Riots across the UK from Sunday August 6th to August 9th 2011 cost an estimated £100 million through stock loss and property damage, as unprecedented violence flooded town centres throughout the country.
Many would argue that the majority of the damage caused was unstoppable due to the extraordinary circumstances, others would argue that the trouble underlined the growing need for retailers to protect their assets and goods.
North-west based security firm DW-OZ was recruited by local retail stores to postion guards in Manchester city centre on the Wednesday night after the raids, but the firm’s Head of Business Development Keith Doodson argues that like too much retail security this measure was the equivalent of closing the stable door after the horse had bolted.
He agrees that increased security would not have prevented the looting that occurred in Manchester and other towns and cities but an earlier review of security measures could have reduced losses by moving more goods away from shop windows.
Doodson said: “You are not going to stop mass theft like that. You could have put 20 guards on Bang & Olufsen on that Tuesday night and the 300 looters still would have got in, but the retailer should still have had a full security audit prior to the riots.”
The growth of companies like DW-OZ, which expects to double staff numbers in the next 12 months, shows how retailers are giving greater importance to store security and shrinkage in a post-recession world.
According to the Centre for Retail Research, £977 million was spent in the UK on loss prevention and security in 2010 however the cost of internal and external theft to the industry totalled £1.6 billion and £3.9 billion respectively during the year.
Doodson puts the increasing problem with loss down to economic factors, with tightened purse strings and rising inflation creating a fertile breeding ground for a criminal underclass.
“Even thieves are hard-pressed right now. The price of goods is going up, meaning stolen goods can generate increased revenues for criminals,” he added.
“Luxury goods in particular have become more attractive to shoplifters and to traders on the black market.”
Security systems and solutions provider ORIS Group has been running retailer-led forums on loss prevention since the middle of the last decade and the number of businesses involved has been steadily rising .
These regular meetings allow traders to work together and share advice on how to protect their stores and identify weaknesses, they also give them a unified lobbying voice on issues surrounding security.
Kerinda Ibbotson, Managing Director of ORIS, commented: “You will not find retailers collaborating on many topics due to commercial sensitivity, but through our forums we have been able to achieve this.
“Competition is left at the door; nobody is trying to be top-of-the-shops for shrinkage.”
Ibbotson says that this collective talking method is particularly helpful because the sharing of more specific information between retailers is often prohibited due to the Data Protection Act.
She admits that although some firms claim to be seeing improvements in certain areas of loss, problems persist in all areas of retail and although it appears that more is being invested in traditional security measures, there is no silver bullet to stopping goods going missing.
Many retailers now report as much loss from employee theft as from robberies, and as an employer this poses a whole other set of challenges.
Various innovations are being developed to prevent both shoplifting, through new tag systems and face recognition technology, and internal theft, with better stock control and data mining software, but there will always be the suspicion that criminals can stay one step ahead of these methods.
Author Rachel Shteir investigated store theft for her book “The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting” and argues that thieves have always managed to find a way round any attempts to scupper them in the past.
Shteir argued: “Most technology designed to stop shoplifting does not have a terrific track record.
“Part of what drives shoplifting is cultural so it is difficult to stop. The more common pattern is for the crime to adapt to the technology, using foil to defeat EAS Electronic Article Surveillance tags for example.”
Although this does not mean retailers should ignore technological initiatives, it does perhaps suggest that traders should look at their culture and practices as part of the solution.
In her book, Shteir found that an alarming number of US citizens were happy to admit that they had shoplifted at some time in their lives and she argues that there is less of a taboo surrounding the activity than many would suspect.
“In general, it seems that shoplifting has become more acceptable,” Sheir continued.
“I would say there is no one explanation as to why; we do live in a confessional culture and of course at times shoplifting is seen less as a crime than a cultural joke.”
Perhaps the positive reaction by many communities to the riots and outrage expressed at the crimes committed will alter this perception somewhat in the UK but in a world where many download media for free more may need to be done to convince people why stealing is wrong.
Ibbotson says that the recent recession has also altered the typical profile for a shoplifter and suggests that the increasing number of white collar workers losing their jobs has tempted a new demographic to take a chance at stealing.
Doodson rejects that any political motive was behind the looting seen in recent riots however, and claims the shocking scenes of violence should simply act as a wake up call to UK retailers to improve the visibility of their theft deterrents.
“Armed or not, each store in America has guards and in European countries, such as Spain and France, you are increasingly seeing store guards that are trained as customer service operatives,” he said.
“It should be an accepted part of retail to have security guards but we do not seem to have got to that point in the UK yet, we tend to rely on people’s honesty and unfortunately we are constantly being proved wrong.”
Whether through technology, best practices or more men on the ground, getting security right affects one of the most important aspects of any business; its bottom line.
Whilst sales are stagnant or falling for many traders, being able to reduce loss through shrinkage could be the difference between profits and losses, and Ibbotson believes many at the very top of retail companies are now beginning to realise this.
“Security, shrinkage and stock loss are not seen as the sexy end of any the business, not in the way sales is, but companies that prioritise an investment in this area clearly profit from that decision,” she concluded.