(CNN) — It seems that these days many stores are fortresses.

Most of the products on the pharmacy shelf are locked up, even everyday items like deodorant, toothpaste, candy, dish detergent, soap, and aluminum foil. Manufacturers supplying lock boxes and devices to chain stores have seen their businesses grow.

Walgreens and Rite Aid have said the problem of organized retail crime — criminal networks that steal products from stores and then often resell them on online marketplaces — has caused them to stock more products and close some stores.

Locking your shelves is a last resort for stores, but it has never been more widely practiced. It has also become a growing irritation for shoppers and a source of frustration for some employees who must walk around the store with keys at the ready.

Even toothpaste is under lock and key these days.

“It’s extremely discouraging for clients,” said Paco Underhill, founder and CEO of behavioral research and consulting firm Envirosell. “It’s also a brutal experience for the trader.”

The reason that stores resort to locking these products is simple: to prevent theft. But these decisions are much more nuanced and tense for stores than you might think. Companies must walk a fine line between protecting their inventory and creating stores that customers aren’t afraid to visit.

Shoplifting in the United States

Until the beginning of the 20th century, the norm was to keep products under lock and key. When customers visited a store, employees provided the items they wanted from behind a counter.

This changed when early self-service stores like Piggly Wiggly in the early 20th century discovered that they could sell more product and lower their costs by distributing merchandise on an open sales floor.

While having fewer workers in the store has boosted profits for chains in recent decades, in some cases it has left stores without as many visible staff to deter shoplifting, crime prevention experts say.

Shoppers have become all too familiar with calling a store worker to open a locked product.

Shoplifting has been around for centuries, but “came of age in America in 1965,” writes author Rachel Shteir in “The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.” The FBI in 1965 reported that it had increased 93% in the previous five years and “was the fastest growing form of theft in the nation.”

Three years later, officials across the country said there was a further rise in shoplifting by young teens. The trend became part of the counterculture, as exemplified by Abbie Hoffman’s 1971 “Steal This Book.”

In response, an anti-theft industry and corporate “loss prevention” (LP) and “asset protection” (AP) teams sprang up. Technologies such as CCTV cameras, electronic article surveillance, and anti-theft tags also emerged.

“Hot Products”

Stores are looking to protect “the few vital products” that are most profitable for them to sell, said Adrian Beck, who studies retail losses at the University of Leicester. And they’re willing to take more theft on the lower-margin “trivial lots,” he added.

Thieves target smaller items with higher price tags, often called “hot items,” which are typically what retailers lock up most often. A criminologist created a suitable acronym, CRAVED, to predict the things most at risk: “hidden, removable, available, valuable, nice, and disposable.”

Items most frequently stolen from American stores include cigarettes, health and beauty products, over-the-counter medications, birth control, liquor, teeth whitening strips, and other products.

Pharmacies have a higher proportion of items that are “hot items,” so they have more stuff under lock and key than other retail formats, Beck said.

organized retail crime

There is not much that can be done to stop shoplifting. Businesses prohibit retail staff from attempting to physically stop a shoplifter for their own safety and they must find other ways to protect the merchandise.

These include measures such as security tags on items that set off alarms when someone leaves without paying. But this is less valuable than it used to be because alarms have become part of the general cacophony of store noise and are often ignored.

Stores also use strategies like shelves that allow a customer to take only one item at a time. This helps prevent shoppers from emptying an entire shelf of products.

Locking down a product is the final step a retailer will take before removing it entirely, and stores say they are resorting to this measure more often as thefts rise.

There is no national database on shoplifting, which often goes unreported, and stores and prosecutors rarely press charges.

Over-the-counter medications, like eye drops, are a target for thieves.

Retailers say organized retail crime has made their theft problems worse. Criminal gangs often seek to steal products from stores that can be easily and quickly resold on online marketplaces like Amazon and other illicit marketplaces.

“Today, more products are on lockdown because the problem has gotten so much bigger,” said Lisa LaBruno, senior executive vice president of retail operations for the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “Criminal actors can steal large volumes of products and sell them anonymously.”

Retailers have supported a project of bipartisan law that would require online marketplaces to verify state-issued IDs for millions of high-volume third-party sellers. President Joe Biden supports such a measure and this week he too called on the Congress to impose liability on online marketplaces that sell stolen goods on their platforms.

Amazon said it doesn’t allow third-party sellers to list stolen goods and works closely with law enforcement, retailers and other partners to stop criminals.

“We periodically request invoices, purchase orders or other proof of supply when we have questions about how a seller may have obtained particular products,” a spokesman said.

Irritated customers and lost sales

Unfortunately, many of these time-consuming anti-theft measures end up irritating customers and reducing sales. The CEO of an anti-theft device company told Forbes that locking things away can result in sales reductions of 15% to 25%.

Today’s buyers are more impatient. Some will go out and buy the product on Amazon instead of waiting for a worker.

“You’re trying to make it easy for the customer and avoid loss,” said Mark Stinde, a former vice president of asset protection for Kroger and other big retailers. “You get a lot of pushback from the operations and merchandising teams for blocking things.”

Stores are working on new ways to keep products locked up while reducing customer frustration, such as a new type of case that any employee can open with a smartphone. Other cases require buyers to enter their phone number to open or scan a QR code.

“Consumers understand why you have to lock up a fur coat or jewelry. But they say ‘why do we lock up deodorant?'” said Jack Trlica, co-founder of trade publication LP Magazine.

Trlica expects companies to develop new technologies that protect products but don’t require signaling an employee to unlock a shelf.

“There will be an evolution of security products,” he said.

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