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NRF Innovators Show Off Crime-Fighting Tech

Even as David Johnston, the National Retail Federation’s VP of asset protection and retail operations was hosting a four-person panel about how retailers and law enforcement can partner to solve the scourge of organized retail crime, the floors below at New York’s Javits Center were teeming with innovators showing off what they billed as purpose-driven store solutions.

Artificial intelligence technologies on display at the three-day conference included numerous self-checkout stations with anti-ticket switching capabilities, surveillance technology to track every person and item in a store, pre-pay and go convenience store concepts and supply chain radio frequency identification (RFID) that treats shoplifting as a portion of a larger supply chain strategy.

BSN, one of the world’s largest label manufacturers, has recently branched into the supply chain game, partnering with RFID experts Turck, to design an RFID integration system that takes a more holistic approach to retail shrink.

BSN’s Philip Calderbank. Matt Hickman/Sourcing Journal

Philip Calderbank said that not only does the new BSN product enable tracking of all items through labeling, the labeling can work as a theft-deterrent as well, going beyond the decades-old technology of EAS sensors that trigger alarms by the door.

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“We are bringing a completely new approach to the way this is done,” said Calderbank, who said his 13 years working with an EAS company helped inform the BSN innovation. “With the same RFID tag, usually imbedded in the label, now we’re talking about using that tag so when people come through traditional security gates, instead of using a secondary EAS tags, which trigger an alarm and nothing more, we can use the same tag trigger alarm, but we can also pick the code off the tag and know what the item is that is being stolen. Now, this doesn’t stop the item from being stolen, but maybe it does tell the inventory guys we’re missing this inventory.”

Calderbank said RFID tags read more quickly and more accurately than EAS tags.

“[EAS is] slower, their pick rates are not as great and that means you have to have a wider radio tunnel to grab [the signal],” he said, adding that the ROI on avoiding the duplication of tags can be realized quickly, not only in tracking and preventing shoplifting, but in ensuring stocking requirements are met. In addition, Calderbank said the new BSN label includes a nearfield communication (NFC) chip built to combat counterfeiting.

“What we’re saying is as a retail operation you’re spending 2 cents per item [on an EAS tag] and we’re saying you don’t need to do that,” Calderbank said. “What we’re working on is the magic ROI on a tag so that you can put RFID on a greater number of products… The chip is capable of also allowing product authentication and that’s a fabulous ROI for a tag at a cost of about 4 or 5 cents.”

When it comes to trying to prevent thieves from even getting to the alarm gates, the team at Sensormatic was on hand at the NRF convention to show its AI-powered store surveillance system.

A demo of Sensormatic’s high value alert system. Matt Hickman/Sourcing Journal

“Besides the tradition LP alarm out the door, we’re looking at how to be more proactive with a lot of predictive analytics to know where customers go next,” said Sensormatic representative Rochelle Berman. “It will help you understand the hours you’re getting hit more, computer vision technology looking at something like a shelf sweep, which we see a lot in organized retail crime, you can get real-time notification and possibly prevent them from doing that.”

The Sensormatic system can also identify flash mobs that may indicate a smash-and-grab robbery in the works.

“It counts the number of people and also looks for proximity. Are they a couple? A family? Or is it literally a mob that’s suddenly in your store?” said Milton Navarro with Sensormatic. “It also looks at specific analytics that look for how people defeat EAS devices, whether it’s a scissor or wire cutter to purposely cut the tag. It’s programmed to look for that. A person looks OK, but the moment they pull out a tag, it alerts this is an unusual situation and alerts real-time notifications in the field.”

Navarro showed a demo of how a shelf sweep is triggered and another where it senses a possible attempt to cut an EAS tag. In an example of a high-value threat, a trigger is activated if a customer picks up a high-value item, which, of course, could be a good thing.

“It could be, yes, the person is going to take it to the POS, but at the very least you know about it,” Navarro said. “Some [store operators] might be in a situation where they don’t want to be confrontational but they could say, ‘assistance on the baby formula aisle’ or something.”

Berman pointed out that using this technology can create a good experience even if a customer is on the up-and-up. After all, they never need know why they were suddenly approached by a store associate.

“It could be used to give better customer service and not just LP,” she said. “It’s the same idea, either you scare them away or you’re going to give them a good customer service experience.”

One of the most common means of modern shoplifting happens at the self-checkout lane, where criminals increasingly use a practice called “ticket-switching,” or placing the bar code of a cheaper item under a more expensive one, so when it is swiped across the scanner, it appears to the human eye that all items have been scanned.

As much as self-checkout has been a problem with regard to shoplifting, the savings in labor costs, and the difficulty of finding workers, especially since the pandemic, makes it a technology retailers will continue to be interested in.

Ken Decker with Datalogic shows how the company’s self-checkout machine can reduce the occurrence of ‘ticket-switching’.
Matt Hickman/Sourcing Journal

Among the many self-checkout technologies on display at the expo was Datalogic with its AI device that moves beyond the old standard of weight of objects on one side of the register, passing through to equal the weight on the other.

“Rather than the customer having to select through a catalog of items and potentially picking the wrong thing, AI will help them by giving them a reduced selection of choices,” said Ken Decker with Datalogic. “So if you train several of the expensive items you want to monitor, you can have the AI recognize when there’s a mismatch between what was scanned and what was seen.”

Perhaps the surest way of reducing to the point of nearly eliminating shrink is to have customers scan their credit cards upon entry and track everything they leave with.

This digital equivalent to a bartender taking a customer’s credit card to start a tab they won’t be able to walk out on, is mostly reserved to convenience store-type displays and glorified vending machines. But in time, the technology could well make this a more ubiquitous solution.

Joe Hessling shows how 365 Retail’s self-checkout system works at NRF 2023. Matt Hickman/Sourcing Journal

365 Retail’s Joe Hessling demonstrated how the cooler opens upon reading a valid credit card. Computer vision and cameras keep track what is taken and charge the card that amount.

Hessling said the technology could be a solution for many drug stores where items that aren’t necessarily high dollar, but are often stolen and therefore under locks, could be purchased without the customer having to track down a staff member.

“This is a way to just get what you want really easily but you have to prove to it you can pay,” he said.