Boston Globe

More shoplifting leads to large retailers keeping more products under lock and key and shoppers frustrated.

A row of deodorants behind a locked crate at a CVS location in downtown Boston in October. Dana Gerber

Walk into almost any Walgreens, CVS or Target these days and you’re sure to see rows of products encased in clear cases. Not just the latest tech must-have or expensive appliances – but also everyday items like toothpaste and body wash, for which customers now need to press the “help button” for an employee to unlock them.

This has become a known annoyance to customers. Amina Chitaoui, who recently picked up wax strips at CVS in Downtown Crossing, has noticed this time and time again.

“You have to wait, and then sometimes you’re not sure what you want to get, so you have to pick quickly, even if it might not be your first choice,” she said.

Sometimes when in a hurry, Chitaoui walks away from a potential purchase. She decided to buy a razor – an item that is almost always found behind one of the locked cupboards – online.

“It’s easier that way,” she said. “It’s more convenient that way.”

If that sounds like a nightmare scenario for brick-and-mortar stores, go for it devastated by the pandemic and e-commerce competition – you’d be right. Customers may hate seeing their grocery list behind a key and lock, but retailers hate it even more.

“Blocking up is the last thing retailers want to do,” said Ryan Kearney, general counsel of the Massachusetts Retail Association. “But when the alternative is not to have the good the consumer is looking for – because it has been thrown out the door – they don’t really have a choice.”

With shoplifting reportedly on the rise, many retailers are faced with a losing-lose scenario: leave merchandise unobstructed and risk being swept away, or shut down and risk scaring away paying customers.

The latter seems to be winning: nearly half of retailers said their 2022 budgets for loss prevention technology were higher than their 2021 budgets. study by the National Retail Federation released in September. At CVS downtown, where Chitaoui shopped, everything from coffee to deodorant was behind locked cupboards. Some companies are considering even more extreme measures: Rite Aid’s retail director in late September He said investors that chain is “looking at literally putting everything behind display cases” in its stores in New York to stop rampant theft.

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In late September, Rite Aid’s chief retailer said the chain was “looking at literally putting everything behind display cases” to stop theft. – DAVID PAUL MORRIS / BLOOMBERG

So how did we get here?

Plastic crates are a testament to the increase in theft that retailers say has accelerated since the onset of COVID-19. In February, a CVS spokesperson told Axios that the network has seen a 300 percent increase in retail thefts since the start of the pandemic. Last year, Home Depot announced it did began introducing power tools that had to be activated via Bluetooth in the store, rendering them useless in case of theft. In October last year, pointing to an increase in organized shoplifting, Walgreens closed five stores in San Francisco.

“Every retailer, from the grocery store to the pharmacy to apparel and home furnishings, faces this problem,” said Jason Brewer, executive vice president, Retail Industry Leaders Association.

Loss prevention experts largely blame so-called retail organized crime – sophisticated criminal groups that shoplift en masse and resell stolen goods, often on online marketplaces such as eBay or Facebook. Target this month listed organized retail crime as the main culprit in the loss of $400 million worth of merchandise. While this crime has likely become an urban problem again as retailers “harden city centers, soft targets are now migrating to the suburbs,” said Joe Budano, CEO of IndyMe, a company that makes loss prevention products.

Brewer says the anonymity of the online marketplaces where they resell the goods makes it a “fairly low-risk, high-reward” pursuit, with theft ringing sometimes earn millions.

The pandemic has probably contributed to this rise in professional crime, thanks labor shortages in retail this means less ground surveillance and the popularity of online shopping in the COVID era, which has inadvertently led to more demand for stolen goods.

“It started before the pandemic, but it has certainly been accelerated by the pandemic,” Budano said.

Some loss prevention experts point to another factor: laws that raise the threshold for criminal theft. Massachusetts, W Criminal Justice Reform Bill 2018increased threshold for the crime of theft from $250 to $1,200. The limit for shoplifting, still classified as a misdemeanor, is now $250, up from $100. Some argue that raising these thresholds gives people less reason to refrain from stealing—and less inhibition when they do.

“You’d be amazed at the increasing number of criminals who are leaving. They don’t bother running,” said Read Hayes, director of the Loss Prevention Research Council in Florida.

But the data doesn’t necessarily support this theory: A Research conducted in 2017 by the Pew Charitable Trusts examined crime trends in 30 states where theft thresholds were raised and found that “overall rates of property crime or theft were not affected.”

Regardless, arrests related to shoplifting in Boston have declined since the Crime Reform Act was introduced, dropping more than 65 percent from 2018 to today, according to data obtained by The Boston Globe. When she was Suffolk District Attorney, U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins classified shoplifting and theft of goods under $250 as two of the crimes her office would generally decline to press chargesalthough newly elected Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden “does not take a one-dimensional approach, neither for nor against prosecution”, according to a statement from his office.

This trend, Kearney said, has led some retailers to feel they are on their own to deal with theft. “Realizing that their public-private partnership has kind of eroded, retailers are forced to look for alternative ways to protect their goods,” Kearney said.

In many cases, this means locking items, especially those that meet at least one of the criteria of the CRAVED acronym: hideable, replaceable, accessible, valuable, enjoyable, and disposable.

But this solution has the undesirable side effect of frustrating paying customers, especially during ongoing labor shortages when it can be difficult to track down an employee. Shoppers want to interact with goods – read labels, see what it feels like.

“When that’s disrupted, there’s a drop in sales,” Kearney said.

Olivia Nardolillo, a student at Suffolk University who bought a set of acrylic nails from Washington Street CVS, said finding an employee to open cases can be a hassle.

“If it’s something I need, I just say, ‘Oh my god, I wish I could just grab it and walk away,'” she said.

Locked suitcases do not always deter theft. Gina Ramirez, an employee at the CVS center, said people are still finding ways to steal. “We’ll take the product out of the packaging and they’ll just walk away,” she said, and for the sake of liability, employees can’t prosecute them.

That’s why some retailers are trying “smarter” loss prevention tools such as RFID systems (tags that can track items using radio waves) or AI-based video analytics linked to corporate self-service checkouts or point-of-sale systems.

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Freedom Case, created by IndyMe, allows buyers to unlock a product case by entering a phone number or other identifying information. It is also possible to call a store employee to manually unlock the housing. – INDIA

Even the closed box concept is undergoing a metamorphosis. IndyMe is developing a product called A case of freedomwhere shoppers can use their mobile number, store loyalty card or Face ID to unlock the case, which then uses AI to track potentially suspicious behavior such as when the case was opened. (There is also an option to summon a co-worker to unlock the case.)

“What we’re trying to do is say, ‘Let’s not have friction over the legitimate customers and let’s have high friction over the criminal pool,'” said Budano, chief executive officer.

IndyMe is partnering with brands like Gillette – whose products are among the most closed and therefore also suffering from sales losses, says Budano – to pilot Freedom Case in stores. Hayes of the Loss Prevention Research Council said he was aware of three major retailers testing AI-enabled locked boxes, but declined to say which ones.

In other words: since there is no silver bullet to stop theft, locked boxes, in one form or another, seem to be here forever.

“Unfortunately, there is no perfect solution, but new technologies are emerging and hopefully things that will make the customer’s shopping experience easier and not more difficult,” said Brewer.

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