A drug store associate uses a Zebra TC20 mobile computer to help a customer with a locked-up item
By Jim Sermonet | February 22, 2023

Are Locked Up Items Slowing Down Your Retail Sales? Or Costing You Sales? This May Be a Better (and Less Expensive) Loss Prevention Strategy.

Though meant to reduce theft, locking up products in your stores may be causing losses by deterring impatient shoppers from completing their purchase or complicating inventory management. Consider this instead.

Retail is changing. 

As shoppers, we see it all around us, every time we go to the store. More self-checkouts. More devices in workers’ hands. Fewer options on the shelves. And perhaps most striking of all: more products locked up in cages or cabinets. 

At first it was the high-end fragrances, razors and other oft-stolen products like laptops, earbuds and other electronics. But lately it has grown to include sundries like deodorant, body wash and shaving cream as well as tools and even printer ink. As a retailer, you may be able to list off dozens of other SKUs that have become controlled items in this new world of self-service retail, in which it has become easy to fly under the radar during a shopping trip. So, this change is perfectly justifiable from a profit-and-loss perspective – locking up those items keeps thieves from walking out with them. 

(It’s amazing those inexpensive body washes are actually becoming major theft targets. Even if the thief doesn’t keep them, they are easily resold at the nearest corner store or bodega – or on social media! I couldn’t have imagined this would be one of retailers’ top challenges in 2023. But it is, and here we are talking about how you can keep a loss prevention mechanism from becoming a source of loss for your store.

Remember, every product that winds up in those lockers becomes a detriment to the customer experience. To get the products shoppers need, they must either find an employee with a key or press a button that results in an annoying overhead page. And that’s assuming the customer even bothers to wait around. Many customers will simply leave your store and take their business to another store where the items they need are not locked up. Over one-third of shoppers who participated in Zebra’s 15th Annual Global Shopper Study said they have left a store without the item they wanted because they could not find it on the shelf/display. One-quarter have left because of long checkout lines. If people aren’t willing to wait to pay for items they already have in their cart, they may not be willing to wait for items they cannot put in their carts quickly. 

Now, I know you cannot simply remove the cages – annoying as they may be, they are there for a reason. So, what is the alternative? 

Personally, I recommend technology. Though that may seem like the canned answer for everything these days, in this case, technology is the only way to solve this problem. It would not make good business sense to have an associate parked at a locked cabinet all day long waiting for customers who may need something. (It’s why you don’t do that today.) At the same time, you can’t make customers wait for someone to come unlock the cabinet anymore. So, let’s talk about a few technology-based approaches to inventory management that were strategically designed to end the waiting game for everyone and help you minimize the disruption that locked-up items cause:

Shrink visibility

As I mentioned before, it is perfectly justifiable to lock up your high-theft items from a loss prevention perspective. However, have you thought about whether you’re locking up the right items? Shaving cream and body wash are high-theft items at many stores, but not every store. At some stores, locking up items may serve no other purpose than inconveniencing customers.

Confirming you are locking up the right items requires better visibility into shrink levels at individual stores. That calls for better overall accuracy from inventory events. But how do you do that?

With third-party inventory labor?

Maybe, but remember that that methodology is quite imprecise. Third-party scanning personnel are not familiar with your stores’ layouts or the inventory within them, making inventory accuracy far from a guarantee. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that 82% of retail workers who were surveyed for Zebra’s latest Global Shopper Study said their companies need better inventory management tools to ensure accuracy when asked about improvements they’d like to see.

I recommend an alternate approach that leaves the scanning in the hands of your own store employees. Your employees need minimal supervision and can scan items during their regularly scheduled work hours – any added costs or time required are nominal. In fact, retailers using this methodology report savings of up to 50% over leveraging third parties to bring in outside labor and scan inventory during off-hours. Beyond the cost savings, letting your employees handle inventory events ensures top-notch accuracy, thanks to their intimate knowledge of your stores’ inventory nuances.

For example, frequent counts with Zebra’s SmartCount solution would enable your team to determine high theft items on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, if desired, so you don’t have to rely exclusively on annual physical inventory counts. Zebra could either send you SmartCount scanners or port the downloadable SmartCount software solution onto your store-owned Zebra scanners or mobile computers. Employees can then conduct counts as often as needed, and the data from each scan would be fed into a software platform which identifies and alerts you to shrink trends, such as items that appear to be stolen most frequently and should be locked up. There may be some surprise findings about which items are high shrink at some stores, but nowhere near as high at others – so be prepared to learn a lot about shrink patterns! You will likely identify some items that needn’t be locked up at all.

Prescriptive analytics is another useful tool for identifying shrink patterns. This AI-powered software solution is about simple actions, not complex reports. It’s a field-proven system that automatically consolidates and interprets deep data from siloed inventory systems to catch and act on inconsistencies in real time. No need to sift through reports or guess which item to tackle first. The system analyzes all product movements into and out of the store and identifies shrink patterns throughout your various product lines. It then alerts the relevant employee, along with action steps for them to take to resolve any issues discovered.

Call routing

We’ve discussed how to identify items that don’t need to be locked up. But what about the items that DO need to be in those cabinets? Best-case scenario for this situation is about minimizing disruption.

We’ve all been in the store when someone presses the HELP button on a locked cage, and we’ve all heard the disruptive overhead announcement that results. These announcements can be annoying to both the customer who pushed the button and others in the store, especially if the former pushes the button multiple times. This happens rather often, as employees do not always hear the page or find themselves too busy to respond in the moment.

What if that push of the button could automatically summon an employee with a key, no overhead page required?

It all starts with an advanced communication and collaboration solution for your associates’ retail devices, like Zebra Workforce Connect. The very best options can integrate with the IoT, or the various other devices and apps across your stores and incorporate them seamlessly into the workflow. Alerts can be delivered directly to an enabled device, allowing for a rapid response.

Consider: a pharmacy customer enters a store to buy lipstick, only to find the cosmetics brand she wants is locked up in a cage. She presses the HELP button, which sends an alert directly to the device of the on-duty cosmetics employee, who is currently breaking down pallets in the back room. The cosmetics employee receives the alert and responds right away, unlocking the cage – with no overhead page required. 

Making the Right Call

If any (or all) of these technologies sound like they could help you unlock more positive customer service or sales opportunities, let my team (or your current Zebra account manager) and me know. We’ll be happy to get into the details of how each work, the integration process for these software solutions, and more. 


Check Out These Related Resources:

Best Practices, Retail,
Jim Sermonet
Jim Sermonet

Jim Sermonet is currently the Director of Sales for Zebra Retail Solutions (ZRS) where he is responsible for driving the new business development for ZRS at Zebra Technologies. Jim has more than 14 years of experience within the retail and hospitality industry and has been a part of several significant achievements that transformed digital business practices for large household brands. 

Previously, he served as Director of Sales at NCR- Hospitality as well as Director of Sales, Retail, at Zebra, where he managed sales teams focused on selling end-to-end solutions and changing legacy go-to-market strategies.  

Jim holds a BA in Psychology from The University of West Georgia.  He is an Atlanta native and currently resides in Peachtree Corners, GA with his wife and son.

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