Tale of the tape: shoplifiting solution or just a band-aid?

July 19th, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Even on the avocado?

Even on the avocado?

To paraphrase the Stones, summer’s here and the time is right for stealing. Or, at least, that’s what the National Police Agency thinks. Incidents of shoplifting rise during the summer months, apparently because of all those minors with nothing constructive to do after school lets out. The NPA has produced a public service announcement stating unequivocally that “shoplifting is a crime” and arranged for it to be shown in movie theaters before screenings of the new Studio Ghibli animated movie “Kari-gurashi no Arietty” (The Borrowers), assuming that all those bored, itchy-fingered kids will be in the audience. The PSA takes the curious position that youngsters, particularly elementary school and junior high school students, don’t know that manbiki (shoplifting) is a hanzai (crime).

The NPA seems slightly behind the curve on this one, according to a recent report on NHK Tokyo’s Friday night news feature program, “Tokuho Shutoken” (Capital Special Report), which offered statistics showing that most shoplifting arrests involve adults. Fifteen years ago, it was mostly minors who stole things from retailers, but adult shoplifting subsequently skyrocketed, and last year there were 30 percent more arrests of people over 20. In fact, elderly people make up a good percentage of those arrested.

The reasons for this rise are many and not particularly difficult to comprehend. The main concern for retailers is how to prevent thefts from happening in their stores. The NHK report said that shoplifting in Tokyo alone accounted for business losses of ¥67 billion in 2009.

Japanese retailers have always resisted the security measures adopted overseas to prevent shoplifting, mainly because of Japan’s famous public order but also because of the special proprietor-customer dynamic that says you don’t do anything to make patrons feel uncomfortable, like asking them to check their bags at the door or put them in lockers, which is fairly common in the U.S. and Europe and is even a normal practice in South Korea.

Anti-shoplifting measures in Japan rely more on psychology. The NHK report showed how employees of a book store were trained to constantly greet customers with a cheery and loud “Irasshaimase!” (welcome), which supposedly has the effect of intimidating would-be boosters, especially if the employee manages to make eye contact with the customer. The implication is: “We are watching you.”

However, other than cameras, the occasional undercover security guard and the even rarer alarm gates the only generally accepted shoplifting-prevention measure in Japanese stores is the use of bags, which is meant to indicate that a person has paid for the items he or she is leaving the store with. Of course, resourceful shoplifters will easily think of ways of using bags to their advantage, but one thing the NHK special emphasized, at least with regard to older shoplifters, is that they aren’t always devious. If anything, they steal out of a need for attention or just out of compulsion.

The bigger problem with the bag solution is that, due to environmental concerns, many customers are bringing their own bags to stores so that they don’t have to use the plastic or paper ones that the stores provide. Again, in Europe and the U.S., retailers, especially supermarkets, actively discourage the use of bags. In South Korea, supermarkets regularly charge if you want bags. In Japan, since bags provide proof-of-purchase, there’s the problem of how do you know whether or not someone leaving a store with a non-disposable “eco bag” full of groceries didn’t steal them unless you check his receipt? The solution is embossed tape, which cashiers apply to the purchased items.

The Super Value solution

The Super Value solution

This is even a more dubious solution than the whole bag idea, since there aren’t usually enough security personnel in a store to check for the tape when a customer leaves. In fact, tape may actually do exactly what retailers are trying to avoid by not implementing truly effective security measures: It bugs the customers. I know several people who take offense to the practice, since its lack of common sense implies that customers are fools. That may be taking the issue a bit too much to heart, but, for sure, tape has no effect on shoplifting at all. It’s a psychological remedy, but the psychology is aimed backwards at the retailers, who fool themselves into thinking they’re actually doing something about the problem.

Super Value, a discount supermarket, has come up with a better idea. When you bring your gray basket to the checkout line, the cashier exchanges it for a yellow one without any handles. Since all customers bag their own groceries, anyone seen beyond the checkout area with a gray basket is automatically under suspicion. It isn’t a perfect system — dedicated shoplifters can probably think of ways of sneaking out merchandise without using baskets — but it certainly makes more sense than the tape method, which is just plain lazy.

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