I read with some sadness last week about Target’s decision to close nine of its stores in the New York, Portland (OR), San Francisco/Oakland, and Seattle markets due to what it called not “shoplifting”, but “theft and organized retail crime”. The closures will be abrupt (effective October 21) and the company cited both the financial impact of these crimes and concern for the safety of its customers and employees.
It is clear that several of the effected store locations serve low- and moderate-income communities and I believe their loss will be felt by many residents who do not enjoy a wide variety of local retail alternatives. The company outlines a variety of steps it has taken to try to control this issue; most of us have probably experienced the frustrations that comes when, for example, over the counter medications are kept in locked cases within a store that is already struggling to maintain adequate staffing.
Apparently, those steps were not sufficient. The company’s commentary about the financial impact of these crimes implies that it will lose more than $1 billion to theft this year. I have to agree that a term like “shoplifting” doesn’t adequately describe the magnitude of the problem.
Putting aside any commentary on the underlying causes of this criminal activity, it occurred to me that at a time when remarkable innovations are unveiled on a daily basis, there must some technology that could be brought to bear on this threat to civilized society, something a bit more advanced and effective than a plexiglass case with a keylock and little pivoting metal tab.
Then I recalled a recent article about the latest developments in Amazon.com’s Just Walk Out technology. Amazon believes that the addition of RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags to its existing system of cameras and motion sensors will allow its solution to expand into merchandise categories beyond groceries and sundries into items like clothing and apparel (a core retail category for Target).
I doubt that the team at Amazon had theft prevention in mind when they set off down the path of unattended checkout, and I’ve wondered whether this elaborate system is practical on a widespread basis, but sometimes the difference between an interesting experiment and a viable business model is the presence of a meaningful use case.
The important attributes of Just Walk Out in this case are that customers identify themselves and present a validated method of payment before entering the store. If individuals with no intent to pay for their goods can be prevented from entering the store in the first place, some amount of crime should be immediately preventable. Modifications would certainly need to be made since the Just Walk Out system was probably not engineered specifically to address organized retail crime, but many existing tools could be deployed alongside it for that purpose (e.g., more substantial turnstile gates at the entry to the store, tighter validation of payment credential ownership, more security cameras, machine learning systems to detect criminal “shopping patterns”, etc.).
My astute colleagues at Glenbrook have already noted that this system makes no provision for cash-based customers, who may be prevalent in lower income areas. That’s a tricky issue, but one that has been solved (by government agencies!) for other use cases like mass transit and highway tolls. And frankly, cash acceptance becomes irrelevant if crime is so rampant that the retailer choses to close the store entirely. That is the point that Target, Walgreens, and others have reached in some neighborhoods.
There is probably no single answer to the retail crime wave, and Just Walk Out can’t be expected to eliminate all organized retail theft. But crime usually goes to those places where it is made to feel most welcome.
Could a technological upgrade by some major store-based merchants capable of making the investment allow them to operate profitably while helping more communities maintain a vibrant and safe retail environment?
I’m interested in your reactions. What else might need to be done to make this kind of technology more effective in preventing crime? Please share your thoughts below.
2 responses to “Could Amazon’s Just Walk Out Technology Address the Scourge of ‘Shoplifting’?”
Fascinating and insightful. Thanks for the outside-the-box thinking.
I’ve been doing a fair amount of research on this topic in hopes of finding a billion dollar solution.
I remember going through a convenient store a few years ago that had technology like Just Walk Out. It was hard to wrap my head around, and I know from experience there will be people who resist the change, but its hard to picture a future where this won’t be the norm.
I’m surprised as to why this technology hasn’t already been adapted into stores? I’m curious as to what you might think the answer to that is? Are people that stubborn to change? Surly there must be a reason as to why.
Not only do I think Just Walk Out could solve the problem of shoplifting, I also believe Amazon has the ability to take down ROC all together by pressuring congress to enact law(s) that prevent stolen merchandise from being sold online.
Hope to hear your thoughts on this matter.