Santa isn't the only one trying to keep track of who's naughty and nice.
Retailers know all too well that this is the season for taking as well as for giving. And they're getting downright creative in their battle to deter holiday season theft--a problem that peaks this week.
Retailers are arming themselves with James Bond-style gizmos, such as tiny surveillance cameras that communicate with computers, radio-wave-emitting pens and special tags that spew ink when they're pulled off clothing.
And that yuletide Muzak you half-listen to at your local mall just might be embedded with subliminal anti-theft messages, such as "Stealing is dishonest."
The day before Christmas and the day after Christmas are the busiest days of the year for retailers. They're also big crime days.
"The more-professional shoplifters will use these large crowds as a cover," said Bruce Van Cleek, a vice president at the Washington-based National Retail Federation.
Shoplifters cost merchants $11 billion in 1995. Employee theft was an even bigger problem, accounting for $13 billion of the $27 billion in lost retail inventory that year, according to industry estimates. The rest of the missing merchandise was diverted by dishonest suppliers or simply mishandled.
Retailers are reluctant to discuss the security devices they employ, particularly if the equipment is new and potentially controversial.
For that reason, Sound Threshold Systems does not disclose the names of retailers that use its subliminal messaging. The company will say, however, that sales of the system have risen substantially in Southern California and other parts of the country this year.
Several manufacturers are touting camera systems that allow retail security to simultaneously monitor multiple sites within a store--or even activity in numerous stores--from one screening room.
Surveillance cameras are linked to computers through telephone lines. When a theft is spotted, the cameras send images to computers at a remote location; they then print out pictures documenting the crime.
The system is more secure than conventional closed-circuit camera operations because there is no on-site videotape for savvy thieves or robbers to take. And the images are much clearer.
"Today's cameras can zoom in on your wristwatch and relay the correct time to a monitor," said Dave Shoemaker, a vice president for Checkpoint Systems, a New Jersey-based firm that manufactures the Remote Watch surveillance system.
A competing system, Hyperspan, is produced by Farmingdale, N.Y.-based Sensormatic Electronics Corp.
"Generally, anti-theft equipment is smaller, faster and smarter," said Lee Pernice, spokeswoman for Sensormatic.
For example, the dome camera--a rotating camera enclosed in an opaque ball--continues to shrink. Sensormatic in January will begin to offer retailers a version that's 4.7 inches in diameter--small enough to sit in the palm of the hand and half the size of the company's previous version. The older camera magnifies objects 10 times, whereas the new model enlarges images up to 48 times.
Meanwhile, images transmitted by board cameras--1 1/4-inch-square devices that resemble circuit boards--have become much clearer. Though retailers sometimes use larger cameras conspicuously as a deterrent, these mini-cameras are often hidden in ceilings or in opaque fixtures with a peephole.
Sophisticated thieves are themselves using computer technology, said Read Hayes, president of Loss Prevention Specialists, a consulting firm based in Winter Park, Fla. Hayes cited tip sheets on theft techniques posted on the Internet. One of them is called "A Guide to Shoplifting."
That makes it all the more important for retailers to up the ante.
"Profit margins are thinner, and that makes it difficult for retailers to absorb the costs of theft," Hayes said. "Stores don't have much of a choice--they're investing in more effective loss-prevention methods."
The pressure to hold the line on prices has increased in recent years because consumers are increasingly value-conscious, said Steve Hutchins, senior vice president for store operations at Macy's West, the San Francisco-based manager of the chain's regional operations.
"Theft shortages affect a business' ability to grow and prosper," Hutchins said. "As losses grow more expensive, it affects long-term prices. We spend a lot of time addressing this because we want to give the consumer the best price possible."
One security device long used by retailers, the ubiquitous electronic tag that's clamped to clothing and other merchandise, is getting smaller. The tags emit a radio signal that triggers an alarm at an exit unless deactivated or removed by a sales clerk.
These days, manufacturers of consumer products are beginning to implant the emitters in or on items formerly too small for tagging, such as lipstick cases, pens and batteries.
Manufacturers are also trying to develop emitters that would be installed inside larger items such as videocassette recorders, enabling the merchandise to be traced long after being stolen.
Meanwhile, makers of security products are already selling systems that transmit electronic signals through the coverings that shoplifters have successfully used to shield goods from older versions of the equipment.
A New York department store recently apprehended a shoplifter who tried to hide merchandise underneath underwear made of aluminum foil, which blocks the signal of older equipment.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of retailers are using a computer software program to combat employee theft. The Target chain is one of many using "point of sale" monitoring.
The software takes data from computerized cash registers and provides details on transactions--including refunds, canceled purchases and price errors. Sales clerks with unusually high numbers of these transactions might then be monitored with a surveillance camera.
Such equipment helps retailers ferret out dishonest employees working with a partner pretending to be a customer. The partner might be charged a low price for an expensive item, given a refund for an item not purchased in the store or allowed to make a purchase on a stolen credit card.
Credit card fraud is the retail crime that Penware 3000 is designed to address. This electronic signature pad, released in September by Sunnyvale, Calif.-based MobiNetix Systems Inc., electronically stores personal script, allowing the retailer to recall that image to confirm a customer's identity. The company has supplied Kinkos and some Barnes & Noble bookstores with Penware devices.
MobiNetix is developing a Penware product that would facilitate paperless credit card transactions. Customers would get a record of their receipt via e-mail, eliminating the paper trail that is key to fraud and forgery.
While many new anti-theft devices have a cybertronic element, others are simple but unconventional. For example, clothing tabs that spray ink on the product and the tamperer are now becoming popular as retailers warm up to the benefit-denial school of crime fighting. Such tags can be found at J.C. Penney, Mervyn's and Macy's stores. The idea is that potential thieves are reluctant to take a product that will be ruined in the process. Clothing with such tags often carry a warning.
Though such devices often deter the lone shoplifter, they aren't obstacles to organized rings of thieves who have the resources to remove tags and the savvy to circumvent some security systems. One ring discovered recently has plundered Wal-Mart and many other stores in North and South Carolina over the last 10 years, stealing millions of dollars in merchandise and reselling the hot goods in several states.
No technology will deter members of such criminal rings--not even subliminal anti-theft messages, said Mickey Perlmuth, president of Sound Threshold Systems, the company that creates the messages for stores. Perlmuth said his device is more effective on a shopper who might steal on impulse.
The messages play "just below the conscious level of hearing," Perlmuth said. "But it only reinforces the thinking of those who are not normally inclined to steal. The system cannot turn the dishonest into honest people."