Behavioural techniques to reduce shopper theft

A small Victorian supermarket made the news recently when it created a “wall of shame” for people they alleged had stolen from them. Using security footage, they pasted a picture of the alleged perpetrator along with their name on the store’s front window.

I get it.  As a retailer it’s frustrating when people steal from you. But instead of opening yourself up to defamation, let’s look at ways to influence people to do the right thing using behavioural psychology.

Curbing self-serve checkout theft

Without doubt the move to self-serve checkouts has lead to a spike in shoplifting as shoppers inadvertently or deliberately mis-scan items. The unsupervised nature of the transaction seems to have increased people’s willingness to shoplift.

Retailers have a choice. They can spend a fortune increasing shopper supervision, say by having a more overt security presence, or use more cost effective and subtle behavioural cues to enhance shopper compliance.

That’s what large retailers like Coles and Woolies are doing. Drawing on behavioural research into personalisation and social deviance, they are experimenting with shaping honesty cues in the shopping environment.

A couple of the key theories they are employing include:

  • Personalisation – it is easier to steal from someone anonymously and when you feel the crime is victimless (like from a machine), and much harder when you have a relationship with that person. By using technology that welcomes the shopper by name, and even using robots that look more-human like, retailers are hoping to increase pressure on the shopper to behave honestly.
  • Social proof – people tend to do what others do, so if they believe everyone steals then they will be more likely to as well. Including messages throughout the store and on the screen about how most people do the right thing could reduce their willingness to deviate.

Techniques you can use to reduce theft

Building on the techniques already mentioned, techniques you can use to reduce theft include:

  • Pictures of eyes – In research from 2011 people contributed 2.76 times more money to an honesty box in the UK when it had a picture of eyes rather than flowers on it. It seems the eyes trigger a sense of being watched, and encourage people to behave in a way that is socially acceptable.
  • Cardboard cut outs of security figures – A cardboard cutout of a police officer was enough to reduce bicycle theft by 67% from a subway in Boston.
  • Priming words – Researchers found using words like “honesty” in a toilet block increased the likelihood of motorway users paying for their bathroom break
  • Music and mosquitos – Music is being used to reduce vandalism, loitering and theft. One retailer in the UK claimed theft reduced by 67% when it played classical music. Other organisations, including police in Western Australia  have been using the so called “Mosquito Device” to emit a high pitched sound that only people under 25 can hear.

The lesson from the world of retail is that we can’t rely on people to always do the right thing. Our opportunity is to remind them of what that is by crafting the environment with subtlety and psychology.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

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