Three Design Tips for Fighting Shrink

Good store designers know to put themselves in their customer’s shoes. Now that American retailers are shuttering stores and losing billions of dollars because of shrink, it is time for a sharper focus on the “journey” of another group entirely — retail criminals.

Sadly, in addition to imagining how people will shop the store, designers need to think harder about how they might steal from it, too.

That means asking questions like:

  • What more can be done to deter theft using store layout, customer flow, shelf height, mirrors, lighting and the placement of gondolas, merchandise and security cameras?
  • What are the most customer-friendly ways to protect high-value items from smash-and-grabs?
  • How can we better integrate the latest anti-theft technologies and loss-prevention research into our store designs from the outset?

The good news: Skills developed on the consumer side can be flipped around and used to fight retail crime. Here are three possible areas of focus.


1. Identify your ‘core shoplifters.’
Today’s retailers have impressive expertise in customer research. In addition, some architecture and engineering firms run their own research projects on behalf of retail clients. They might, for example, develop segmented customer profiles such as “Empty Nester Dad,” “Single Female in the City” or “Budget-Conscious Retiree” and spend time observing how these different groups shop and move through the store.

Those same research chops could be used to better understand who is pilfering merchandise, how they are pulling it off and where it is occurring. Thieves do not exactly use the POS system, sign up for loyalty cards or freely offer their mobile numbers to get discounts. But internal investigations, third-party studies by loss-prevention experts and deep dives into security footage could provide useful data, including greater clarity into a retailer’s “core shoplifters,” store by store.

Are “Brazen Smash-and-Grabbers” doing the most damage, or are the losses coming from quiet, five-finger discounts pulled off by “Sheepish Teens” and “Disgruntled Employees”?

Such distinctions matter. Simply making the store brighter and more visible to cameras and associates is unlikely to move the needle if Brazen Smash-and-Grabbers are the real problem. However, more risk-averse shoplifters (Sheepish Teens and Disgruntled Employees) could be deterred by lower shelves, sign-free windows or panopticon-like layouts in which people feel watched at all times.

Designers also could consider getting more involved in The University of Florida’s Loss Prevention Research Council. The 23-year-old organization has conducted hundreds of research projects, including interviews of criminals about the criteria they use when deciding which stores to hit. It includes researchers, tech vendors, police and major retailers.

2. Be tough — but preserve the customer experience.
This past September, Target issued a news release about its plans to close nine stores in New York City, the Bay area and the Pacific Northwest “because theft and organized retail crime are threatening the safety of our team and guests, and contributing to unsustainable business performance.”

That followed the retailer’s earlier announcement that its profits could take a $500 million hit from shrink this year alone. Along the same lines, Dick’s Sporting Goods pointed to retail theft as the cause of its approximately 23% decline in profitability during the second quarter.

Given the severity of retail crime today, designers working on new or redesigned stores should be part of the loss prevention conversation much earlier. This could help them harmonize twin goals — deterring crooks and preserving the customer experience.

The two are not always in conflict. Open, light-filled, high-visibility store environments are harder to steal from without being seen, and they also happen to be more pleasing to shop.

In other cases, crime is more intense (see the viral videos of thefts at downtown drug and luxury department stores). In such hard-hit locations, high-value items will need to be tethered to cables, stored in lock boxes or kept behind the counter or back of house. For law-abiding shoppers, of course, the inaccessibility of this merchandise is highly annoying — especially when the store is understaffed and an associate with the key is nowhere to be found.

To the greatest extent possible, designers should centralize lockboxes and locate them close to where store associates spend most of their time (as opposed to placing them along the back wall of the store far from the cash wrap). This can reduce customer waits and frustration.

3. Incorporate new tech.
Store designers also could collaborate with tech vendors to better safeguard the customer experience and the merchandise. For example, could motion sensors in front of those lockboxes ping store associates each time a person stands in front of them for more than five seconds?

Travelers buy headphones and other high-value items from airport vending machines all the time. Could lockboxes be reengineered so that you tap your credit card and out pops your $30 razor blades, along with your receipt? If the chain is rolling out new AI-based security systems, could store design be enlisted to eliminate blind spots and make sure thieves get the message that they are being recorded?

Today’s retailers cannot afford to lose billions of dollars to theft from their supply chains and stores. While certain skeptics dismiss shrink as the latest “moral panic,” the problem is all too real. By diving into the research, staying mindful of the customer experience and partnering with retailers and loss-prevention experts, store designers can be valuable allies in the war on shrink.

Veteran architect James Owens (AIA, NCARB) is a VP at HFA Architecture & Engineering, which has worked with a Who’s Who of national retailers including Walmart, Target, T.J. Maxx, Nordstrom and Walgreens. He can be reached at


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