Taking the Opportunity Out of Shoplifting

Researchers at Lancaster University are suggesting changes to shopping environments that would virtually take away any opportunity to shoplift. They assert that deterring shoplifting completely can help keep small criminals out of jail, which they believe can turn people into harder criminals.

The study, titled “Nudge: Don’t Judge: Using Nudge Theory to Deter Shoplifters,” advocates the creation of environments which will ‘push people in the right direction’ not to commit a shoplifting offense in the first place rather than having the courts send them to prison, or receive other punishments, after the act.

“We believe the preferred scenario is to save people from going to prison,” said researcher and anthropologist Dhruv Sharma. “You go to prison for a small crime and you come back a trained criminal. Prison is not a solution. It’s a problem in its own right.”

The paper, which offers an alternative approach to tackling the problem of shoplifting, draws on three different disciplines — sociology, design, and criminology — to build a theoretical framework of motivation to shoplift.

The researchers examined a variety of deterrents including an extensive review of ‘design against crime’ literature and case studies to explore a new approach to crime prevention.

The research advocates the further investigation of Thaler and Sunstein’s famous ‘Nudge Theory’, used to form policy in economics and healthcare, which assumes people make some decisions unconsciously, non-rationally and are influenced by contextual cues which means their behavior can be manipulated.

“When you go to a shopping mall it’s not just a building containing shops,” noted Sharma. “It’s strategically planned and laid out so we walk in a preferred direction and goods are placed in certain ways and locations presenting visual cues to buy.”

“So why can’t similar thinking be applied to target potential criminals without them realizing that they are being targeted to actually prevent them from committing the act of shoplifting?”

So exactly what does a shopping center of the future look and feel like in their view?

“A store could actually place valuable items in ‘interactive spaces’ that would encourage other customers to watch people handling the expensive goods,” explained Sharma.

“So, for example, it could be that every time a customer picks up, say, a bottle of perfume they turn into a cartoon character on a big screen or they attract public attention in some other interactive way. For different products you could have different characters, which would encourage children to watch.”

“We are not suggesting we should make it harder for people to interact with products,” said Sharma. “Instead, we simply propose ‘nudging’ people to act as observers, thereby enhancing surveillance.”

The Lancaster research team is now calling on the software design community to investigate the Nudge Theory, which has never been used to prevent crime before, and which, they say, could provide an interesting solution.

Source: Lancaster University