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Grocery stores are trying to protect ice creams from getting stolen off their shelves

EYDER PERALTA, HOST:

It is ice cream weather, but you may notice an extra sprinkling of security along with your frozen confection. Stores have been cracking down on shoplifting, and some of their solutions are anything but vanilla. NPR's Stacey Vanek Smith has the scoop.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: It is a brutal summer day in New York City, 85 degrees and so humid that the second you walk outside, you are soaked. In weather like this, there is just one thing your brain is screaming for.

We're in a grocery store in New York, and what are we looking at here?

PHIL LEMPERT: Take a look in the frozen food case, and look at what they're now doing with Haagen-Dazs.

VANEK SMITH: Phil Lempert is a food industry analyst. We met up at his neighborhood grocery store in the ice cream section - you know, that beautiful wall of pints and all those flavors - except here, the ice cream has an extra topping. It's like a lid lock.

LEMPERT: It's absolutely a lid lock.

VANEK SMITH: It reminds me...

LEMPERT: We're looking at probably the ultimate in theft protection, a plastic device that's about an inch high that fits on top of a pint of ice cream. So it avoids theft of ice cream.

VANEK SMITH: This is, like, quite a device. Look at this.

LEMPERT: It is.

VANEK SMITH: It is called the pint lock, and it makes it almost impossible to open the ice cream container. It is intended to thwart the Butter Brickle bandits, the cookies and cream crooks, the Chubby Hubby hustlers, the rum raisin robbers.

LEMPERT: But now that ice cream, you know, is running 5 to $6 for a pint, more people are stealing it.

VANEK SMITH: The dreaded pint pirates, who apparently will just sweep a passel of pints into an insulated bag and just stroll out of the store.

LEMPERT: The people that steal it then go to bodegas, and they're selling it there. Or they're selling it on street corners.

VANEK SMITH: There's hot ice cream.

LEMPERT: Right.

VANEK SMITH: But Lempert says it is not just hot ice cream. It is other high-ticket items - razors, laundry detergent, teeth whiteners. Everything you might notice is suddenly behind protective glass at your grocery store - it is all getting swiped at record rates. Lempert says he hears this from store owners all across the country.

LEMPERT: Their No. 1 concern is theft. There's no question about it.

VANEK SMITH: Theft - or shrink, as they call it in the biz - is really costing retailers, nearly $100 billion a year, according to the National Retail Federation. Lempert says where shrink used to affect around 1, 2% of store inventory, it's now more like 5, 6, 7%. And because most stores don't have huge profit margins, that can make the difference between a store turning a profit or losing money.

LEMPERT: Whole Foods has closed their flagship store in San Francisco because of theft. Aldi announced one of their stores in Baltimore - they're closing because of theft.

VANEK SMITH: Lempert thinks it's a combination of retailers being short-staffed, the rise of self-checkout, the decriminalization of some kinds of theft and mostly the ease of reselling everything online. Right now, retailers are scrambling for solutions. Target, Lowe's, CVS and a bunch of others formed a Loss Prevention Research Council where they test out new technology like AI and smart shelves. They even have a special test lab where they run through different shoplifting scenarios - like, say, if somebody is trying to steal a pint of ice cream.

All right. So I'm going to buy some ice cream because...

LEMPERT: OK.

VANEK SMITH: ...I want to see them unlock it. Do you have a favorite flavor?

LEMPERT: Pistachio.

VANEK SMITH: We grab our pint of pistachio with its strange plastic helmet.

LEMPERT: Which, by the way, probably costs more than the ice cream that's inside.

VANEK SMITH: In fact, this isn't far off. The pint of ice cream costs almost $6, and each lid lock costs $5. Now, the store keeps the lid lock. It unlocks my pint at checkout with a special machine.

Do you, like, unlock them?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah. Then they open.

VANEK SMITH: The checker sets the lids aside.

Here we go.

And now the pint lock can be used again to defend the dark chocolate, protect the peppermint, secure the spumoni.

LEMPERT: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You're welcome.

VANEK SMITH: Thank you.

Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
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