Marketing assets

You can’t imagine it. The stores lock everything down.

Shoppers’ frustration is pushing retailers to test a new type of locked case that opens with their smartphone.

OWhen Jonnai Jones, 29, ran out of Aveeno face wash, she headed to nearby Walgreens in Irvington, New Jersey, to buy some. The bottle, like many other products, was locked away, forcing her to wait in line and ask a cashier to go unlock it and let her buy it.

“The wait was an inconvenience,” said Jones, who usually tries to remember to reorder products on Amazon before she runs out. “When I drop by the store in person, it’s because I need the item right away.”

Retailers rushed to lock things down – from razors and soap to socks and pistachios – as theft soared during the pandemic, sparking frustration among shoppers faced with a growing list of items of everyday life that suddenly require reporting an employee. They seek to reduce shoplifting, as well as more coordinated attacks by criminal gangs that target products they can steal in bulk and easily resell online, with some groups millions in net profits.

Nearly 70% of retailers reports an increase in retail organized crime last year, contributing to thefts and losses of up to $69 billion a year, according to the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the Buy Safe America Coalition.

“Everyone locks everything down. It’s a siege mentality,” said Joe Budano, CEO of Indyme, a San Diego-based company whose security devices are used by Walgreens and other major chains. Its help buttons, which sit on locked bezels and, when pushed, begin to flash and play a request for assistance over the store’s speakerphone, are selling out in record numbers, with sales soaring 40% this year.

“They don’t want a terrible customer experience, but that’s because they have to do something and they have to do something now,” said Chris Gibson, director of product and marketing at InVue, who reported sales for its so-called smart locks jumped 86% year-to-date, after rising 31% last year. The Charlotte-based company counts Walmart, Lowe’s and Best Buy among its customers.

RTC sells a range of plastic windows that sit on shelves and prevent thieves from grabbing more than one or two products at a time before an alarm sounds. They can be left unlocked, but a greater percentage of retailers are now asking for the locks. “We can barely do enough right now,” said company vice president Gary Cohen.

While the rush to lock things down may have started in big cities like San Francisco plagued by rampant theft, it didn’t stop there. Since thieves had a harder time stealing items in urban areas, where stores locked things or even closed permanently after being targeted, they are increasingly stealing from suburban and rural stores, prompting the need to lock items there as well, said Jeff Jones, CEO of Vira Insight, a leading maker of locked suitcases.

“The original scope wasn’t, ‘Let’s get out and renovate every store in the country,'” said Jones, whose loss prevention division generated just 2-3% of the company’s total revenue. company in 2019, but is expected to bring in about 18% of its revenue this year.

Amber Heffernan, a schoolteacher from Wisconsin, was on her way home from work recently when she stopped to buy some body soap at a Walgreens in suburban Madison. She was about to get a tattoo and knew she should keep the area clean. It took him several minutes to find the soap in the back of the store, then a few more minutes to wait for an employee to unlock it. It didn’t bother her too much, but the employee told her that she couldn’t give her the product and that she would carry it to the counter for her. “I felt like I was buying something illegal,” said Heffernan, 24, who said she probably wouldn’t go back to the store.

Retailers are not ignorant. They know customers hate finding things locked away. That typically results in a 15 to 25 percent reduction in sales, said Budano, who adds that customers who don’t want the hassle of stopping and waiting for an employee will just walk away.

This is bad news for brick-and-mortar retailers already facing stiff competition from Amazon, and undermines the investments many have made to improve the in-store shopping experience in recent years. “I don’t want to say it completely unfolded, but it took a few steps back from the progress they had made,” said Jones of Vira Insight, referring to the in-store experience.

Retailers are now trying to reduce friction for repeat shoppers while keeping physical deterrents in place for thieves. Walmart this year began testing a new type of locked box that can be opened by any employee with a smartphone. This eliminates the need to track down the employee with the correct physical key. A company spokesperson declined to provide details on whether this would be rolled out widely to stores, but said “we take the protection of our assets seriously.”

Retailers are also starting to experiment with another innovative approach, in which they give shoppers the option to unlock the cases themselves, by providing some sort of personal information.

The so-called Freedom Case, developed last year by Indyme, asks shoppers for a phone number, loyalty card or permission to scan their face to open the case. (They can also enlist the help of an employee.) It then uses a combination of cameras and artificial intelligence to measure how many items a customer removes, how long the door stays open, and how often he returns to the store that day. If suspicious behavior is detected, an alarm is triggered and store employees are notified.

It’s currently in 20 trials and is expected to generate a fifth of the company’s revenue in 2023 as major chains begin installing it in thousands of stores. “Everyone puts that in the budget to deploy,” Budano said. “There is definitely money to be made there.”

Invisible locks are also gaining popularity. In a T-Mobile store, for example, smartphones can no longer be tethered, allowing customers to pick them up and play with them. If they get too close to the exit, an alarm will sound. Starting this summer, T-Mobile will have the ability to disable certain devices that leave the premises. “He turns into a brick. There’s nothing they can do with it,” Gibson said. Sales of the company’s wireless security products have jumped 230% this year.

Gibson said this indicates a trend in which retailers are beginning to exit emergency mode and seek to improve the customer experience while protecting against theft. “I think retailers who have taken drastic measures to lock things down throughout this period will start to band together and say, OK, this is not the best experience, and let’s see how we can balance that,” did he declare.

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