Despite a so-called ‘revolution’ in store surveillance, heavy shoplifting by professional thieves has seen a dramatic increase in recent years.

The British Retail Consortium’s annual crime survey reveals that theft by ‘customers’, (mainly criminal gangs) rose from some £350m in 2014-15 to £438m in 2015-16.

Figures from the US and Europe tell a similar story. The latest survey by the US National Retail Federation (NRF) found 83% of retailers reported that organised retail crime had increased in the past year.

And current figures from Germany’s GHI Retail Institute also show an increase in organised crime, with a sharp rise in foreign suspects, and a focus on perfumes, cosmetics, razor blades, tobacco, spirits and tools.

While amateur theft may be on the decline, the professionals come equipped with a variety of tools and tricks to thwart even the latest security measures.

Criminals equipped with detaggers or foil lined booster bags can deactivate even radio frequency EAS tags. While Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) ‘smart shelves’ with tags and readers are often seen as a gold standard for store security, RFID antennae have limited monitoring capabilities, can be foiled and the equipment is still relatively expensive although prices have come down.

A simpler, mechanically operated smart shelf can deter and detect theft at less expense.

A German manufacturer of retail loss prevention solutions, IMCo, Inventory Management Consultants e.K., is currently rolling out its patented ‘intelligent shelves’ with thousands of installations at major retailers worldwide.

The IMCo shelf is a mechanical solution, not RFID, that works without cables or tags and is low on maintenance. The shelves are fitted with sensors (available in two types adapted to either product pushers or hooks) that emit a faint beep every time a product is removed, and sound an alarm if a suspiciously large number of items is removed at one time.

Retailers have tended to work on the principle that customers dislike being reminded they are under surveillance.

But according to IMCo CEO Georg Hachmann, the beeps emitted by IMCO are faint enough that the average customer hardly notices them, yet loud enough to deter professional thieves.

“Initially we envisaged that the first beep would just be intended to make a thief nervous,” says Hachmann. “If a retailer wants to have an alarm sound with the first removal of an item, that can be done, and the alarm can even be silent if the retailer wishes. For some high value items like bicycles that may be preferred. But we have found that just sending a signal to the potential thief is usually enough to prevent crime.”

Hachmann cites research conducted by IMCo showing that criminals are highly risk averse and will usually leave a store at the first sign that they may have activated a surveillance system.

The research was a five month study at 27 of a leading retailer’s stores in Switzerland, and the results inspired the company to dream up its intelligent shelf.

“A lot of statements you see in the media about organised crime are guesswork,” says Hachmann, “whereas we collected a lot of data in extensive interviews with offenders that we carried out with the police”.

The company also quotes figures showing stock losses were reduced by 88% and sales rose by up to 14 % with the IMCo patented solution, which it says stimulates sales thanks to maintaining a shopper-friendly environment while effectively stopping professional theft.