Designers should be part of the conversation on shrink

Perspectives differ on the severity of shrink — a phenomenon that, by its very nature, is difficult to quantify. But while we may never know the exact dollar amount of the annual inventory losses caused by shrink, it is clear that retailers have strong incentives to fight this problem.

A version of this article was first published on Chain Store Age Online.

Perspectives differ on the severity of shrink—a phenomenon that, by its very nature, is difficult to quantify. But while we may never know the exact dollar amount of the annual inventory losses caused by shrink (by all accounts, it’s in the billions), it is clear that retailers have strong incentives to fight this problem.

 Store designers can and should be allies in this effort. Retail and hospitality architects, in particular, are accustomed to envisioning how different customer segments move through and experience commercial spaces. Designers then use this information to craft environments that encourage or discourage different behaviors.

 You could think of criminals as also falling into “customer segments” of their own, with distinct motivations and behaviors. The most brazen of these, such as organized retail crime “flash mobs,” are quite distinct from the likes of rebellious teenagers or disgruntled store employees—tamer groups that are more likely to think twice about stealing based on the perception of risk.

 In a similar way, architects, working in partnership with security vendors and loss-prevention specialists, could use their perspective-taking skills to help retailers employ store design to accomplish two primary goals:

  • deterring shoplifting and employee theft, at least among those self-conscious individuals who actually care about whether they are seen or caught.
  • making sure that planned, security-focused design changes, technologies and protective systems (things like lock boxes, AI security cameras or anti-theft vending machines) never undermine the overall experience for law-abiding customers.

Brainstorming sessions

When planning new or redeveloped stores, those retailers with the biggest concerns about shoplifting and shrink should consider holding brainstorming sessions that involve the design, loss-prevention and security technology teams.

Striking the right balance is important. If walking into the store feels like going to visit an inmate at a federal “supermax” prison, your gains in security are likely to translate into major losses in traffic and sales. Designers might be able to help you find more customer-friendly ways to protect high-value items. For example, to avoid frustrating, lengthy waits for your customers, designers might suggest that locked counters or boxes be in full view of store personnel and located close to where they spend most of their time. This could be especially important if these devices lack any buttons or sensors that alert employees whenever a customer needs to have something unlocked.

Similarly, a retailer’s anti-theft vending machines could have cascading effects on traffic flow and the overall experience. Where will people stand? What will they see and experience when waiting for their turn to use the machine? Designers could help make sure the pedestrian flow doesn’t run into a bottleneck.

Other questions to explore in these sessions could include:

  • What do you actually know about the problem of shrink for your company and its existing individual stores and/or prospective growth markets? While the situation can be difficult to quantify, data and insights can be obtained. Those with significant concerns could consider working with police and experts in security and loss-prevention to get a better handle on the problem. The retailer could then share this data with designers to help them complement anti-shrink efforts.
  • Will basic elements of the design such as the placement of gondolas, windows, shelves, counters and lighting complement or work against security aims? The specifics that emerge in your brainstorming sessions can help your multidisciplinary team find the best fit. They might find, for example, that an excessively inventory-heavy store could overwhelm consumers with too many choices, hampering the experience while also creating lots of blind spots for would-be crooks. An open and light-filled store, by contrast, might be more fun to shop and also easier to monitor with AI-assisted cameras.
  • What role is the labor shortage playing when it comes to shrink in your organization? Many retailers are still operating boxes that are too large for the post-pandemic environment—cavernous spaces that, especially when understaffed, can be ideal targets for criminals. Designers can help you downsize your prototype to be more efficient and more secure.

Finally, consider learning more about or joining organizations such as The University of Florida’s Loss Prevention Research Council. Academics and loss-prevention experts have spent countless hours studying shoplifting and shrink. They are eager to share their findings with retailers, designers and other stakeholders. There’s no shame in stealing (pardon the pun) a page or two from their well-researched crime-fighting tips.

Veteran architect James Owens (AIA, NCARB) is a Vice President at HFA Architecture & Engineering, which has worked with a Who’s Who of national retailers, including Walmart, Target, Nordstrom and Walgreens. He can be reached at

Written by
James Owens

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