19 May 2015 11:06

Specially designed shopping centres geared at encouraging shoplifters to think twice before they commit a crime are the way forward, according to researchers at Lancaster University.

Researchers Dhruv Sharma and Myles Kilgallon Scott from Lancaster University’s Highwire Centre for Doctoral Training are calling for changes that will encourage customers to get involved with ‘natural surveillance’ to put shoplifters firmly in the spotlight.

The team want to see environments which will push people in the right direction not to commit a shoplifting offence rather than sending them to prison, or other punishments, after the act.

“When you go to a shopping mall it’s not just a building containing shops,” says Dhruv. “It’s strategically planned and laid out so we walk in a preferred direction and goods are placed in certain ways and locations presenting visual cues to buy.

“So why can’t similar thinking be applied to target potential criminals without them realising that they are being targeted to actually prevent them from committing the act of shoplifting?”

So exactly what does a shopping centre of the future look and feel like in their view?

“A store could actually place valuable items in ‘interactive spaces’ that would encourage other customers to watch people handling the expensive goods,” explains Dhruv.

“So, for example, it could be that every time a customer picks up, say, a bottle of perfume they turn into a cartoon character on a big screen or they attract public attention in some other interactive way.

“For different products you could have different characters, which would encourage children to watch.”

Dhruv and Myles’s research paper, “Nudge: Don’t Judge: Using Nudge Theory to Deter Shoplifters” advocates the creation of environments which will ‘push people in the right direction’ not to commit a shoplifting offence in the first place rather than the courts sending them to prison, or receiving other punishments, after the act.

“We believe the preferred scenario is to save people from going to prison,” said Dhruv, an anthropologist and ‘professional people watcher’, whose research was prompted by a pre-Christmas job in a department store.

“You go to prison for a small crime and you come back a trained criminal. Prison is not a solution. It’s a problem in its own right.”

The paper, which offers an alternative approach to tackling the problem, draws on three different disciplines – sociology, design and criminology – to construct a theoretical framework of motivation to shoplift.

It examines a number of deterrents including an extensive review of ‘design against crime’ literature and case studies to explore a new approach to crime prevention.

And it advocates, quite clearly, the further investigation of  Thaler and Sunstein’s  famous ‘Nudge Theory’, used to form policy in economics and healthcare, which assumes people make some decisions unconsciously, non-rationally and are influenced by contextual cues which means their behaviour can be manipulated.

“We are not suggesting we should make it harder for people to interact with products,” adds Dhruv. “Instead, we simply propose ‘nudging’ people to act as observers, thereby enhancing surveillance.”

The Lancaster research team are now calling on the software design community to investigate the Nudge Theory, which has never been used to prevent crime before, and which, they say, could provide an interesting solution.