23 June 2017

New research published on What Works in retail tagging

Dr Aiden Sidebottom of UCL Department of Security and Crime Science talks about his newly-published systematic review on retail tagging.

What is retail tagging?

Tags are a type of security measure commonly used by retailers to prevent the theft of products and packaged goods. They can take various forms, including bottle caps, spider-wraps and anti-tamper seals. In our review we focused on two types of tag:

  1. Ink tags - which are usually made of plastic and contain a vial of indelible ink. If an ink tag is forcibly detached then the ink vial breaks and the product is tarnished
  2. Electronic article surveillance or EAS tags. These can also take different forms, from large plastic tags to small magnetic strips. As the name suggests, EAS tags are electronic and omit a signal to a corresponding detector gate. If an EAS tag is not removed or deactivated at point of sale, then on passing detector gates the alarm should sound thereby indicating that a theft is in progress. 

What did the systematic review tell us about the impact of retail tagging on reducing crime?

Across the eight evaluation studies we identified, five showed decreases in theft or shrinkage following the installation of tags; shrinkage being the popular catch all term referring to retail losses attributed to theft as well as error, damage or wastage. Though definitions of shrinkage vary by retailer, it often denotes the difference between expected and actual levels of stock. Moreover, the evidence suggests that highly visible, conspicuous tags tend to perform better than less-visible, inconspicuous tags. We were unable to compute a single overall effect size of the effectiveness of tagging as a theft prevention measure. This is because the available evaluation studies related to very different tagging strategies – conspicuous vs inconspicuous tags,  tags attached to all products or just some products – and often used different outcome measures (such as theft or shrinkage).

How do security tags reduce crime?

Different tags were assumed to reduce theft in different ways. EAS tags were generally assumed to work through increasing the risk of detection. The presence of an EAS tag means that should an offender try and illegally remove a tagged item from a shop, then an alarm should sound and the offender be apprehended. Ink tags, on the other hand, were generally assumed to reduce theft by denying the benefits. Failure to successfully remove an ink tag will result in the release of indelible ink thereby spoiling the tagged product and rendering it a less attractive item to sell or use.  

Where do security tags work best?

We identified several factors that might influence the effectiveness of tagging. Some of these factors relate to the retail environment and the decisions and actions of retailers. For example, failure by store staff to respond to sounding alarms negates the increase-risk mechanism through which EAS tags are expected to work. Other factors relate to the type of shoplifter operating in a particular area. For example, it is assumed that occasional, opportunist shoplifters are more likely to be deterred by obvious, conspicuous tags and associated signage. These tags are thought to be less effective for seasoned, professional shoplifters who are more likely to know methods to remove the tags or circumvent tagging systems. For professional shoplifters, covert tags - which are less visible and may lead to arrests - may have a greater effect.

Finally, the actions of the police and criminal justice system are important. Detaining shoplifters requires store staff to be taken off the shop floor. It might also be risky if the shoplifter is aggressive. A slow police response to calls that a shoplifter has been apprehended might increase the likelihood that retailers simply eject shoplifters from store as opposed to process them through the criminal justice system. 

How do you implement tags to ensure the best impact?

We identified several implementation problems such as tags being incorrectly attached to products, tags not being removed by cashiers at point of sale and sounding alarms not being acted on. The literature suggested that to successfully overcome these issues, staff must be trained, monitored and incentivised to participate in a retail tagging scheme.

What about cost-effectiveness?

Despite the high priority retailers place on cost-effectiveness, we identified little in the way of high-quality cost-benefit analyses of tagging in retail environments. This is an area where future research might usefully be directed.

The cost of tags was found to vary widely across studies. Soft, disposable EAS tags are now available for as little as a penny each, while reusable EAS tags are estimated to cost around 20-35p. The most expensive tags appear to be ink tags, which are designed to be reusable. However, ink tags typically require less infrastructure than EAS tags (i.e. detector gates) and therefore have lower set-up and maintenance costs.

It was noteworthy that theft reduction was but one outcome measure of interest to retailers. Any changes in sales following the introduction of tags was another primary concern. Our discussions with retailers in the course of this review revealed examples of tags having little or no impact on theft but a positive impact on sales, perhaps because the tags were less obtrusive or bulky then existing security measures (such as secure casings). In this scenario, retailers may tolerate little change or even increases in theft if the tags are also associated with an increase in sales. 

You can download the full systematic review, research protocol  and other resouces by visiting the Retail tagging page of our What Works: Crime Reduction Systematic Review Series.


 What Works: Crime reduction systematic review series

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