Bay Area innovator stops shoplifting, gives shoppers power to open padlocked shelves

North Bay company's innovation aims to help retailers curb rampant theft

NBC Universal, Inc.

New technology coming to stores could stop theft and ease customer access.

Recently, we showed you how a pioneering North Bay grocery store is using artificial intelligence to catch shoplifters. But that’s not the only local tech aimed at stopping non-stop stealing. A Bay Area innovation is poised to change the look of stores everywhere.

Since retail thefts are still happening, lots of stores now lock up lots of merchandise.

“To see padlocks and chains and rudimentary security measures, that really has to be an indicator that something is wrong here,” said David Johnston of the National Retail Federation.

Veteran loss prevention expert David Johnston studies theft trends for the National Retail Federation. 

“Retailers don’t want to lock up their merchandise. They know it’s an inconvenience for the shoppers,” Johnston added.

These security barriers in stores make it tougher to steal and shop.

“What’s happening today isn’t solving the problem,” said David Ashforth.

Like a lot of us, Ashforth wanted to buy an item at a drugstore that was locked up.

“I had to find someone with a key. It was that moment when the lightbulb went off,” Ashforth recalled.

Ashforth is no ordinary shopper. In Sebastopol, he heads a company called Digital Media Vending International. It’s machines are everywhere -- in places like hotels and airports -- stocked with electronics or toiletries that maybe you forgot to pack. So, when this vending machine guru went to the store and encountered merchandise that a worker had to unlock, he saw an opportunity to redesign stores.

“I thought, ‘Huh. My machine could fit right here and then I wouldn’t have to find a manager with a key anymore,” Ashforth said. 

His company is investing new shelving for stores. Basically:  huge, modular vending machines that can replace entire aisles.

Ashforth’s team calls this an “automated retailer.” Merchandise is stocked safely behind glass-- to stop thieves. At the same time, honest shoppers get self-service access that’s faster than waiting for a manager.

“The machine will deliver their products to them in real-time, instantly,” he said. 

Ashforth showed us how it works: you pay in advance online or at an in-store kiosk.

“It prints you a receipt or a pickup code,” Ashforth explained.

Punch in the pick-up code. 

Then, a robot activates.

There is a train track running inside the machine, within 15 seconds or so the robot fetches your item and delivers your merchandise.

 No waiting, no stealing. 

And yes, because today’s most brazen thieves smash and grab, Ashforth told us some clients are curious about customizing machines with essentially bulletproof glass.

We asked Ashforth what message he’s sending to would-be thieves.

“It’s over,” he said.

These modular machines can cost tens of thousands of dollars each.  But stores are losing even bigger money to theft. The National Retail Federation’s newest data shows stores’ losses jumped from $94 billion in 2021 to $112 billion in 2022. The federation surveyed 177 brands. More than half say they’re now boosting security budgets.

“Retailers are asking for help,” said  Johnston with the National Retail Federation. 

“They’re looking for new and innovative ideas. They’re looking at technology to prevent theft,” he continued.

DMVI can’t share names. But it did tell us there are stores -- whose names you and I would recognize -- that are interested in buying these machines to shut down shoplifting.

“There’s about 44 that we’re speaking to right now,” said Ashforth with DMVI.

Other companies make vending machines, too, but David says his team’s the only one targeting theft on a large scale. 

So, will the store of tomorrow put everything behind glass? And will stores have to limit your choices?

Ashforth doesn’t think so. He estimates just ten percent of items make up 80 percent of what crooks steal. That ten percent will be stocked on robotic shelves, the rest stays on traditional aisles.

“In a big retail store, you maybe have 50 aisles. Maybe between one and five of those will be automated,” Ashforth said.

Inside his warehouse, Ashforth showed us a prototype -- wrapped up and ready to ship. It’ll land at a large chain store -- with hundreds of locations -- for beta testing.

“This particular retailer wants to move very quickly and make a decision to solve that problem,” Ashforth said.

How quickly will stores change? Ashforth expects it will be just a few months until you see self-service shelves stopping thieves and serving shoppers like you.

“This technology is coming to stores near you,” he said.

Have a consumer complaint? Let us know, so we can help.

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