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Professional Shelf Sweepers: Why More Products Are Under Lock and Key

Published February 7, 2023
Published February 7, 2023
Faye Brookman

A top supermarket executive recently remarked about the wide range of personal care products under lock and key. “We don’t lock up steaks,” he says. “We wouldn’t sell any. Why are beauty products under wraps?”

Beauty is just one of the categories America’s drug, discount, supermarket, and even specialty beauty stores are merchandising in security cases that require assistance to procure. From Tide to Tom Ford fragrances, retailers are locking up more merchandise to combat “sweepers” who nab products off shelves to resell, but also to curb an uptick in pilferage retailers noticed during COVID and, more recently, linked to the soaring cost of goods.

For decades, high-theft merchandise like pricey perfumes have been under wraps on retail shelves—especially in neighborhoods associated with higher shoplifting rate. Over the last year, the lockdowns expanded to more markets and merchandise. Vitamins, collagen powders, shaving needs, detergent, oral care, eye care, makeup, OTC medications, cough syrups, and test kits are among categories where shoppers must seek assistance to purchase. Eyebrows were raised when a shopper at a Duane Reade in Manhattan’s Port Authority tweeted an image of Spam in a sealed antitheft container. New York Magazine published a story about a thief who frequently boosted armfuls of L’Oréal, RoC, and No7 from shelves at CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid. These types of stolen goods are often resold online or in salons.

“I was in a CVS the other day and I couldn’t believe what was locked up. I understand razors, perfume and high-end masks in skin but Dove? I jokingly asked a clerk setting up shelves if mascara was next and he said probably, and I’m not sure if he was joking,” says an industry consultant.

Retailers such as Walgreens hire private security guards to canvass stores. The chain even shuttered some doors in San Francisco because of exorbitant theft. These efforts aren’t taking place only in self-service environments. Some Sephora stores have added security measures for their fragrances, including testers. Pricey products like Augustinus Bader had to be requested at a Los Angeles Sephora store, according to a shopper.

The National Retail Security Survey released in September of 2022 found that retail shrink (the difference between total recorded inventory on the balance sheet and the actual inventory), when taken as a percentage of retail sales in 2021, accounted for $94.5 billion in losses, up from $90.8 billion in 2020. COVID created more challenges for retailers, according to the report. Retailers reported a 73.2% boost in shoplifting, a 71.4% increase in employee theft, and an average 26.5% rise of organized retail crime that they attributed to the pandemic. “The factors contributing to retail shrink have multiplied in recent years, and ORC [organized retail crime] is a burgeoning threat within the retail industry," stated NRF Vice President for Research Development and Industry Analysis Mark Mathews. Health and beauty products were among the top categories targeted, according to the NRF.

Target’s CEO Brian Cornell reported a $400 million loss from shrink in November and estimated the chain would lose as much as $600 million in profits by the end of the year. Rite Aid said it lost $5 million more last September versus the year before. During an investor call last October, Rite Aid’s Chief Retail Officer said theft was so bad in New York City stores that the chain considered putting everything in security displays.

"Some shoppers just aren’t going to push the button to summon an associate and wait until they show up. They are going to leave and order online."
By Wendy Liebmann, founder + CEO, WSL Strategic Retail

Retailers say security devices have become a necessity in some cases. “Different products can experience different theft rates, depending on store location and other factors, affecting which products—and how—they are protected from theft at each store. Our goal is to keep products available and accessible for customers to purchase and we utilize a variety of different measures to deter or prevent theft. Locking a product is a measure of last resort,” a spokesperson for CVS said in a statement emailed to BeautyMatter.

CVS, Walmart, and Walgreens were among mass marketers who announced in 2020 they would no longer keep beauty products aimed at Black shoppers behind locked cases. Visits to Walgreens and CVS doors in New Jersey, Los Angeles, and Dallas revealed all haircare items were not in security cases. Premium haircare products at a CVS in West Palm Beach sported security tags—a common practice in numerous categories throughout retailing.

Retailers are experimenting with various tools to keep products safe but more easily accessible. Walmart is testing devices that can be activated by employee smartphones. There are experiments with codes shoppers can use to unlock cases. But for now, most of the displays require a bell to be rung to summon help or taking the locked product to the checkout.

“Where is the point where you say you are losing sales versus pilferage,” questions Wendy Liebmann, founder and CEO of WSL Strategic Retail. “We are trying to create an experience for shoppers in stores and build traffic. Some shoppers just aren’t going to push the button to summon an associate and wait until they show up. They are going to leave and order online.” Liebmann says retailers have to balance the benefit of beauty advisors who can help patrol shelves. “Before shoppers didn’t have the option of online.”

Off-the-record discussions with retailers illustrate the frustration they feel. “I was under pressure to lock up nail polish but the numbers I made offset the theft,” says one former drugstore buyer. “What’s funny is that the exact same colors are stolen no matter what store, so I know they are reselling them to salons.” She estimates she would lose 20% of nail polish sales if people needed to find someone to unlock the products. Another buyer recalls being at a salon when a guy came in trying to peddle nail polish. “I told the nail technician please don’t buy those; they are from my store across the street.”

During a January 2023 earnings call, James Kehoe, Walgreens’ Global Chief Financial Officer, admitted the company may have overestimated worries about theft. The chain experienced a 52% jump in shrink in 2020 and 2021 attributed to organized crime. Shrink has recently come down to 2.5%-2.6% of sales from 3.5% in 2022, he said. The company is considering eliminating its private security guards. “Maybe we cried too much last year,” he said, noting that the rate has stabilized, and the chain is “happy with where we are.”


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