- Retailers’ efforts to curb shoplifting are increasingly spoiling shoppers’ in-store experience.
- Customers wait nearly two minutes on average to get assistance with locked-away items.
- New tech is rolling out at major brands to reduce the hassle in exchange for a cell phone number.
Shoppers across the US are increasingly forced to make an uncomfortable choice when they want to buy something — say, a vibrator — at their local drugstore: ring a bell to summon an overworked retail employee, or walk away.
More stores are locking away merchandise amid rising concerns about retail theft.
Retailers reported an estimated $94.5 billion in total inventory shrink that was largely driven by theft in 2021, according to a survey from the National Retail Federation. And in December 2022, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon warned that rising theft could have consequences, saying “stores will close” unless it is abated.
But a solution that’s designed to help companies’ bottom lines — placing more and more products under lock and key — may be pushing away customers who don’t want to wait for store employees to help them get locked-away products.
Walmart locks many beauty items behind glass doors.
Retailers typically will see a 15% to 25% drop in sales when they put products in locked displays, according to Joe Budano, CEO of the security-device maker Indyme.
Budano’s company is hoping to make a splash with a product called the Freedom Case, which allows retailers to keep products safe while mitigating some of customers’ shopping headaches. Indyme says the Freedom Case is being tested at some Lowe’s, Kroger, Safeway, and Family Dollar locations. In an interview with Forbes last year, Budano said the company was conducting 20 trials. Companies typically roll out new loss-prevention measures after analyzing specific conditions at local stores.
Indyme’s smart lock assumes that a private exchange of personal information is preferable to a storewide announcement that help is needed. The company says that customers wait an average of a minute and 45 seconds for locked merchandise to be retrieved, and that nearly a third will just turn to Amazon to get it instead.
At locations with a Freedom Case installed, customers can sign up with their mobile number to receive a custom PIN to access a locked shelf — or they can ask a store associate for help as before.
“Why would you tell us who you are, and then immediately steal something? Makes no sense, right?” Budano said in an email with Insider. He added that the company never sells or uses customer information for any other purpose.
AI is on the lookout for unusual shopping behavior.
In addition, he explained that an AI-powered camera is on the lookout for “normal shopping behaviors” and will automatically call for an associate if something seems amiss.
Some stores use QR codes or shelf alarms for discreet security
Of course, the Freedom Case follows an ongoing trend of more discreet ways for customers to get what they want from retailers who want more security.
Souped-up vending machines like those made by Signifi Solutions have allowed high-dollar products like Beats headphones to be sold with little more than a credit card swipe and a few taps, while BestBuy has been using QR codes displays for customers to scan and pay for a product before picking it up at the counter.
Another offering from RTC lets shoppers take items from a shelf, but will sound an audio alert if too many are removed at once.
Meanwhile, shopper Maureen Holohan told the Associated Press she’s not quite sold on trading her phone number for access to buy beauty products.
“It’s invasive,” she said. “If they’re going to make it that hard to buy something, I’ll find somewhere else to buy that.”