Thanks to the airport-style security popping up in one of the Valley's supermarket chains, the act of purchasing pickle loaf is now only slightly less daunting than boarding an Israeli jet.

You know those security walkways like the ones used to detect weapons at airports and courthouses?

Well, folks, welcome to ABCO.
The supermarket chain is believed to be the first in the Valley to install the gizmos. In use for several months in some ABCO stores, the "inventory control devices" (as checkout clerks refer to them) actually monitor shoplifting.

In spite of the security system's high visibility--it's impossible to enter or leave the store without passing through one of the walkways--store honchos apparently hoped shoppers would never notice the arresting new technology. ABCO executives weren't available for comment, nor were several firms that manufacture the surveillance gear eager to talk about it. The stores understandably aren't eager to share secrets of their antishoplifting machinery, although any shopper would recognize what's going on.

But the issue of supermarket surveillance is a big deal in industry magazines. Far from the prying eye of the general public, these publications regularly explore what they call "electronic article surveillance" (EAS) systems. Why is it such a hot topic? Industry experts claim shoplifting costs American grocers an estimated $1 billion a year.

Developed in the mid-Eighties, systems such as those used in ABCO stores are highly sophisticated cousins of those clunky plastic tags used to thwart garment thieves fifteen years ago. Today, most supermarket security systems (like ABCO's Sensormatic equipment) utilize magnetic metal filaments that are attached to packages with a clear plastic adhesive that makes them extremely difficult to remove.

You like the taste of a purloined steak? Well, just try to smuggle some meat through the walkways at ABCO entrances and checkout counters. Sensors will detect the presence of the hair-thin wires and trigger alarms.

(Also on the market are alternate methods featuring walkway panels that emit radio waves, a system that's activated when tagged merchandise interrupts the signal.)

The three-inch-long filaments (which cost about 3 cents apiece) can be seen on ABCO's meats, cigarette cartons, film, cosmetics and other high-dollar items popular with shoplifters.

Industry experts note that because employees occasionally are also light-fingered, some supermarkets even hire outside help to tag merchandise with the telltale filaments.

According to the grocery-trade press, stores employing EAS systems typically tag anywhere from 3 to 15 percent of their merchandise, varying targeted items from week to week.

An East Coast loss-prevention expert for Ames Department Store claims that tag turmoil keeps shoplifters on their toes--and out of the stores. "It's like Russian roulette," he told a reporter from Chain Store Age Executive. "Is there a tag or not? No one in the store knows what's tagged so it becomes a nearly invisible kind of deterrent. We see merchandise that's been ditched at the front end of the store; we've seen known shoplifters turn and walk out."

This low visibility security doesn't come cheap. Last year Progressive Grocer magazine reported that the Massachusetts-based Foodmaster chain had spent $34,000 to install an EAS system at one 10-register store. But according to the chain's loss-prevention manager, it was money well-spent. Formerly the fifth least-profitable meat department in Foodmaster's seven-store chain, that department jumped to the most profitable spot two months after the sensors were installed. Apparently spooked by the souped-up security, so many shoplifters avoided the store that the system reportedly paid for itself within nine months.

Still, the experts say, the systems are not foolproof. Keys, battery-operated devices and small electronic items can set off false alarms, while less sensitive equipment may fail to pick up stolen merchandise shielded under a shoplifter's arm. And some observers think that units like ABCO's shoulder-high sensors could have a tough time detecting contraband stashed under a hat.

At least one manufacturer, Checkpoint Systems' Kevin P. Dowd, argues that the system won't be truly effective until the business world hides the filaments from consumers.

Dowd's solution? He calls it "integration." What he means is hide those suckers inside foam meat trays, stuff them under bar codes or (this one is sly) embed them directly into price stickers.

And maybe the best reason to hide the filaments is to not offend us honest shoppers.

"Put a large traditional EAS plastic tag on any item, such as a blouse, a pair of slacks or leather jacket and it works," Dowd said in a trade-magazine editorial. "It does prevent shoplifting. It also inhibits shopping."

You like the taste of a purloined steak?

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Dewey Webb