CSN EXCLUSIVE: Tackling Retail Crime With Store Design

C-store retailers should be data-driven in their efforts to assess the problem of shrink within their operations.
Danielle Romano
Managing Editor
Danielle Romano
A camera monitoring a retail store

NATIONAL REPORT — Shoplifting is becoming a bigger problem in retail overall, leading some big names to shutter some stores in high-crime areas, and convenience store chains are not immune to this epidemic.

Since 2020, Pennsylvania-based Wawa Inc. has shuttered several convenience stores in the Center City neighborhood of Philadelphia — a decision made following a rise in safety concerns within the city.

Stewart's Shops recently closed an Albany, N.Y., store following a surge in theft, robberies, and verbal and physical assaults, which created an unsafe environment for customers and employees, and an unsustainable business environment.

"It's easy to assume that shoplifting is rarer at a brand-new, next-gen c-store in an affluent neighborhood, but this might not actually be the case," James Owens, AIA, NCARB, and vice president at HFA Architecture + Engineering, told Convenience Store News. "High-traffic locations can translate into a high number of incidents. Meanwhile, your inner-city stores in high-crime neighborhoods might already be substantially hardened against in-store theft."

[Read more: Retail Theft in the U.S.: It's a Crime]

So, what can be done to deter theft and crime? Owens points to store design as one piece of the equation, but it’s important to remember that effectively combating shrink involves a lot more than the store itself. 

"It's absolutely the case that the right store design can help fight shoplifting, but we do need to be humble about how much it can help. C-stores have always faced the phenomenon of brazen thieves — people who will just walk into the store late at night, grab a 12-pack of beer and stroll out. If the shoplifter doesn't care about being seen or caught, there's only so much that design can do," he said. "But a great many would-be shoplifters do care about getting caught. With this more self-conscious group, design can move the needle."

Convenience retailers who want to quantify the problem, whether chainwide or store-by-store, should run internal investigations, commission third-party studies by loss-prevention experts and do deep dives into security footage to come to the table with actual data.

"To the greatest extent possible, c-stores should be data-driven in their efforts to assess the problem of shrink within their operations. Doing so is important because it helps you better understand the level of investment needed to fight shrink," Owens said. "Understanding what products are walking out the door will give you a clearer picture of where to concentrate your mitigation efforts."

As c-store executives engage with their designers on new or redeveloped stores, they should discuss a few basic, orienting questions from the outset, such as:

  1. What more could be done to fight shrink by adjusting basic elements such as layout, customer flow, shelf height, mirrors, lighting and the placement of gondolas, merchandise and security cameras?
  2. What items are highest on the priority list of would-be thieves? What are the highest-value items in that store? How can you protect them without creating excessive waits and headaches for customers?
  3. How is the overall approach to security going to work in terms of technology platforms, personnel, alarm systems, etc.?

"The answers, in some cases, could help shape the design of the store," Owens said. "Fortunately, the convenience store sector for many years now has been gravitating toward open, light-filled, high-visibility store environments. More efficient supply chains have made it easier for them to engage in SKU rationalization. Their stores are less like warehouses full of stuff than they were in the past, and so they’re harder to steal from without being seen. They're also more pleasing to shop."

The Self-Checkout Conundrum 

Labor savings have led many retailers to embrace self-checkout, but convenience stores that employ this technology need to be cognizant of its potential security downsides. Simply put, self-checkout can translate into an easy opportunity for shoplifting. 

A recent survey from online lending market LendingTree found that 15% of respondents said they have purposely taken an item while supposedly scanning. Additionally, while 60% of participants reported feeling remorse afterwards, 44% plan to steal items again when using self-checkout.

"Work with your designer to make sure users of your self-checkout stations feel that they are being carefully watched. If you're considering using technology to raise a red alert when customers miss a scan, you should also weigh the downsides of this for both store employees, (who will have to confront that customer) and the customers themselves. Some retailers have run into problems with these alerts offending and irritating law-abiding shopper," Owens said.

[Read more: Laying Out the Pros & Cons of Self-Checkout vs. Checkout-Free]

Unfortunately, theft by cashiers continues to be a big problem at c-stores, he added. Deterrence can be strengthened through store design that help cashiers realize that they are highly visible to surveillance systems, customers and other employees.

"Moving an excessive amount of higher-value merchandise behind the counter could protect it from theft in the aisles, but if the area behind the counter gets so packed with items that it is shielded from view, this could encourage dishonest cashiers to steal," Owens explained. "Additionally, with more items out of customer reach, a retailer could start to have longer queuing times. That might create a temptation to bring in more self-checkout, but it's important to remember the shrink-related risks of self-checkout as well."

Technical Interference 

According to findings from the Convenience Store News 2023 Technology Study, nearly half of the c-store retailers surveyed (44%) said they planned to invest in technology to reduce theft and shrinkage. However, not every convenience retailer is going to have the budget needed to roll out today’s most advanced shrink-fighting technologies.

Knowledgeable representatives from the tech vendor itself might have recommendations for how design could be employed to maximize the sightline effectiveness of things like artificial intelligence (AI)-integrated cameras. "At the very least, you want to do all you can to make sure nothing in your design hampers the functionality of the planned technology," Owens said.

[Read more: Retailers Take New Approaches to Fight a Growing Problem]

The executive highlighted some of the innovation in the technology space that are help fighting shrink:

  • Everseen, an Irish AI company claims to give retailers end-to-end visibility across checkout, inventory management and supply chain. "As I understand it, if somebody does something like put their hand over a barcode and pretend to scan an item, the system can actually flag that bad scan."
  • Advanced surveillance solutions from enterprises such as Axis Communications and Eagle Eye Networks provide secure and flexible management tools to monitor the entire store.
  • Vendors of facial-recognition systems, like Blue Line Technologies, could potentially help c-stores identify repeat offenders and prevent them from hitting the store again.
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