Design Out Shoplifting was a student challenge with Central Saint Martins and the Royal Society of Arts to generate anti-shoplifting designs. It was part of Design Out Crime, a 2008–10 initiative from the Home Office’s Design and Technology Alliance against Crime and the Design Council.

The problem

According to a survey from the British Chambers of Commerce, business crime cost the UK £12.6 billion in 2008. In the same year, 63.5% of small businesses experienced crime, at an average cost of £13,354 per small business. Yet many small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) feel they come second to large businesses in getting government and police support against crime.

Customer theft is a particular problem. In 2008–09 it reportedly accounted for 42% of all losses by value, against just 4% for robbery and 9% for burglary, according to the 2009 British Retail Consortium Retail Crime Survey. SME retailers often operate on tight margins and can be driven out of business completely by crime. Larger retailers, meanwhile, inevitably pass on the costs of shop theft to customers through higher prices, meaning the poorest are hardest hit.

We could stop theft if we employed more people but it’s an expense that we can’t justify.

Malcom, managing director, specialist whiskey retailer, Central London

Part of the difficulty in addressing shoplifting and shop theft is that it is not one single activity, but breaks down into several methods:

  • Concealing merchandise in clothing, handbags, strollers, umbrellas or purchased merchandise
  • Walking out – or running out – with goods
  • ‘Accidental’ stealing (if thieves are challenged, they can simply pass theft off as a mistake)  
  • Distracting employees, customers and security guards while a partner steals goods
  • Shielding RFID-tagged merchandise in metal-lined clothing and containers from scanners
  • Switching price labels

We also stole hand-held and easily concealed inventory control tag removers, which we carried in foil-lined candy boxes. They increased our productivity and made our job easier and less time-consuming.

a professional shoplifter

You can read more about our research into crimes affecting SMEs in this guide.

Our approach

Police lack the resources to arrest and prosecute every perpetrator of petty theft. So how can shop theft be deterred? Solutions may lie not only in shop security, but also in packaging, store design and communication. In order to generate anti-shoplifting designs, Design Out Crime ran two student challenges through Central Saint Martins and the Royal Society of Arts. 

The results

Below are the winning and shortlisted designs from RSA's competition, as well as a few of the more interesting submissions from both challenges. 

Jy Yeon Suh (Central Saint Martin, winner of the NCR Internship worth £4,500) - Barcodes are coated with transparent Photochromatic ink that turns blue when scanned over UV light at checkout, providing a simple, quick visual check on whether an item has been paid for.

Rachael Muli (University of East London, winner of the Design Out Crime award of £2,500) - An advertising campaign for stores and magazines designed to educate young women about the harm that cosmetics theft does to stores and to make it clear that the practice is socially unacceptable ('shoplifting is ugly').

Cosmetics are an easy target for shoplifting: it isn’t difficult to hide them in a sleeve or pocket; they are displayed in large quantities, making it difficult for store staff to determine whether an item is missing; and most items are too small to carry a security tag.

Jamie Bates (shortlisted) - A system of wrist-communication devices for security guards, allowing them to coordinate their activities and converge on problem areas without thieves being alerted too soon. 

Security guards often feel mismanaged and ill-tasked, leading them to become unmotivated and, as a result, their awareness to theft is diminished. This solution separates individual retail environments into colour-allocated zones according to risk levels. The responsibility of guarding each zone rotates randomly within the security team, encouraging the movement of staff to different areas of the store, which in turn increases their visibility. Overlapping zones enable interaction between members of the security team, helping to eliminate feelings of isolation.

Oliver Boulton (shortlisted) - By detecting RFID tags (non-detachable tags integrated at the point of manufacture), a floor panel at exits and checkouts would flash green to show items had been paid for and red to show they had not.

The tagging of products also allows for the introduction of smart trolleys and the use of self-service checkouts that capture all tagged products on a person.

Alex Camp (shortlisted) - A tamper-proof sticker would be placed on items to show they had been paid for, preventing shoplifters from bringing stolen items into a shop and getting fraudulent refunds.

When a product is scanned through a till, a sticker would be dispensed from a separate printer. Placed on the item, it would visibly indicate that the product was paid for as well as specific information like time and date of purchase.

Matthew Pateman  (shortlisted) - Integrated with RFID technology, a product would only activate certain other services if it were paid for – for instance, a washing machine might refuse to wash a stolen shirt.

The solution is based on integrating RFID chips into every high-value consumer product sold. The RFID chip would have a unique number, which would be logged on a database when the product is purchased. Various RFID communication points could be used to monitor and determine if the product had been paid for. For the consumer, the RFID chip could contain product information offering multiple services linked to the brand. For the manufacturer, it opens multiple opportunities, such as self-programmable washing machines.

Scott Martin - Staff surveillance, with transactions made on the shop floor so employees can act as visual deterrents to thieves.

One of the most effective theft prevention techniques is engaging and attentive customer service. This solution would also encourage staff to be more vigilant by moving them from behind the till.

Ed Bailey - The Core, a tamperproof RFID security device made from two halves that clamp through the centre hole of a disc to form one solid security tag, without obstructing the view of the product inside or outside.

The Core is an alternative to keeping discs behind the counter and to bulky and expensive secondary cases.

Mai Ohashi  - An anti-shoplifting single hook, designed to make removal of an item more noticeable by requiring a hand twist and arm raise.

Current retail hooks allow shoplifters to pull several items off hooks quickly and easily without drawing attention to themselves.

Theresa O’Keeffe - Secura, a credit card-shaped security tag for wallets and purses that preserves the appearance of the products.

Mainstream tagging solutions are ineffective in securing purses and wallets. A secondary benefit of Secura is that it allows the product to be suspended using the security device itself.

Anna Schwamborn - A perfume station that attracts customers to test and experience fragrances but prevents thieves from stealing tester bottles.

Perfume is an expensive product that is experienced prior to purchase, making sample bottles targets for shoplifting. With the perfume station, customers experience the fragrance via a traditional, proper way of using perfume.

Luke Smoothy - High Hanger, a hanging system that attracts attention through the exaggerated movement and greater visibility created by this modified clothes hanger.

Sam Hodgson - The Wearable Coat Hanger is attached to clothing items and can only be removed at the till.

Clothing can be easily and discreetly removed from hangers making them easy to conceal. The Wearable Coat Hanger uses a secure clip system that keeps the clothing attached to the hanger in the shop. Only a specific shop key can open the clip.

Fraser Gibb - Envisaging that RFID technology will replace existing tags, The Changing Room System makes visible the otherwise hidden act of trying on clothes.

The idea is to create a lack of privacy for theft activity by visually capturing and recording the clothes taken in and out of changing rooms, rather than by relying on number allocations and memory.

Click here for a PDF with further information about the Design Out Shoplifting student challenges. 

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