join our mailing list

The Dark Side of Shopping

The original aim of the anti shoplifting brief was to demonstrate (to designers, manufacturers, and retailers) how it was possible to build into the packaging design or interior display of everyday objects, anti crime functionality without compromising the aesthetics or practicality of products.

How did the project come about?

In 1999, Professor Lorraine Gamman completed a PhD on shoplifting, a spin-off from it was the Penguin Signet book – Gone Shopping – the Story of Shirley Pitts, Queen of Thieves. Some of Gamman’s original material, particularly interviews with Shirley Pitts about the perpetrator techniques she and her colleagues adopted, was subsequently developed in 2008 as Its archive section made available design resources to students who wish to design against shoplifting.

How did our research lead to new designs?

DACRC’s research into shoplifting revealed that the economic recession has meant that increased incidents of shoplifting are being reported by the retail industry. In reviewing such data Gamman recognised that techniques described by Shirley Pitts 15 years ago are still, surprisingly, being used by today’s professional shoplifters. Indeed, the 2009 British Retail Consortium Crime Survey also indicates “that the number of thefts from shops rose by a third in a single year with an incident occurring nearly every minute, 24 hours a day.” This is quite a staggering increase, considering retail crime had been declining in previous years. Consequently, a number of anti-shoplifting design briefs for students were created by Gamman in 2008-10, with support from the Design Council. The projects run with BA (Hons) Product Design and MA Industrial Design students at Central Saint Martins, aimed to generate new anti-shoplifting designs, particularly linked to the theft of ‘hot products’ such as cosmetics, perfume and skincare, razor blades, alcohol, women’s-wear, designer goods, fashion accessories, DVDs/CDs, video games and small electronic item (Bamfield 2008) (1).

The first Central Saint Martins brief identified how interior design, packaging and security arrangements can at times be complicit with crime. So the design brief(s) asked students, during the creative design process, to ‘think thief’ as described by Paul Ekblom (1997) (2) or to adopt what Lorraine Gamman (2008) has described as the ‘criminal gaze’ when viewing design context to be addressed in regard to development of design research and design proposals. Students were asked to figure out how to build in anti abuser functionality to packaging and other designs that should otherwise aim to be consumer friendly and to address issues raised by sustainability.

A range of exciting new anti shoplifting concepts, such as innovating how to displaying ‘free’ perfume dispensers, were developed by a Central Saint Martins graduate, Anna Schwamborn. Her BA project observed that perfume is an expensive product that often needs to be experienced prior to purchase – making ‘sample’ bottles easy targets for shoplifters, who may believe because they are available to dispense free perfume, stealing them is not such a terrible crime! The solution – perfume station – a new interior design for perfume stores that attracts customers to test and experience the fragrances but prevents thieves from stealing the tester bottles, is shown below.

The design recreates the experience of perfume and instead of leaving tester bottles out open and available to hold, customers are encouraged to experience the fragrance via a traditional dispenser/s, which can be pulled out of the tester station. The tester bottles are hidden behind glass, which can be replaced by staff when needed, but doesn’t compromise brand or marketing initiatives of the perfume manufacturers concerned.

There was much positive feedback to the Central Saint Martins anti shoplifting design work, and interest from commercial clients such as Boots and Hennessy to some of the student projects. The Design Council were persuaded by Gamman, subsequently to run a national anti shoplifting student design project with the Royal Society of Arts in 2009-10. There was a terrific national student response with over 150 entries received. A brochure winners as well as a few of the more interesting submissions from both the CSM and RSA design challenges can be viewed on:

One of the winning RSA entries, from Jy-Yeon Suh an MA student from Central Saint Martins recognising that stores often struggle to differentiate between products that have been paid for and those that have not. The solution was ‘PaidUnpaid’ – a system for busy shops that quickly marks a product that has been paid for. Product’s barcode is coated with invisible photochromatic ink, which will change colour when exposed to a UV light. The UV light is located in a device which is integrated with the checkout scanner. The light affects the invisible ink and makes it appear as a blue overprinting on a standard barcode. The mark which appears, is a specific design, that could also include the retailer’s logo. This provides store staff with an easy, quick way to determine whether a customer has paid for an item.

What kind of design is it?

The original aim of the anti shoplifting brief was to demonstrate – to designers, manufacturers, and retailers – how it was possible to build into the packaging design or interior display of everyday objects, anti crime functionality (i.e. to deter shoplifting) without compromising the aesthetics or practicality of products, or excessively raising the spectre of crime. For this reason, the anti shoplifting work constitutes a social design approach because it is responsiveness to a problem, one that offers a solution to it, rather than simply focussing on market led objectives.

What are the strengths of the designs?

The design work is user and abuser focused, not abuser led, and this means that whilst shoplifting is addressed, the designs manage to make it easy for customers to use them whilst including anti crime functionality, yet addressing all the commercial imperatives necessary to achieve sales.

What are the weaknesses of the design?

The innovative ideas and concepts generated by the shoplifting projects are meant to offer an account of how change might take place, as well as operating a products that work. Many of the designs against shoplifting, however, that can be viewed on the websites identified, need to be part of a “system of use” and cannot easily be judged in isolation. For example, not every small chemist could afford the space for a display cabinet like the perfume dispensers shown here, and not every large supermarket has the sort of technology that could easily accommodate the scanning system that was a winning entry to the RSA competition funded by the Design Council.


1. Bamfield, J. (2008). Global Retail Theft Barometer. Nottingham: Centre for Retail Research.Available at:
2. Ekblom, P. (1997). Gearing up Against Crime: A Dynamic Framework to Help Designers Keep Up with the Adaptive Criminal in a Changing World. International Journal of Risk Security and Crime Prevention. Vol 2(4), pp 249-265.