The Shoplifting ‘Crime Wave’ and Alpha Keeper Design
Photo-Illustration: Lined; Photos: Getty
Last summer, a snapshot of a single spam box enclosed in its own transparent plastic casing went viral. The writer who shared the image on Twitter joked that Port Authority Duane Reade had “finally created something beautiful, kind of a tribute to Jeff Koons”. Art or not, the jealously guarded product image fueled a familiar cycle of outrage. The Job reconstructed the photograph with a legend about “thieves” who “swarm” stores amid “spiral crime”. Other outlets, from Fox to CBS and the Daily Mailalso clung to the image, calling it a symbol of a national crisis.
Even if you’re not particularly prone to wringing your hand on crime, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that today the aisles of a chain store like Walgreens or Target are more like the hallways of a a natural history museum, where precious specimens (in this case, toothpaste or shampoo) are buried in glass cases. It is hard to prove exactly how bad shoplifting is got, but retailers have aggressively revamped their stores with locks and clear acrylic as shoppers have been extinguished by the hassle, preferring to shop online rather than summoning a store clerk for dental floss. In some neighborhoods, customers feel racial profiling by what has been locked away. When Target opened in Flatbush this summer with aisle after aisle of locked shelves, a local organizer Told BK reader that “a lot of people feel like it treats the community like we’re thugs and thieves”.
Retailers say these loss prevention measures are needed to improve shopping – a tool to ensure shelves are well stocked. But they also hit a dead end: the more they lock in products, the more they alienate paying customers and the less inventory they sell. Experts estimate that sales of a product drop by 70-80% when it’s locked because buyers are too impatient to wait for a seller. In fact, the only group that seems to come out on top are the manufacturers of these security devices.
In the directory of anti-theft products, the Koonsian case keeping Spam has become perhaps the most infamous. But its journey to front-page news is decades ahead. It all starts in New Jersey, in a company called Alpha Anti-Theft Solutions. Alpha was founded about 50 years ago as a plastics manufacturer that primarily supplied the music industry with 8-track tape cartridges, and then, as music media changed, cassette and CD displays. About 25 years ago, when record stores asked for a product that could protect those items from shoplifters, Alpha invented the Keeper. It’s a simple design: a clear plastic container that can be opened by a magnetic key, with an embedded RFID chip (a radio frequency tracker) that triggers an alarm if someone tries to exit a store with it. About 15 years ago, as record stores began to close, more of Alpha’s business came from big box stores, supermarkets and pharmacies. They had noticed the increase in thefts of household items and asked the company to adapt its Keepers to protect endangered products. Retailers loved Keepers because they allowed people to shop as they normally would (they took the packaged product from the shelf and put it in their cart as usual, leaving the job of unlocking it to the cashiers at checkout), and no additional personnel are needed to unlock the display cases. Today, Alpha manufactures 85 different sizes of Keepers and produces 27,000 per daytime at its factory in Canton, Ohio. Alpha’s Keepers are “in 95% of the world’s top 500 retailers,” says Stuart Rosenthal, vice president of sales and marketing at Alpha, though he declined to say which stores specifically.
But that doesn’t mean it all happens in a Keeper. Retailers and product manufacturers have requested them specifically for high-flying products: Tide Pods, Olay Regenerist skincare, and Dove body wash, to name a few. Keepers are also popular for teeth whitening strips, razor blades and batteries. Alpha also manufactures a series of “high-end” Keepers with clearer acrylic and a stepped base that resembles a pedestal to hold fragrances, and has designed custom-colored blue cases for Gillette and green cases for Gillette. cannabis industry. Seeing Guardians used for food is a “somewhat new phenomenon”, says Rosenthal. The company does not actively promote the use of its products for food because “we don’t want to get involved in FDA regulations,” he explains. But that doesn’t stop store staff from putting shelf-stable foods, such as canned meats, in there.
The Keeper has become an infamous symbol of retailers’ panic over shoplifting.
Photo-Illustration: Lined; Photos: Checkpoint
In the years since the introduction of the Keeper, a vast industry of retail security products has emerged: devices ranging from help buttons to enclosed displays and even enclosures equipped with artificial intelligence sensors that can make the difference between a regular customer and a shoplifter. (It’s the Indyme Freedom Case, which allows customers to unlock a case with their smartphone.) Retailers are trying to strike a balance between letting paying customers grab the items they want and preventing theft, and manufacturers are eager to introduce new technology that claims to do both. A company called Sennco sells closed shelves that remain unlocked but can be locked remotely if a store associate sees shoplifting. The brand recently launched a showcase inspired by a vending machine which requires shoppers to turn a few buttons to dispense products, essentially limiting them to one item at a time. It’s somewhat ironic that vending machines, which were supposed to make shopping more convenient, are now being installed in stores to make it a bit more difficult.
Despite the multitude of new security products, the Keeper is still around because of its versatility. As soon as a store notices that a certain product is disappearing, they are able to put it in Keepers much faster and cheaper than behind locked checkouts. Each costs between $4 and $6. Meanwhile, Rosenthal says retailers sell about 40% more products that are kept in a Keeper than behind a lock and key, and Alpha says they offer “the security of locked cabinets with the benefits of ‘open merchandising’. But, of course, they are not an anti-theft solution. Unlike locked displays that target “organized” theft, individually locked cases are for the “99% of customers who are likely to be potential shoplifters,” Rosenthal says. “The protection of our product makes them think twice about taking it.” But do they really? If someone really wanted to steal what’s in a Keeper, they could easily put it in a bag and walk outside. A Duane Reade employee even said FoxNews they don’t stop anything: “It’s security theater. If you needed it, you would stomp on it.
After the Spam case went viral, I started to pay more attention to what was locked up in chain stores and how. The Atlantic Terminal target had installed transparent locked doors that covered all the shelves in its aisles of lotion, toothpaste, deodorant and body wash. It felt like a surrender. He did not single out any particular brand or item for added security; everything was right behind a large door. The Soho Duane Reade seemed more selective — a spokesperson argues that what’s stolen most often determines what’s locked up — but sometimes the type of security seemed arbitrary: Beef jerky is locked up, but pistachios (a more expensive item ) were behind an elevator-flap up. It made sense that brand names like Dove body wash would need a store associate with a key, but the generic dupe was behind a sliding screen to open. In pharmacies, most vitamins required you to press a button for a salesperson, with the exception of vitamin C and Flintstones gummies (likely because they were less targeted by shoplifters). You needed help buying DayQuil, but not Theraflu. The two or three vendors I saw on the floor looked exhausted and harassed. I can’t imagine how many times a day someone asks them to release a Slim Jim. The store booked its Guardians for a display of $30 La Roche-Posay face creams, one of the priciest items in the beauty aisle.
Seeing the French brand (a celebrity favorite like Sarah Jessica Parker and Kate Moss) in Keepers, I wondered if maybe his next act might be more about merchandising than security. When Alpha came out mother’s milk in 2011, he found that shoppers preferred formula stored in Keepers. “We asked customers, ‘Why did you choose this one when the same one next to it isn’t in a box?’ and I heard, ‘Well, I felt like this one was safer,’ which means it wasn’t tampered with,” Rosenthal says. “They thought the Keeper was for a product protection issue rather than a theft issue.” It turns out they can actually make a product more desirable.
According to viewers, the Keeper, with its simple design, seems to have become a projection screen of our desires, our fears and our anxieties: it is proof of societal decline, or a reminder of racial profiling, or even a symbol of luxury and care. But perhaps more than anything, it serves as a convenient red herring for retailers who have invoked a shoplifting crisis to distract us from a business model that simply hasn’t evolved fast enough to meet our era. In the meantime, as stores keep closingit looks like the Keeper is poised to outlast the retailers who rely on it.