit-denial technology for electronic merchandise as well that provides for unlocking or enabling a device at the point of sale or providing an unlocking code on a customer's receipt.
"Benefit denial is an example of a more advanced theft-deterrent, merchandise protection strategy for Walmart," explains Sutherland, senior manager of asset protection shrink and inventory research. "Our focus remains to rely less on mechanical gadgets and to aggressively transition to more customer-friendly and effective measures. This allows us to keep key, high-theft, high-sales items accessible to customers without the inconvenience of having to unlock a showcase or other more restrictive measure."
These and future benefit-denial technologies will need laboratory and in-store development and testing to make sure they work as advertised, as well as:
- Don't interfere with other technologies or electronic signals,
- Prove durable in demanding retail environments,
- Are efficient for already over-tasked store employees,
- Don't disturb or hinder busy, selective shoppers,
- Are easily understood and failsafe for customer activation and use, and
- Prove cost-effective at scale.
As loss prevention and law enforcement move to the evidence-based model, more crime prevention innovations, including benefit-denial concepts, should emerge, truly creating the conditions for selling more while losing less in a safer environment.
Benefit denial is not the total product protection answer for all assets in all places. Many store locations are daily exposed to huge theft risk due to surrounding criminogenic conditions. In other situations managers may be less than competent or not committed to strong, ongoing asset protection efforts. Situations like these will require extra help.
Benefit-denial technologies and other emerging solutions will need to work with existing countermeasures, such as protective packaging, Keepers and wraps, special pegs and display fixtures, electronic surveillance and notification, RFID, smart and open store layout and design, and a myriad of other technologies and tactics.
But at this point, it is encouraging to see that both growing evidence and crime prevention theory all point to the promise of selling more and losing less by making theft less rewarding with benefit-denial technologies.