Shopping mall design could nudge shoplifters into doing the right thing – here’s how

Westfield shopping centre in Stratford. Image: Getty.

Shoplifting is a serious problem. Although it is often perceived as an “ordinary crime” due to its supposed victimless nature, in fact it costs the UK’s retail industry £335m a year. And part of this cost is passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.

The way buildings and streets are designed can help reduce shoplifting, and architects, city planners and law enforcement teams have a range of techniques to help them do this. For example, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) strategies try to maximise opportunities for official surveillance and restrict people’s access to certain areas while directing them to others.

Such techniques appeal to rational thought in potential shoplifters by trying to make the costs or risks of crime outweigh the benefits. But other elements of retail design appeal to unconscious decision making, encouraging you to do things without realising, in order to increase the chances of you making a purchase. We believe the same ideas can be used to deter shoplifters.

A retail environment can be described as “a bundle of cues, messages and suggestions which communicate to shoppers”. This has an ability to manipulate people’s behaviour and make them more likely to buy something.

Have you ever wondered why you have to walk all the way to the far end of a shopping mall to access the next set of stairs or escalators? While dictating the flow of visitors around the shopping centre, it also ensures people are exposed to the maximum number of stores and products, increasing the chance of an impulse buy.

Because “all buildings imply at least some form of social activity“, the arrangement of wall partitions, doors and other features can affect, amplify or curtail social interaction. For instance, a designer can create specific areas such as access lanes where people can come into contact with each other. It is this ability of a retail environment to influence choices that is at the heart of our proposition to tackle high-street crime.

Nudge theory

The nudge theory is the idea that people make most decisions unconsciously and non-rationally and so people can be encouraged to do things without having to convince them logically.

Under this idea, we believe potential shoplifters can be encouraged to do the right thing using environmental signals that target the non-rational parts of their brains. Nudging provides an interesting antithesis to conventional approaches because it is not dependent on a rational judgement by the criminal (for example, deciding security cameras make a theft too risky).

We believe that nudges can either be developed to target shoplifters specifically or to foster an environment that affects everyone in it by enhancing natural surveillance. For example, we can imagine a store that earmarks a certain amount each year for charitable work and another amount as shoplifting costs. What if the store displayed signs indicating that money saved by reduced shoplifting would be donated to charity?

By presenting this cue we are not threatening prosecution. We are offering a choice that allows a potential criminal to contribute to society by not stealing from the store. In this manner, the tenets of nudging are employed as cues in the environment to present their choice very differently from conventional means.

We are enhancing the benefits of not committing crime as an alternative to enhancing the cost of doing so. Although this approach still relies on some rational thinking on the part of the criminal, it is inspired by nudge theory because it alters the way choices are presented to criminals in order to encourage them to do the right thing.

The more non-rational elements of nudging could also be employed to produce playful environments that encourage natural surveillance. If people want to interact with their space, for example if it includes art installations or technology, they may be encouraged to unconsciously watch their immediate environment (see video below). Such playful interactions with goods or other customers in a retail environment, (if designed correctly) would present a harder target for criminals and at relatively low-cost.

We want to encourage a shift from conventional approaches from punishment to prevention when tackling high street crime. To do this, we think designers and architects should experiment with nudge theory to produce innovative thinking in this space, augmenting conventional crime prevention methods such as CPTED. We have already tried incarceration for centuries and people are still found shoplifting. Perhaps alternative ideas could help reduce crime.

Myles Kilgallon Scott and Dhruv Sharma are PhD candidates at the HighWire Doctoral Training Centre at Lancaster University.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.