Shoplifters face detection by built-in metallic tags: Manufacturers to join stores in anti-theft trial

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THE SOLUTION to shoplifting, which costs British retailers more than pounds 2.5bn a year, could be a thin metallic strip similar to those in banknotes.

Within a year, the Co-op hopes to have one of its stores fully equipped with a new Belgian-designed security system where everything from bottles of whisky to jars of coffee carry their own 'intelligent' tag. If the trial is successful, the Co-op's initiative will be followed by a consortium of more than 40 manufacturers and retailers.

While many honest shoppers might consider it appropriate that their whisky bottle carries a label that is technically more sophisticated than a pounds 10 note, the advantage of the metal strip is that it can be incorporated into many goods during manufacture, according to Martin Swerdlow, who is co-ordinating the project for the Centre for the Exploitation of Science and Technology. CEST is a joint Government and industry think-tank dedicated to giving British industry a competitive edge through innovation.

Mr Swerdlow said: 'There is a terrible problem in lingerie departments, with women coming in off the street into the changing rooms and then leaving their used bras and lingerie behind.' It is difficult for store managers and detectives to stop and search such a suspect. But because the new metallic security strip can be woven into garments by the manufacturers, lingerie shoplifters could find their bras setting off the alarms in future.

According to Mr Swerdlow, existing electronic tags have three disadvantages: they are expensive, they cannot be applied to all stock within a store, and they have to be applied by the staff, who are often responsible for theft.

The advantages of the new system are not only that it is far cheaper to produce the metal strip but that it can be put through virtually any manufacturing process.

A clothes shop, for instance, would no longer need to get its staff to apply electronic tags to expensive items, because the metal strip would be woven into the labels or even inside the lining.

Mr Swerdlow stressed the importance of protecting the merchandise rather than the packaging. In CD stores, he said, 'why choose to protect packaging when people can take out a CD and pocket it? So why not injection-mould the strip into the CD itself?'

Retailers now have a choice of three different types of tags, but the systems are incompatible and none gets round the problem of thefts by staff. The new metal strip is a complex magnet. If it has not been deactivated at the check-out then the magnetic field within the strip will perturb sensors at the exit and trigger the alarm.