Punjabi-origin researcher devises new theory to stop shoplifting

  • Prasun Sonwalkar, Hindustan Times, London
  • Updated: May 20, 2015 08:47 IST

An Indian researcher at Lancaster University has developed a new theory to stop shoplifting that involves specially designed shopping centres geared at encouraging shoplifters to think twice before they commit a crime.

The two researchers, Dhruv Sharma, hailing from Pathankot in Punjab, and Myles Kilgallon Scott propose changes that will encourage customers to get involved with 'natural surveillance' to put shoplifters firmly in the spotlight. They suggest environments that 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.

Sharma said: "When you go to a shopping mall it's not just a building containing shops. 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 similar thinking can't 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. 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," Sharma said.

He added: "We are not suggesting we should make it harder for people to interact with products. Instead, we simply propose 'nudging' people to act as observers, thereby enhancing surveillance."

A research paper by Sharma and Kilgallon Scott Miles titled '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.

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 advocates 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.

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