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Opinion: Loss-prevention methods can punish well-meaning customers

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Which is more important to retailers: loss prevention or customer experience?

Anecdotally, I’ve felt somewhat punished at retail stores like Walmart, where some products are locked away. I’ve noticed more items are getting that treatment. At my local Walmart, locked-up items now include batteries and makeup in addition to products that have more typically been locked away, like contraceptives and alcohol.

If you’re not familiar with this practice, a customer must push a button and wait for an employee unlock the case holding the product. In some cases, the item is then taken by the employee to the register, where the customer can pay for it. In those situations, the customer does not touch the product until it’s paid for.

Using my own example, theft was not prevented through this practice. Rather, I was slightly inconvenienced by having to go through additional steps to procure the product. I was going to pay for it either way.

Loss prevention, in this example, is getting in the way of customer experience. It’s caused me to think twice about whether I need the item in the first place, as I’d prefer not to interface with the additional steps. It’s also fueled a continued push for me to prefer curb-side pickup, where my items are selected and paid for online and brought to my vehicle outside the store.

Walmart is getting my sale either way, so it’s a bit of a wash.

I’m not naive enough to think that loss prevention is completely invalid, and the data certainly makes a case for it. Walmart recorded retail theft of an estimated $6.5 billion in 2023, up from $6.1 billion in 2022 and $3 billion in 2021, according to an April InvestorPlace article.

Some customers, as suggested by a summer 2023 article in Distractify, have indicated that loss-prevention methods at retailers are driving customers away. The article gathers anecdotal evidence where customers say they no longer shop at Walmart due to these strategies. The loss of those customers’ dollars hurt the bottom line, too.

Taken to one logical extreme, one could say that loss-prevention strategies rely on unfair collective punishment methods. Meaning, well-intentioned customers are punished for the acts of the few. And while the few are stealing billions of dollars’ worth of goods from stores like Walmart, per the InvestorPlace article, there is certainly a cost down the line if paying customers decide to stop shopping at a retailer because the experience doesn’t work for them anymore.

It leaves me wondering if there’s a middle ground that takes into account both loss prevention and customer experience. I’m sure Walmart and its peers are constantly working on the line between the two.

For me, online shopping is that middle ground. While not without its own issues, online shopping removes some questions surrounding loss prevention from the equation entirely. If I’m not present in a store, I don’t have to deal with its loss-prevention strategies.

I do wonder if this mindset shift adversely impacts smaller retailers by association. Or if customers who cannot shop online will have to bear the brunt of the tactics used to stop theft.

I suspect that this conversation will continue, and there will be more inconveniences for well-meaning shoppers in the meantime. I’m hopeful that a better solution is on the horizon.

Springfield Business Journal Digital Editor Geoff Pickle can be reached at gpickle@sbj.net.

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