Stopping shoplifting? Researchers at UF lab think like a shoplifter to deter, detect costly crime

Shoplifting, often considered a victimless crime impacting only large corporations, is a problem growing in many communities, with a ripple effect that ultimately impacts our wallets.

However, researchers in Gainesville are trying to find out how to deter this type of crime — testing products and techniques that could save us all money.

Could their work detect, deter, and document crime, saving money for companies and consumers alike?

American retail stores reported staggering losses of $112 billion in 2022, a figure that resonates with consumers who ultimately bear the brunt of these losses through increased prices.

Why does stealing from a multi-billion-dollar company matter for the basic consumer?

Dr. Read Hayes, a former detective and University of Florida research scientist explains.

“Many of those retailers you just mentioned are closing stores in San Francisco, Albuquerque, Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington, LA, Philadelphia, and so on,” Dr. Hayes told News4JAX. “So those big retailers are closing. And millions of Americans don’t have credit cards and rely on their local store, millions of Americans do not buy online, they don’t trust it.”

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And that’s just the start of it, according to Dr. Hayes, who’s now one of the country’s leading shoplifting researchers as the founder of the Loss Prevention Research Council.

“The high loss items, many stores now are just aren’t carrying them anymore,” he said. “It’s because the theft level is not sustainable. Even a major corporation, you know, is not going to be able to sustain that kind of loss level. So now when you go to your store, you can’t get it.”

One in 4 companies involved in a nationwide survey told the National Retail Federation they were forced to close a specific store because of high theft. Nearly half reduced their hours, and 1 in 3 cut back on products they put on shelves.

This can be everything from jeans and tools to laundry detergent and razors, even beef jerky and energy drinks!

How do you stop this?

“You’ll see different methods,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is make it harder.”

Hayes and his team at the Loss Prevention Research Council, a group that partners with UF and dozens of national brands, work to think like a criminal to stop a criminal.

“We know a lot of shoplifters like to sweep into a bag, so if we require them to use two hands to remove items, now they’ve got to hold this up.

In fact, they even use seasoned shoplifters to test out products at the SaferPlaces Lab at the UF Innovation hub. They have a grocery list of the biggest brands — from The Home Depot to Walmart to Target and CVS — which they partner with.

LPRC’s mission focuses on research, innovation, collaboration, information, and engagement.

And from ink that destroys the pants to a lid that won’t let someone open a liquor bottle without cracking it, this simulated storefront has hundreds of the newest devices to stop, or slow down thieves, who often steal and then sell the items either online, at corner stores and flea markets or in other countries.

Will requiring someone to put their phone number in to get an access code do the trick? Or will it take artificial intelligence which uses cameras and computers to detect someone making sweeping items into a purse, or trying to cheat the self-checkout, alert managers to would-be thieves?

“It’s progressed to the point with never seen technology AI computer vision, where it also can recognize the object if you’re, you know, the example is, let’s say you’ve got a high priced item, and you’re scanning a low priced item,” Hayes said. “Now the cameras saying that what you scan doesn’t match up with that. And it can be it’s object recognition.”

All of that is tested on UF’s campus.

“There are 100 things you can do,” he noted. “We try and list them all, you know. And so there are countermeasures, but nothing’s perfect.”

Retail theft carries a big financial burden. Florida stores lost 5.4 billion dollars in 2022, Georgia lost 2.4 billion, and that means hundreds of millions of dollars in sales tax to help your community is missed.

There’s also the dangerous aspect.

There have been many instances of violent confrontations between store employees and shoplifters.

And it goes both ways, police in Ohio shot and killed a pregnant woman accused of stealing as she tried to drive off.

Research from the Council on Criminal Justice shows a rise in store assaults, with 11,000 reported across the US in 2022. This is why many companies have a hands-off approach, 2 in 5 telling employees not to confront shoplifters (NRF), some even have a policy to not call police. The second part irks 4th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson.

“As a state attorney, that’s very frustrating,” said Northeast Florida’s top prosecutor. “To me. It’s also frustrating to me as a citizen. It’s… theft is a problem for we’re seeing it across the country and sending the message to the community that you can come in and take whatever you like, and you’re not going to be held accountable.”

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She believes police should handle this and consequences should be harsh. not letting thieves off the hook so they can offend again.

“And it sends the wrong message,” she added. “And it certainly sends the wrong message to law-abiding citizens who are working hard to pay their bills.”

Back in Gainesville, at the SaferPlaces Lab, the goal is to deter crime from happening altogether with better lighting, better cameras, and better store design could be the future to making sure the goods you want to buy stay on the shelves, and at a reasonable price.

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